It hit me hard when I got an email from Linda and Susan telling their contributors that after 30 years, their literary journal, Glimmer Train, would print its last issue in fall 2019. Somehow through luck, timing, the stars coming together, and what talent I had magically focusing for a story, I managed to win their first New Writers Award in 1994, and was published for the first time. A friend handed me a piece of paper he’d clipped somewhere regarding Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award, and on a whim I submitted my story. I remember asking him if the journal was any good or not; I was that green. Every literary journal is, in its beginning and at its end, about people. Think of George Plimpton and the Paris Review, or Harriet Monroe who started Poetry in 1912. The renowned lit journal Story, founded by the husband-and-wife team of Whit Burnett and Martha Foley in 1931, folded in 1967. In 1989 Lois and Richard Rosenthal revived Story, fulfilling a promise to Burnett, only to shut it down in 1999. I remember how outraged I was at the time—I’d recently sold my second story to Glimmer Train and was expecting to take over the world. I longed and lusted to see my name in Story, because of its history, as much as any other journal. And now it was gone. How could that even happen? Keeping that journal alive was a responsibility, I thought, with the pure conviction of youth. How dare they shut it down! I somehow had the notion that primary literary outlets lasted forever, but they don’t—they can’t—especially when they rely on a few distinctive and, for better or worse, mortal beings bound by the limits that time and mortality lay upon us all. The reality is, those putting these labors of love together age with each issue because time, the most precious commodity of our lives, goes into them, even if it is time well spent. And it is. I’m grateful that the Paris Review has a foundation behind it to keep it liquid, and that the Missouri Review has the support of a major university (though I suspect that even such support is less solid than it appears). However, it’s possible the upside of a journal being limited to its founders, like Story and Glimmer Train, is that their tastes and personalities can’t help marking these journals distinctly, and that’s what makes them unique. That identity, wedded to the impermanence of both founder and journal, gives them, perhaps ironically, the vibrance of life. In 1990 Linda Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown, two avid-reading sisters in Portland, decided when Susan and her husband sold a software company they’d started in the ’80s to put some of that money into creating a literary journal. And since it was theirs and theirs alone, they could do whatever they wished. They decided they wanted a journal with content as high in quality as any other, but also—and this is one of the areas that set them apart—they wanted it to be fun. And most wonderfully, as far as their writers were concerned, they wanted to feature them like no other journal out there, to bring them as people to their readership. So they asked each author accepted to provide a children’s photo of themselves with a caption, then they gave each of those authors an entire blank page at the back of the journal where they could add another image and say something (anything) about the story. They even asked authors to put their signature on their title page. Finally, in the back of the journal they listed every author they ever published (name size shrinking with every addition of new writers). Each issue also ran an interview with a literary figure, as well as a feature on a writer silenced for political reasons in another part of the world. And as books are not just collections of stories and writers, but art objects in themselves, the sisters commissioned original full-color artwork on every cover, and used the highest quality paper available throughout. Inside the jacket there was always a greeting from Linda and Susan introducing the issue with an old black and white photo of a family gathering or their community from decades past. So in this way the reader would get to know their family too, and would be included by these artifacts into the larger family, or community, of Glimmer Train. Regardless of however much of this was planned out and how much was them just following their tastes and instincts, it turned out to be very smart business as far as selling journals. But beyond everything else that made the journal special, its focus, as it should be, was on the stories they picked. These stories couldn’t help but reflect the style and tastes of the sisters, and here’s where we get back to people. Glimmer Train stories, well—they told a story. This was not an outlet to submit experimental work, or to explode the form of the narrative. It was a place, cornball as it might sound, to explore the human heart. Theirs was an intensely focused human perspective, and whether through realism or magical realism or some other “ism,” a story couldn’t stray far from that heart, which for most of us is the center of narrative expression anyway. Simply put: They published stories about people. For that reason, getting your work in Glimmer Train was a great way to get noticed by an agent. They knew that a writer who could meet their standard was a writer who could reach a larger audience too. They added an e-bulletin that updated readers on contests and presented three to four craft essays on writing. Then they produced a basic, no-frills, stapled-at-the-crease publication called Writers Ask where they collected short snippets of successful writers in interviews commenting on various writerly subjects such as characterization, point of view, revision, etc. What I especially loved as I read this over the years was how often these experts contradicted each other with advice, proving that there is no one right way to manage this art. I’m sure Linda and Susan had little idea that their journal, focusing mostly on new and emerging writers, would grow to the point where they would receive 40,000 submissions for their three yearly issues (they made it a point to read every story themselves), or give out over $50,000 to writers each year, or have stories from Glimmer Train selected for the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, New Stories from the Midwest, the O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the South, Best of the West, New Stories from the Southwest, Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It was, and is, until their little train rolls into the distance, one of the most respected literary journals in the country. How does this happen? How do two sisters take a small bit of money and start a journal just because they love literature, and then one day it’s suddenly this thing? The answer is, I guess, it just does. Like the rest of us living this writer’s life, we follow the spark of an idea, apply what craft we have, get feedback, revise, then send it into the world. Maybe it ends up somewhere; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the stars and our talents and the cultural moment focus just right and our story not only finds publication, which is hard enough, but breaks through to the point where it actually has a life of its own, where it affects people. After I was first published in Glimmer Train I was certain that my life had changed. It had, but not in the way I expected. Agents contacted me, the story was anthologized … I mean, all this from nowhere. I was on my way! Again, I was, just not as I expected. I have not, this many years later, sold the big novel that would make me rich and get made into a movie and everyone would know my name and genius. There was a period of 10 years after that first story where I got nothing published, nothing! But by then I knew I was in it for life. And what I tell people (which is a way of telling myself) is that the life is what matters. Everything else this side of a Pulitzer, and probably even that, is a temporary high. It burns off surprisingly quickly. You write your stories. You produce your journal. If this is who you are, this is how you get to be you, and that’s where almost all the joy of a life in the arts lies. Your projects develop lives of their own, or they don’t. Regardless, you’re part of something bigger. You live your life serving something bigger, so you get to be bigger, as well as true to that thing deep inside you that always called even as people tried to run you off of it. You get to serve that. What more could you ask for in this world? And maybe, just maybe, because you’ve worked for years and you’re talented, and committed, and the timing’s right, your journal grows and puts a thousand stories into the world that might not have otherwise entered the world. And maybe those stories affect lives, and maybe the writers of these stories actually find out about that. And maybe they don’t. But I was one of the lucky ones. I’d written that short story about people and the land in West Texas, paid the submission fee and sent it to Glimmer Train, then promptly forgot about it. I was helping a friend and collaborator move from New York back to Austin. We loaded up his U-Haul and headed south by southwest toward Memphis. My buddy and I managed his truck down the street to Graceland where we took a left into the Elvis Motel across the street with its guitar-shaped pool and 24-hour Elvis movies on demand. Then we took a cab downtown, ate catfish, found a blues club and drank the music in, before hopping into another cab back to our room. There my friend went into the bathroom and—it was, I promise you, the stroke of midnight—I decided to check my answering machine for the first time in days, and on it I heard a message from Linda telling me my short story had won Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Award. My heart stopped. The next message from her (probably from the next day) carried some stress—she wanted to know if the story was still available, and would I please get back to her? I quickly dialed the number she’d left and said yes yes yes and thank you. My friend came out of the bathroom and at the news, being prone to ritual, he recommended we cross the street to Graceland and light, puff on, and toss a “burnt offering” he’d brought along over the wall for Elvis, and since I was saying yes to everything that night, we did. When we returned, Elvis, via whatever movie we’d requested, started singing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” on the TV. It was, perhaps, the most magical day of my life. How could I turn away after this? Through the years of rejection that followed, the occasional successes, the personal relationships, the loss of a livable income and the city I loved, and the people I’ve lost, this work has sustained me. It is, to quote William Stafford, the “thread you follow,” and the thread that has carried my life. And so those of you blessed and foolish enough to attempt to create a space where art can live and thrive, a springboard where gestures of love and beauty and thought and intimacy can leap into the world and perhaps affect another human being, and thereby affect the world … Yes, please, yes, do that work. Start your lit journal, build that gallery, bring music into the pub. Do it as long as you can bear or stand it and I promise it will feed you, whatever does or does not happen otherwise. And know that there are those of us out here desperate and grateful for what you offer, even if we never find out who our creations reached. I open the latest issue of Glimmer Train to see my name in the back shrinking in size because of the latest additions—disappearing, like their little train on their logo headed into the distance—and thank the two sisters of Glimmer Train for the doggedness of their obsession and what came from it, for the beautiful living things they sent into the world, and give them leave to step away and let the little train recede. You did your part, I would tell them; others are already doing theirs.
All first-person narrators are unreliable. This is less a structural feature of storytelling and more a structural feature of the human condition. We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, and even if we mean to tell our story with complete honesty, we can never fully understand it. As the saying goes, approximately: The proof that we’re unreliable narrators is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story. Certain kinds of genre storytelling, perhaps, get close to full reliability, as they are more concerned with driving plot than revealing character—we can essentially trust that Katniss Everdeen is reliable, since she exists mainly as a vehicle for telling the story of the Hunger Games she competes in. There would be no point, from Suzanne Collins’s point of view, in having her narrator fudge the truth. This is not meant as a slight—simply that the purpose of a great deal of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller fiction is to drive plot, not to communicate hidden complexities of character. But in the realm of what we broadly consider literary fiction, character is paramount and true reliability is impossible. In fact, as many critics have remarked before, the most truly reliable literary narration is a kind of very consistent unreliable narration. The go-to example of reliably unreliable narrators is Lolita’s dissembling monster, Humbert Humbert. For the novel’s 400-plus pages, Humbert engages the reader in a pas de deux of hideous charm, seducing and repelling again and again, via his theatrical biography of child rape. The act of reading Lolita is fundamentally the act of decoding Humbert’s narration, a narration as reliably encoded as the diary he keeps in Charlotte Haze’s guest room. We are pulled in with his language until just close enough to be revulsed at the object of his language. And we understand that the project is, despite its purported intent as a confession and object of psychological study, an act of self-justification—the self-justification of pedophilia, not mainly via sympathy or historical precedent, but through a larger project of aestheticizing it, transforming assault into art. It is, finally, an act and artifact of Satanically grand egotism. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, is another archetypally reliable unreliable narrator. The novel’s clockwork unreliability functions as a kind of equation that can be used to solve all of Mr. Steven’s statements of non-fact and pitiful delusion. Once we understand that Lord Darlington was a Nazi and that Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, we know that for almost everything he says about them, we should believe the opposite: He is not going on his countryside jaunt to incidentally visit Miss Kenton; he does not especially want to “banter” with people; he is not proud of his service to Lord Darlington, whom he does not believe was a good man. Characters like Humbert and Mr. Stevens provide the reader a level of confidence and certainty of motivation mostly unavailable with conventional narrators. Someone who always lies, after all, is as easy to understand as someone who always tells the truth. Less intelligible might be a narrator like Holden Caulfield, who is not, from a narratological standpoint, strategically unreliable—that is, if and when he’s lying, he isn’t employing it for conscious effect or advantage. Caulfield, like most normal people, is full of flattering illusions about himself, dumb notions of how to live, unfounded prejudices, and so on, but they aren’t importantly arrayed around a guiding principle/theme/blindspot like Humbert’s pedophilia or Mr. Stevens’s professional and romantic regrets. Still, there is Holden's dead brother, and the fact that the narration is being told to a spectral psychologist. The reader, and the novel itself, understands that something is amiss even if Caulfield doesn’t, fully. While most first-person narratives are not as structurally deceitful as Lolita or Remains of the Day, most do consciously incorporate an element of uncertainty in the narrator’s telling of their story. This uncertainty has a rhythm and tone as much a part of the reading experience as the author’s descriptive tendencies, their syntax and diction. In this sense, paradoxically, while all first-person narrators may be unreliable, most first-person narratives are reliable—or, perhaps better put, intelligible. That is to say, the character’s blind spots and deceptions are congruent with the general aims and architecture of the text; more than congruent, they are an essential part of it. But there’s a rare category of book that seems to misunderstand its own narrator. Either the narrator is unreliable and the book itself doesn't understand it, or else the book understands the fact of its narrator’s unreliability, but misjudges its nature. [millions_ad] An example of the first case is The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe is meant to be a fairly honest reporter of his own story—a bit of a haunted loner, maybe, but more or less what he seems: tough, sardonic, and scrupulous. This scrupulousness is often dramatized through his uncorruptibility vis-à-vis women, in particular, Carmen Sternwood, who throws herself at him throughout the novel to no effect. Well, to some effect, actually. After Carmen appears nude in his apartment, Marlowe relates the following: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.” Raymond Chandler’s seeming intent here—to characterize Marlowe as a private, sexually principled man—badly overshoots his mark; still, on a surface reading, this reaction is consistent with the book’s conception of Marlowe as, fundamentally, a straight arrow. Drape a gold crucifix around his neck and he would be more recognizable as a moral crusader, a Christian brother cleaning up Sodom. Sure, he drinks quite a bit, and his crime-fighting methodology exists in a shadowland outside of regular law enforcement, but his spine is as erect as any Midwest rotarian standing at the podium. More than money, or professional curiosity, Marlowe seems motivated by a kind of prim, abiding disgust at the perverted world of the Sternwoods and Arthur Geiger and Eddie Mars. Among the many types who make Marlowe sick: the rich, pornographers, and gamblers. But mainly loose women and gay men. Gynophobia and homophobia are the twinned engines of fearful disgust that drive the novel’s emotional logic. In the Carmen scenes, we sense a narrator who is less inured to female advances than terrified and enraged by them. Likewise, gay men—a group the novel takes special pains to belittle. “A pansy,” says Marlowe, to the young man he’s preparing to wrestle, “has no iron in his bones.” A murder victim’s house has “the nasty, stealthy look of a fag party.” Homosexuality in Chandler’s 1930s Los Angeles, as it was most places in America at the time, was taboo, verboten. But even by those standards, there is a spectral seediness to depictions of homosexuality in The Big Sleep that feels unusual, accompanied by a visceral horror at vice’s general omnipresence, as though L.A. is a rotting log with maggots writhing underneath. Arthur Geiger, a gay pornographer, runs a smut library on Santa Monica Boulevard, trading in pictures of “such indescribable filth” that Marlowe—and the narrative eye—has to turn away. And yet he turns back, again and again, with a fascinated revulsion that on multiple reads seems less homophobic than bristlingly homoerotic. Again and again, he is drawn to Arthur Geiger’s house, the locus of the novel’s main motivating crime, like a moth to its hated, cherished flame. These movements hold special significant in the work of Chandler, a writer who famously did not plan his stories ahead of time and who himself claimed to be confused by his novels’ labyrinthine plots. They chart a kind of map of the narrative subconscious, and no location is more central than Geiger’s bungalow, with its frou-frou chinoiserie and bedroom occupied by Geiger’s secret young lover—Marlowe returns to this locale no fewer than seven times, mimicking The Big Sleep’s helpless attraction to its own subsumed queerness. On this point, Marlowe, and the narrative he spins, are truly unreliable, and The Big Sleep reads like nothing so much as the journal of a gay man remaining unaware of his sexuality at all costs. A different example of unreliable unreliability might be found in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The book is aware, mightily, of its narrator Binx Bolling’s strangeness. A stockbroker in New Orleans, Binx is a flaneur and artiste at heart, a dreamy loner who spends his days in the movies, and we are given to know that he is in a kind of despair despite his protestations of enjoying the simple, all-American life. But the novel itself misjudges its main character. By my estimation, Binx revels, wallows, in an ersatz version of artistic ennui and emotional instability authentically embodied by his suicidal, bipolar cousin Kate. In habit, he is a fairly normal, privileged white man of his time who likes making money, who genially harasses a procession of his secretaries into sleeping with him, who presumes his comfortable place in the catbird seat of the social order. And yet he also wants to feel special, outside this world as well as a part of it, so he cultivates a sense of himself as a seeker via some mumbo jumbo about The Search and a related array of cutesy little mental routines. He takes full part in normal society while scorning it—no episode from the book is more illustrative of Binx’s unconscious character than his origin story as a frat boy, wherein he casually insults another pledge to mark himself as a member of the inner circle, then spends four years drinking beer by himself on the front porch while silently judging his brothers to be fools. The book ends with him sleeping with his unstable, vulnerable cousin, whom he marries and with whom he purports to have found a kind of complacent, co-dependent happiness. The epigraph of the book by Kierkegaard—“The specific quality of despair is this: it does not know it’s despair”—might be modified for Binx: “The specific quality of an asshole is this: they do not know they’re an asshole.” Neither, it seems, does The Moviegoer, or at least not to the extent it should. Binx’s narration is truly unreliable, unreliably unreliable, as the story he occupies misunderstands him much as he misunderstands himself. The reader must decode not only Binx’s misperceptions but the misperceptions of a narrative with an incomplete command of its narrator. In this sense, unreliably unreliable novels can present both the greatest challenge and the most fun as an active reading experience. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro create texts that are gratifying puzzles, a kind of curated escape room for attentive readers to explore and solve. Most normal, less structurally unreliable narration, is more like a detective story, with the reader cast as sleuth piecing together clues about the narrator’s true self—the self as a mystery that is never fully or decisively solved. But books like The Big Sleep and The Moviegoer are more like faulty maps of the wilderness in which the reader finds herself stranded. You have to find your own way, interpreting the weather and wind and direction, charting your own course in spite—in defiance—of the book. Image: Flickr/recoverling
1. Step beneath the outermost leaves and the temperature drops, the light dapples, the path narrows, the situation becomes uncertain. There, out of direct sunlight, life rushes out in cacophonies of saturated color. Tree bark and humus curl past the edge of sight in choppy, gray-brown waves. Moon-pale mushrooms jut from fallen trunks like leering, drowsy eyes. Red smears of fox prey, turquoise flashes of diva birds, purpled cursive looping vines. Black mud sucking at boots in tiny pools, surface a-skitter with paratrooper swarms of translucent mosquitos. And everywhere green, green, and still more green. The understory of a forest or the ecosystem of a novel? 2. Every forest is full of trees, but it is the trees that make the forest. And so it is in Richard Powers’s latest novel, The Overstory. Across 500 pages of lush, sometimes overgrown prose, Powers nurtures a story of enlightened discoveries, social quandaries, and human disappointments set beside the centuries-long perspective of trees. Appropriately, The Overstory is built like an oak, and the book is broken into four sections called “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” The lives of the nine primary characters grow into this organic mold, and the eventual shape of the novel comes to resemble a plant in its maturity. The “Roots,” comprising the first third of the book, introduce the protagonists. They are given their own chapters, in which we glimpse the budding of their identities and personal mythologies. Each is linked to a species of tree, an archetypal cast for their character. For instance, Nicholas Hoel is born into the annals of a multi-generational Iowa farm family who developed an eccentric relationship to a doomed American chestnut. This root story foreshadows traits of Nicholas as an adult vis-à-vis his family chestnut; he’s distinctly “American” in his individualistic, grandiose, and downtrodden-but-not-down way. “My maple turns red like me,” says another protagonist, Adam Appich, whose discomfort with communication will outlive his youth. Elsewhere, a mulberry tree stains the flagstones of a suburban backyard patio and Douglas fir trees bristle against the prevailing winds—unique morphologies signifying complex personalities. Through these comparative chapters we meet characters diverse and discretely identified, as if in a botanical garden. But in the next section of the novel, these archetypes and their character cutouts feed into a larger vision. As readers start the “Trunk” section, the journeys of Nicholas, Adam, and all the others coalesce into a single, wild narrative. Action by action and year by year their lives contribute to a grander story—to put to an obvious point on it—like so many rings forming on the trunk of a tree. The plot straightens out, progressing at an impressive trajectory. Yet even linear stories like this one demand their own questions and reconsiderations. “If he could read, if he could translate ...” one character muses while tracing the wood-grain pattern of a prison desk at the beginning of the “Trunk” section: If he were only a slightly different creature, then he might learn all about how the sun shone and the rain fell and which way the wind blew against this trunk for how hard and long. He might decode the vast projects that the soil organized, the murderous freezes, the suffering and struggle, shortfalls and surpluses, the attacks repelled, the years of luxury, the storms outlived, the sum of all the threats and chances that came from every direction, in every season this tree ever lived. The pattern on the furniture before him clearly isn’t the only whorling conundrum occupying his thoughts. The incremental buildup of the novel’s tree-ring structure in the middle section defies easy interpretation, at least for the characters living through its accumulation. In typical form, The Overstory’s plot eventually reaches a crisis. In the “Crown,” the story structure takes a slightly different course than is found in more traditional novels—instead of collapsing, it branches out. After the climax of “Trunk,” the protagonists travel various paths, mostly alone and, differently vulnerable as individuals than as a group, weather their own stormy seasons. In “Seeds,” each character’s actions bear consequential fruit and, at the conclusion of each mortal micro-drama, they sow the seeds of future stories. Living trees are more than solitary organisms clinging to the dirt; they host fungal complexes in their root balls, beetle families and owl chicks in their odd hollows, and mossy carpets in their canopies. They are entire worlds to other creatures. The Overstory, with its tree-shaped arc, becomes a nurturing, metaphor-rich environment for storytelling. In its contours, individual lives beget remembrances, songs, and whole other people. And they all become a part of the bigger story, a tree of lives. Nicholas Hoel, you may remember, grows up beneath the shade of an American chestnut. When he inherits a collection of hundreds of photographs of the tree taken by his relatives for almost a century, he sees “generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” What is captured in them over the years is more inscrutable: “Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early middle age, growing at the speed of wood.” 3. Every forest is full of trees, but it is the forest that makes the trees. And so it is in an almost-forgotten Australian novel, Eucalyptus by Murray Bail. Published in 1998, Eucalyptus took root in the land Down Under and notched some of the continent’s most prestigious literary awards—including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize—however, the book garnered little enduring attention elsewhere. Unlike the taxonomical sweep of Powers’s novel, Eucalyptus derives its unforgettable force by studying its sole namesake. By observing and re-observing the ever-changing eucalyptus, Bail writes a lyrical study on the teeming tilth of individual experience. In Eucalyptus, the hot scrub of inland Australian seems to go on forever, its kerosene-blue sky no consolation for its endlessness. The dead hills of grazing pasture unroll into the distance, measured off by sagging barbed-wire fences. The only features to catch the eye across the parched Aussie backcountry are the sentinel eucalyptus trees, somber and grand in their loneliness. Under the mottled light of these epic trees, a widower named Holland devises an idiosyncratic plan to arrange for his daughter’s marriage. The successful suitor of his beautiful daughter Ellen will be able to identify and name every variety of eucalyptus tree on his property, which number more than five hundred. Within the morphology of these multifarious trees, Bail finds striking metaphors to flesh out the people, places, and offshoot stories in Eucalyptus. “Each and every eucalypt is interesting for its own reasons,” writes Bail at the novel’s outset. And sure enough, throughout the book, he describes more than a hundred of these alien plants with the luxurious wonder of a poet. The salmon gum is “the color of a nun’s belly,” the hard-twisting gnarl of jarrah has “civil disobedience in its nature,” and the mallees with their spindly indecision, according to one character, “leave me cold” because “they can never make up their minds which direction to take.” If The Overstory is built like an oak tree, Eucalyptus is more of a brash and bushy thicket. Instead of a narrative structure composed of roots that form a trunk and branch thereafter, each chapter of Eucalyptus takes on the characteristics of different eucalypt subspecies. The name of the chapter tree clues readers into clever developments in the novel’s ecosystem or relates to another complementary story told by a character, of which there are many. Ever seeking fresh vantages from which to tell stories, the book has the crackling energy of recently burned land, where new growth riots in nutritious soil. In a chapter named for Eucalpytus regnans—the mountain ash, tallest of all eucalypts and a height competitor to giant sequoias and coastal redwoods—readers meet Ellen’s most accomplished and most-likely-to-be-successful suitor through metaphor. Mr. Cave is described by the town’s spinsters as “tall timber—a term used locally ... to render male flesh abstract.” This setup introduces us to Mr. Cave’s notable height and at the same time foreshadows a golem-like uncanniness to his limitless knowledge of eucalypts. Mr. Cave is, alternately, “a telegraph pole fashioned from a tree,” which speaks to a utilitarian rigidity derived from his cultivated hobby. Complicating the picture of Mr. Cave, later in the chapter, it’s told that “tall trees breed even taller stories” and further, “the tallest trees have the tiniest seeds.” This includes Eucalyptus regnans, “which shakes the earth when it falls and provides enough timber to build a three-bedroom house” and “grows from a seed scarcely larger than the following full stop.” Not only does the multidimensional thicket of metaphorical play help form a better picture of Mr. Cave; it also alludes to the ominous consequences of his character in Ellen’s story. We meet Ellen as a young girl and watch her grow up in the middle of nowhere with her father. She is introduced alongside her dad’s obsession with planting trees, and the first specimen in the ground was outside her window: Eucalyptus eximia, or yellow bloodwood. “The specific name is taken from the English adjective eximious, in the sense that the tree in flower is extraordinary,” writes Bail. Diamond in the rough, wheat in the chaff—pick your metaphor—Ellen cuts a beautiful figure in a dusty patch of the outback. Her blond locks and freckled face make her a topic of the town gossips; her beauty even caused a young man to crash his motorcycle after catching a surreptitious glimpse of her nakedness. Ellen’s femininity is a rare and remarkable species in the hot, male climate of the novel. But Eucalyptus is, at its heartwood, a story that tries to capture the interior life of Ellen while she’s in the throes of such an unusual upbringing and betrothal. For one birthday in late adolescence, Holland gives Ellen a sapling of Eucalyptus maidenii, or maiden’s gum. At the time, it marks not her maiden-like innocence but rather her ironic understanding that she’s matured beyond her father’s comprehension. Later in the novel and in her life, Ellen stumbles across her maiden’s gum again. This time, in the bloom of her teens, she arrives at it after a downpour. Impulsively, she decides to take off her dress to dry it over a branch. She finds her father has pounded a rusted nail into the trunk. “Hanging to dry,” Ellen reflects on this strange symbolic violation, “the dress repeated a collapsed version of herself.” Given her circumstances and the ways older men use these trees, it’s no wonder that she exclaims, “I’m not interested in any of them!” Despite the dread Mr. Cave inspires with his implacable march through Holland’s forest to Ellen’s marriage bed, the illuminating literary transformation of the trees along the way inscribes natural and transcendent qualities onto the margins of human need, want, ambition, and love. A twisted grove of snarling emotions, as well as tools like metaphor and parody we unpack to understand them, encircle Mr. Cave, Holland, and Ellen. These rootbound characters are rendered complicated, universal, and dreamlike by inhabiting this poetic copse of eucalypts. 4. But aren’t these botanical comparisons just tasked with the regular work of metaphor, which is always present in creative writing? In a way, of course. But the frequency, specificity, consistency, and overarching chapter structure in both Eucalyptus and The Overstory transcend the typical well-considered similes of other works. These novels become figurative microclimates and by doing so share how characters and stories fit into larger ecosystems of understanding. “Every country has its own landscape which deposits itself in layers on the consciousness of its citizens,” writes Bail, “thereby cancelling the exclusive claims made by all other national landscapes.” One bonus pleasure of Bail’s wild little novel is how, by exploring fictional personality quirks and eucalypt morphology, he is also able to make broad, convincing characterizations of his homeland. “The eucalypts stand apart, solitary, essentially undemocratic,” he writes at one point, and at another that they are “notorious for giving off an inhospitable, unsympathetic air.” We come to see not only his layered characters, but also the traditions and national traits that would generate such people as Holland, Mr. Cave, and Ellen. It is as if “Advance Australia Fair,” the national anthem Down Under, is being played through a flute made from coarse-grained eucalyptus windthrow. Through the pages of The Overstory (and this is true of Eucalyptus as well), readers are vined-over with tree metaphors, facts, and anecdotes and, thereby, become just a little greener themselves. It’s a strategy that Powers uses to set us up for the bigger takeaways of the book. “A chorus of living wood sings to the woman,” intones the omniscient narrator in the introductory pages of The Overstory. “If your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning.” It’s nearly the whole tome before Powers explicitly returns to his greening agenda. “Here’s a little outsider information,” says Dr. Patricia Westerford in a long soliloquy toward the end of The Overstory: and you can wait for it to be confirmed. A forest knows things. They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware. Having greened a little ourselves, we see how trees can become a little more human through our deeper understanding of them. Though rich in flawed characters, social turmoil, and contestable ideas, The Overstory’s primary mission is to show the majesty, complexity, and vulnerability of the other natural world that greenly sparkles all around us and instill empathy for it. Grafting the two stories—of us and of the trees—wouldn’t be possible, or at least not as effective, without convincing us through figurative language that we are part of the same ecosystem of meanings. “The artist, yes, humanizes the wonder of nature by doing a faulty version of it,” writes Bail, “and so nature—landscape, the figure—is brought closer to us, putting it faintly within our grasp.” 5. Is the tree-like structure of The Overstory, with its branching later acts and story-seeding finale, an evolutionary form for future novels? Is the feral underbrush of allusive meaning found in Eucalyptus a messier but more nuanced way to understand people in their fullness? Perhaps it’s better to leave the answers to the biological genius of natural selection. From Bail: What is frail falls away; stories that take root become like things, misshapen things with an illogical core, which pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces, remaining in essence the same, adjusting here and there at the edges, nothing more, as families or forests reproduce ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable. Image: Flickr/Victor Camilo
Last week, a friend and I were discussing Robert Frost’s jab that “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” My friend (a poet himself) elaborated: Anyone can go out to a parking lot with a couple of rackets and swat a ball around. It soon becomes boring, pointless, unchallenging—but paint some lines on the ground and things change. A game takes shape. I would add, though, that rules do more than just turn haphazard strokes into scored points. The rules provide a framework within which a person can begin becoming a tennis player. The idea that rules—in poetry, on the tennis court, or in the classroom—are formative is nothing new. St. Benedict addressed this some 1,500 years ago. Writing in a monastery southeast of Rome, Benedict outlines the daily practices of his disciples. They will pray at these hours, they will read these scriptures at these times, they will devote themselves to these practices, they will turn away from these vices. By these practices, a person begins the process of becoming a monk. Might we think of the course syllabus the same way, as a rule of practice that makes it possible to become something? I don’t want to put the comparison too far—students are not bound to a syllabus for life as monks are to a rule—yet the similarities between The Rule of St. Benedict and a syllabus are many: an ordering of time, an established routine, a common set of readings, a shared gathering place, a way of conducting the self in relation to others. Even though a student may discard a syllabus following finals week, it still gives guidance (as a rule does) for a novice seeking to enter a community. Whether for a lifetime or a semester, this life together is marked by a practiced discipline—a telling word, given that in the academy we work within disciplines. We are disciplined into the particular ways of reading, writing, thinking, and being within a community of practice. It’s quite Aristotelian: “For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp.” My wife’s paraphrase: Fake it till you make it. And so a student wanting to be a chemist begins doing the things chemists do: working with chemicals, measuring them, learning how to mix them, how to manipulate them. A student wants to be a historian, and so he begins doing the things historians do, visiting the archives to handle old manuscripts. Our daily rituals—like those Mason Currey profiles—are hardly inconsequential; they form us into a particular kind of person, the kind of person who does these particular things for these particular reasons to chase these particular goals. I wonder, then, what a syllabus might look like that established a common life for the classroom. In one sense, all syllabi do this, but the syllabus I’m imagining would do so much more intentionally. We might call it a Benedictine syllabus. It would still list assignments, include a plagiarism policy, and tell students about the writing center and other campus resources. It would look familiar to other syllabi in word; in deed it would behave much differently. Its motivations wouldn’t be punitive, nor would its use in the classroom. It would lay out the daily and weekly rituals of the class, ordering time and task so that all might dwell within that structured space and thrive. It would invite students to develop routines within which they can flourish. It would acknowledge that the classroom forms its students into a particular people, a people disciplined (in the best sense of the word) to engage the problems of their coursework, of their major, and of their communities. It would attend, first and foremost, to this formative work, and it would ask the hard question of who the classroom forms us to be. In practical terms, the syllabus might invite students to consider the practices that define their academic discipline, how these practices have evolved over time and what purposes they serve, how they differ from the practices of other disciplines, and how all these practices shape the student, both inside and beyond the classroom. A syllabus—and rule—can, of course, run afoul. Poet and Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris notes that “there are fussy monastic rules that predate that of Benedict ... in which fear and suspicion predominate, revealing an overwhelmingly negative view of both the world outside the monastery, and the motives of individuals within it.” I’ve seen syllabi like this, syllabi that assume each student is scheming, syllabi that list all the ways students have tried to undermine a course and the newly imposed penalties for each transgression. I’ve heard faculty tell their classes, “Don’t be the student who makes me add another line to the syllabus.” Here, the syllabus is defensive, a guard against chaos, a hedge against lawsuits. Benedict assumes this corruption, too, but there’s a big difference between Benedict’s rule and those others. As Norris says, Benedict’s rule is “relaxed and humane ... more laissez-faire, much more trusting of individual discretion.” Benedict knows that his disciples can thrive within structure, and he gives them space to do so. “We intend to establish a school,” Benedict writes, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome”—which might be the best rule for writing a syllabus.
“But let us cultivate our garden.” —Candide by Voltaire (1759), translated by Theo Cuffe (2009) 1. The first real garden I grew on my own was in 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. I had graduated as an engineer and started working at a pneumatics manufacturer in the British Midlands. My one-bedroom rental was in an old semi-detached two-story house where the local council authorities had converted each floor into a separate flat and sold off to private owners. Each flat had a small, equally sectioned area of the backyard. From my upstairs kitchen and bathroom windows, I could see the entire backyard with its two neatly fenced-off plots. I would have probably left my patch of fenced-off grass alone, but the married couple I was renting from had made its maintenance one of the lease conditions. They also had family living down that same street to keep an eye on things. On weekends and late summer evenings, I had noted neighbors up and down my street tending to their own gardens, both front and back, enjoying the brief nice weather as much as possible. Trying not to stare as I searched unsuccessfully for brown faces like mine, I would scurry past on red-gold evenings with my grocery-filled backpack. Often, they would be conversing across hedges and fences about plants or pests. A wisp of a breeze would tug slightly at their old gardening clothes and send snatches of their chatter—filled with exotic-sounding technical jargon—my way. On the odd occasion when one of them stopped to smile and wave, it felt as if I had interrupted something very private. Gardening had never been of interest to a bookish, indoor sort like me. Growing up in Mumbai, there had never been anything to tend for besides the few potted plants on apartment balconies. But I was in a new part of England after several years of a mostly cloistered university life, so I knew nobody. My long workdays at the new job were difficult, and on weekends, I collapsed into comas of reading and television watching. This was the time before home computers or mobile phones were ubiquitous in all homes. And British Telecom reigned supreme with their absurd landline rates, both domestic and international, so that long chats with friends or family were out of the question. Still, it wasn’t so much a sense of loneliness as a sense of a growing desert inside. Much like the garden plot lying useless, I felt vast spaces within me going fallow too. 2. The “garden” is a recurring motif in Voltaire’s novella Candide. It shows up throughout the story in various settings and symbolic themes, which is why there are still several differing interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. The story is about a naive young man who travels the world, gets into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disemboweling), tries to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and finally concludes that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.” The garden at the very end of the story, where this line also occurs, provides the most commonly accepted interpretation. Candide and all the main characters set to work together on a bit of land, each taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, whom they meet just before. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs. Their main objective, he says, is to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty. Scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was saying with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat and isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”? When Voltaire completed and published Candide, he was living in exile on his estate in Ferney, a town on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Within this country retreat, he designed and cultivated an actual garden where he could, as he had written in another book, The Age of Louis XIV, enjoy “affable manners, simple living, and the culture of the mind.” Of course, this was also the time when he took on religious fanaticism and torture as his main causes, fighting for those who had been convicted—wrongly as he saw it—in the name of religion. In his brilliant 2005 essay on Voltaire’s garden, Adam Gopnik writes: It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally. Gopnik goes on to confirm that, with Candide, Voltaire was really writing against optimal thinking of the kind that sees everything tending toward the best in the end. And, importantly, Voltaire was against the “flight from failed optimism into faith.” Gopnik also clarified the key phrase: It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open,“simplicity” itself. ... By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “we must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. ... Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone. Gopnik gave his interpretation and analysis in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Trump era. Today, we have few, if any, physical or psychical gates or boundaries from the world at large. It comes at us from all sides like, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote once, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (possibly, had she been writing that today, she would have added strong qualifiers for the speed at which this happens). So the “windows wide and doors open” aspect of Voltaire’s garden is no longer a promise of that metaphorical domestic bliss because these windows and doors have been blown off entirely. The careful cultivation of this personal garden to allow a life of deep, emotionally rich meaning is a much harder prospect for any would-be, modern-day Voltaire. 3. And yet it was tempting for me to try just that sort of Voltairean endeavor with my little English garden back in 1996. I asked a couple of coworkers for advice on how to manage this 5-foot-by-3-foot bit of earth I was now responsible for. They made it sound simple enough: Buy seed packets at the local B&Q DIY store, aerate the soil (an elderly co-worker came by one evening to show me how to make both vertical and horizontal furrows and even loaned me his precious rake), place seeds in well-spaced rows at regular intervals and depths, cover up with fertilized topsoil, water as needed, and remove weeds when they appear. In early spring, I planted vegetables—runner beans along a handmade wire trellis, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), cucumber, tomato, carrot, lettuce—and looked forward to sustaining myself on freshly tossed salads throughout the summer. Along one long fence edge, I scattered flower seeds three layers deep for irises, crocuses, lavender, chrysanthemums, sweet pea, daffodils, asters, zinnias, delphiniums, violets, dahlias, daisies, carnations, geraniums, nasturtiums, gladioli, larkspur, and more. At first, I was too self-conscious, worried that everyone would see how I knew nothing. The tall widow in the flat below me would sit on her kitchen doorstep after supper, her short blue-rinsed hair in tight curlers. She would watch me planting, weeding, and watering through the smoke rings of her after-supper cigarette. We rarely spoke and, after that one cigarette, she would retreat indoors and lock her several door latches with loud, definitive clicks and clacks. Eventually, I grew to love that solitude, silence, and space and even looked forward to it as my daily highlight. That I was taking care of things and making them grow felt more than productive—it felt both purposeful and grown up. And as my own gardening vocabulary grew from the books the local garden center had advised me to buy, I would whisper some of those new words while bending over the saplings—as if sprinkling them with sacred mantras to help them thrive. [millions_ad] 4. Diane Ackerman wrote an entire book about her garden, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden. Taking us through how her upstate New York garden fares through the four seasons, Ackerman muses philosophically and lyrically on many aspects of life, growth, and death. Her opening is beautiful: I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires. ... By definition, the garden’s errands can never be finished and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. ... Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame for their vision of life. ... Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder, a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life. In her journals, May Sarton praised the slowness and patience that gardening requires: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” She also wrote of how it is a metaphor for life: “The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” And the “good” kind of death: “In the garden the door is always open into the "holy"—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.” Virginia Woolf used gardens in fiction (the most well-known example: “Kew Gardens”) as metaphors for different aspects of life, relationships, and more. She even wrote in a little separate shed-like room in her garden at Monk’s House, her weekend home in Sussex. Though her husband, Leonard Woolf, did much of the cultivating and tending, there’s a lovely throwaway sentence in her diaries that summarizes the joys she got from gardens: “Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.” 5. Happiness also came through in my garden. By late spring and early summer, the weekend and late-evening hours spent taking care of all that life teeming its way through the rich loam paid off more than I had imagined. On the vegetable side, the dense, lush crop was too much for one person, and I gave most of it away to neighbors and coworkers to avoid spoilage. On the flower side, the countless upstanding blooms were all mixed into a riotously colored palette, wafting ripe and heady scents, and sheltering an entire ecosystem of small insects. Yes, a lot of this had to do with that perfect confluence of natural elements—weather, water, soil, seed, ecology—and helpful and neighborly friends. But, as it had been for Ackerman and Sarton and Woolf, my garden had also been a way to make some order from chaos, find some grace through growth and change, and create an enthusiasm of my own. In the next two decades, I went on to buy (and sell) homes of my own as I moved across several different states in the U.S. Each house had a decent-sized backyard where I hoped to replicate that first gardening success. But the careful, patient cultivation of those spaces had to be outsourced while I invested almost all my time and energy in the cultivation of my professional career. And while that career did bloom and grow, it never had quite the same effortless magic and satisfaction as that physical garden. 6. In my 40th year, I came across Andy Weir’s online-published novel, The Martian. Mark Watney is a NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars and is presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself while waiting to make contact with NASA so they know he’s still alive and can rescue him. As a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. He goes to great lengths and works diligently, all the while knowing that it may never matter in the end if he can’t get back to earth. Still, at one point, he has 400 healthy potato plants that buy him a whole lot more waiting time. Now, while Watney’s fictional solution to potato gardening on Mars is complex, it isn’t entirely technically sound—from the use of human feces (without composting for months) as fertilizer to turning the rocket’s hydrazine fuel into water to all the other unpredictable accidents along the way. Still, let’s move past all that to the key message his garden cultivation gives us—or what it gave me at a major turning point in my career and life. I had finally gotten around to admitting to myself, after decades, that I had hit stony ground and needed to transplant myself into new soil. I knew what kind of garden, metaphorically speaking, I wanted to cultivate. I had, in fact, been attempting to work at it all my life with scraps of free time here and there and a bit of nourishment from a writing workshop now and then. But the writing work often ran to weed quickly and the long fallow periods in between each new sprouting certainly did not help. Like Candide and his cohorts, I decided to focus my most essential occupation on the local/personal and immediate. I told myself that, even if it involved starting with something as boring as potatoes in a difficult Mars-like environment, as Watney had done, then I would do that. I have been cultivating my “literary” garden for six years now. There have been seeds that did not germinate and crops both good and bad. The lessons of my first garden are with me always: tend constantly; accept that everything has its season; ensure good fences; leave no stones unturned; know that weeds can, sometimes, be wildflowers too; and appreciate that the occasional strong breezes create strong trees. The last bit of conversation in Candide is between Candide and his mentor, Pangloss. Pangloss reminds his mentee that he would not be sitting in that garden and enjoying its fruits if he had not gone through his many troubles before. As much as Voltaire intended Pangloss to be a satirical, laughable caricature of old-fashioned optimism, this is ancient, true wisdom. All of us finally arrive at the gardens we are meant to cultivate after a “concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds.” In literary works around the world, gardens have been portrayed as places of trysts, romance, sex, contemplation, escape, solace, possibilities, and more. They evoke a wide range of metaphoric images, represent our many connections with nature, and bring a richer language into play. Voltaire's garden, I've always believed, is not the typical Edenic kind requiring expulsion at some stage. Instead, it wholeheartedly advocates a complete focus on its cultivation and a rightful enjoyment of its pleasures. Image: Flickr/hardwarehank
1. It’s become quite common by now for me to tell people who ask why I am doing a doctorate in biology that I really have no real idea. But in point of actual fact, I do very much know why I am here—or rather, I know at least one very good reason why I am here. When I was 17, a friend and I entered a bookstore together in Kuala Lumpur. We were far from home; for precisely the reason I should perhaps never have been persuaded to study biology in the first place. We were debaters, in a different country for a debate competition, and as debaters, we were used to trucking in rapid-fire exchanges on high-minded ideas on politics, economics, history. Debate in Pakistan, as in many countries, is both culture and cult. It is both a battle of wits and a blood sport. We would constantly litigate if we—teenagers barely on the precipice of self-education—felt that the death penalty was justifiable, if South Sudan should be allowed to secede, if the U.N. should be responsible for paying reparations to Palestine, and so on. But, that day, in Kuala Lumpur, we were entering the bookstore at a new time in our lives. We were both in college and had both come under the influence of the dangerous idea that “science” was fashionable (“science” didn’t really mean science; it meant Isaac Asimov and Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Rachel Carson—the celebrities, the “charismatic megafauna” of science). As luck would have it, a section hewing so closely to our idea of “science,” as science sections always do, was the closest to the entrance. We both left the bookstore that day with copies of Stephen Jay Gould’s Eight Little Piggies (the handsome black cover of the 2007 Vintage Books edition is genuinely hard to resist). I, unfortunately for myself, bought another of Gould’s books as well: Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. I may as well leave my friend behind right now; she escaped science by the skin of her teeth. She was a law and policy major who happened to be a science buff. I, on the other hand, was still uncommitted and was taking predominantly math and physics classes. Today, she’s at Oxford finishing a doctorate in international development and still a science buff, in the best of ways. Eight Little Piggies is bad enough for someone who has yet to decide a major. If you add Wonderful Life into the mix, or Gould’s other masterpiece The Mismeasure of Man, you’re in a good deal of trouble. In the past few years, I’ve returned to Wonderful Life—a bit begrudgingly, I might add—because for some time now I’ve been all in a tizzy about environmental history, what used to be called “natural history” for biologists like Gould and the many who came before him. But the first time I read it, I lost all my mental defenses against biology. I had to give up this idea that what mattered was the grand scheme of things: the charismatic megafauna. In Wonderful Life, before Gould launches full-force into the story of the Burgess Shale—a place in the Canadian Rockies where paleontologists found the best-preserved fossils of animals arising from the Cambrian Explosion—he conducts the most expert feints I have ever read in nonfiction. He tells you that what you are about to read will be a litany of details. He then admits you don’t even need to know the details to understand the story. But immediately after, he pleads of the reader not to skip them, for if they do they won’t see the beauty of the details, of all these fossils, and then he talks about animals we will never see except in drawings, and if you turn the page, you’ve already given in. When a writer as utterly convincing as Gould prostrates himself before you in such a manner, what else can you do? Incidentally, Gould also once wrote that “natural historians tend to avoid tendentious preaching” along philosophical lines, and admitted that he fell prey to the temptation far too often. He wasn’t wrong, but I bet many of his readers read precisely because they were too enthralled by the “tendentious preaching” the way he practiced it. The day I finished Wonderful Life was also the day had to give up on the idea that I could keep just one toe dipped in the world of science while the rest of my feet were soaking in all the things I loved so much more: mostly, history, but also at one point, law. I gave up on the idea of being a polymath, which was what I truly wanted to be. And most painfully now in retrospect, I had taken Gould to mean that to appreciate the details, I had to actually become a scientist, settle in, and prepare myself as if for a duel with gatekeepers who’d insist I hadn’t the mettle for the fight. When I read Wonderful Life now, I’m amazed at this mistake. The only correct reading of Wonderful Life is Gould corralling both scientists and non-scientists by his side, asking them all to see our evolutionary and natural history both as beautiful and humanistic—I say this unequivocally because Gould doesn’t just allude to this; he says it explicitly. And throughout his work, Gould displays a lot of the polymathic tendencies I desperately wanted to develop: He uses iconography, sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, a great deal of history of science, and an excruciating amount of Major League Baseball. But this is all in retrospect, because like it or not, I had read Gould all wrong, and in doing so I had somehow begun what seems like the world’s longest Monopoly game, except that money is real money and when you’re bankrupt, as in real life, you must stay in the game forever and ever, for that is the only rule that matters. In reading Gould wrong, I had chosen my “path.” After that, there’s really only one thing to do: You major in biology, procure a high enough GPA that top-tier American universities who are loath to take international students in the first place will be persuaded that you will be a star student, you apply to these universities with personal statements that pull passages from Gould’s work to indicate how much of your intellectual thought is shaped exclusively by biology, and if you do it well enough, soon you’re off packing to a university abroad, leaving behind a family proud that you will be the first to get a doctorate. Once there you will meet fellow students who will seem even more ambitious than yourself, you will be startled to find in the laboratory you work in postdoctoral researchers who have been working in the same laboratory for about a decade since they completed their own doctorates, you will join the graduate student union after you realize that your advisor mostly reads and responds to email while you do all the actual labor, but somehow you yourself cannot pay your bills on time, until one day you will realize that every single ambitious colleague with whom you entered graduate school who wanted to be a tenured professor in biology actually swore off academia quite some time ago, and is now unsure about what to do next, and embarrassed about it, because what do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years, and then you will finally realize the dark humor in your conundrum, that it wasn’t just this awful, exploitative system of apprenticeship, but also a false reading on your part, a sense of certainty you developed somewhere along the line, and that you do—as a matter of fact—bear some responsibility for this crisis. And what a shame! All this time you could have been trying to become an actor. 2. I believe there is something special, and specially awful, to be an academic apprentice in our times. For the world of academia, it is the kind of ruse that breeds certitude in young people, despite the obvious fact that there is so little in this world to be certain about. The certainty we had when younger has led to so many of us feeling trapped in cages of our own making. We didn’t quite know then that the average length of an apprenticeship in academia—ostensibly to develop the mere ability to study something—has gotten bigger and bigger, just as the prospects become dimmer and dimmer. But we only seem to find out once it’s too late. What makes these times even more special, I think, is the knowledge that we have that we may not see many generations coming forward who can tell us where we went wrong. We feel trapped, we know we are trapped, and we know there is urgency in this crisis, but we appear paralyzed by it. This is merely a belief, but it certainly seems true. It is entirely possible that future generations, if possible, would implore us to rebel. The point I am trying to make is of the many lives that we could live but don’t. I, who made the hasty decision to be an apprentice in biology, am saddened by the fact that it will now take me longer to do other things, and also know that there are some things people are too embarrassed to admit they have always wanted to do. Here are just a few things that either myself or my closest colleagues have admitted, in an air of scandalous secrecy, that they always wanted to do: Audition to be in a film. Write a play. Travel the world to rescue animals. Learn how to make buildings. Visit conflict zones as a medic, journalist, translator, or photographer. Become a lifeguard at a beach. I don’t think it quite escapes any of us that while we don’t have the financial luxury to rescue animals across the world, we also don’t really have the luxury of complaining of it as if it were a tremendous cruelty. That is, after all, the complaint about us millennials, is it not? That we don’t have what it takes for hard work and grit; that we are too ungrateful. If only. Ingratitude would be a relatively easy problem to solve. There’s enough of us to bring each other back down to earth, to ground each other. I assure you—I do know how to count my blessings. “I am lucky,” and because this is a mantra repeated over and over to me by everyone I meet who somehow still believes a Ph.D. in squandered dreams is a thing of beauty, I do acknowledge this, though somehow I seem to be doing so more to convince the beholder that I am not an elitist ingrate, because I am embarrassed that I do not feel as lucky as I should because that must mean I am, really, at the heart of it all: an elitist ingrate. And yet somehow, we’re also in a world where an elitist ingrate with a Ph.D. doesn’t really have all that much to look forward to. The world is both ablaze and deluged—quite literally! There are wildfires that rage across and hurricanes that destroy homes and property and all this time more of us could have been gathering knowledge about how it is that the entire world has suddenly become so endangered. There has been simply no need—again, quite literally!— for this glut of Ph.D.s put out to market (or more appropriately, put out to pasture) except for the metrics in U.S. News rankings and profits to the presidents and top-tier administrators of universities. Knowing that, of course, solves nothing. In fact, it’s all quite depressing and this is just one way in which what we now know to be true becomes so paralyzing. Sure, you can quit. You can always quit. But we’ve been taught quitting is for quitters, and also we hold out hope that the title of “Dr.,” judiciously employed, may one day mean something. I’m not sure any of us is truly convinced by this argument, but it’s the only excuse we have. When we’re sitting in a graduate student union meeting, we all know these things, and there is camaraderie in the misery (though not with that student: the one who sweeps into the meeting 10 minutes late after months abroad and tells us just how inspiring her fieldwork was!). [millions_ad] In Camille Bordas’s How to Behave in a Crowd, out of six siblings, almost all are either finishing their doctorates or preparing to start one—a fairly accurate reflection of us, our overeducated millennial generation. At one point, the second-youngest, Simone, who is very ambitious, explains to the youngest, Isidore, who is constantly wondering why he is so unambitious, why it is that their older sister Aurore has been so depressed since she defended her doctorate. She uses a “funnel theory.” Here’s the funnel: “What does the funnel represent?” Isidore asks. Simone replies: The funnel represents our lives. The possibilities, the choices. When you’re born, you virtually have an infinity of options, you get to swim at the top of the funnel and check them all out, you don’t think about the future, or not in terms of a tightening noose at least. And when she mentions a tightening noose, she points to the bottom of the funnel. At the top, with all the choices, I’ve placed an x. She goes on: You think, if anything, that the future will be even more of that, get you more freedom, more choices, because you see your parents pushing your bedtime farther and farther and you think, Well that’s swell, you think it means being an adult will just be super, but then little by little, you get sucked to the bottom. You don’t realize it at first. It starts with the optional classes you elect in high school. More literature or more physics? Should you start learning a third foreign language or get serious about music? And then choices you could’ve made for the future get ruled out without you knowing it, and you sink down to the bottom faster and faster, in a whirlwind of hasty decisions, until you write a PhD on something so specific you are one of twenty-five people who will ever understand or care about it. Now we’re talking about being inside the funnel, in which I’ve placed a y. At this point, Isidore, often wiser than his Ph.D.-hungry siblings, protests that “Ph.D.s are not the only option.” Simone, just 18 months older than Isidore, but already a star student who has skipped a few grades, replies: But they’re the slowest possible way down the drain. They buy you time, they allow you to believe for a while that the amount of specialization of your thesis verges on some kind of universality—and for the best academics, it does, or at least I want to think so—but then in the end it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are, or that you think you can apply that brilliance to other areas of research: academia has already confined you to the one field you picked years before. That’s why Aurore is all depressed. Aurore is reluctant to go there. And here is the final funnel, with z showing where you end up as you finish your doctorate: As Simone draws Aurore’s position at the neck of the funnel, Isidore asks if this isn’t true of everyone: isn’t everyone afraid to go the neck of the funnel? “Don’t be so sure, Dory,” Simone says. “Some people enjoy being trapped. Some people need it.” This—again—is the crisis, and it is inescapable, and it is unfortunate for our generation unlike previous generations where the ratio of Ph.D.s produced to tenured positions available was far more reasonable and well-matched. But even if eventually we want to go to the neck of the funnel, as Simone seems to think some people do—what then? Let’s say you remain steadfast. Will your apprenticeship ever end, or will you spend—as so many, many, many people today do—years and years stuck in what academics, somewhat charitably, call “postdoc hell?” “Postdoc hell” is a funny phrase because like many things that are very funny, it is very true. I could sit down this very moment and start writing a very long list of the names of people I know personally who graduated with their Ph.D., and because they wanted to continue on in their field—and truly believed they were special enough for that one tenure-track job—entered one lab for a postdoc and remained in that position for anywhere between five to 10 years, mechanically pushing journal articles into submission queues and conducting endless experiments, all the while being expected to teach all the extremely specific skills you have gained to silly undergraduates and graduate students with lofty ambitions. You could be pushing buttons on a computer to teach the 50th person how to use the fancy new microscope the university just bought, knowing full well that it’d probably be obsolete by the time you’re done because soon you’ll get news of yet another, probably in a presentation by another postdoc—but still, somehow, you’re supposed to be excited about it. You can, however, do something else. You can spend those years in one lab, and then hop to another—one with more prestige, more postdocs, less graduate students. But do know this! Your postdoc advisor will tell you, when you email them, that you must come with your own funding. And so, along with all those applications for tenure-track positions, or adjunct positions, you must also annually fill out fellowship and grant applications for years and years until you finally cave, and where are you most likely to end up? In the growing administrative cabal of the corporate university. Maybe you’ll even be happier there, but you will only really be studying one thing: the unhappiness, or delusion, of academics. “Postdoc hell” is no less an abstraction than “graduate school.” It is a place, a 10th circle of hell. I can take you there. I’ve been a writer for long enough now, and I’ve studied history along with biology for long enough now, for people to ask me if I regret taking on so much. I never say yes, because all that keeps me sane. If they know this long complaint of mine, friends will ask if I regret starting my doctorate in biology, and I don’t quite know what to tell them because I know I knew—almost as soon as I had to take my qualifying exam for Ph.D. candidacy—that if it wasn’t for the fact that I wasn’t a citizen, I would have cut my losses. What I don’t tell them is that instead of regret, I’m thinking about something that will most certainly seem ridiculous to them: going back to graduate school, this time for history. Yes, I know, it sounds preposterous. And yes, this time I will have no excuse for optimism. It is probably straight-up masochism that I seem to want to emerge through the neck of one funnel and into another. But just so you know—Isidore’s eldest sister, Berenice, begins another Ph.D. before the book is over. In Chicago no less. I defend my doctoral thesis on November 7. I’ve told my mother to be prepared for the occasion that may arise from knowing I’m hovering at the neck of the funnel, and soon I’m going to have to make a move. Image: Flickr/Maxim Mogilevskiy
Memoir has emerged as a liberated species—breaking its own rules so repeatedly that there are now no rules except (for purists) to tell the truth and (for everyone else) to foil narcissism. The memoirist’s page is malleable. The memoirist’s frame endlessly shatters. There are plenty of examples, but I like these: Joan Wickersham built The Suicide Index out of shifting perspectives, drawing on fiction, even, when she could not explain her father’s self-destruction. Maggie Nelson offered 240 numbered, jostled, jostling, perhaps not seamless blue-tinted paragraphs in Bluets. Darin Strauss delivered Half a Life with many half white pages. Mark Richard wrote his House of Prayer No. 2 in second person, save for an opening gambit in mostly third. Terry Tempest Williams, in When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, yielded, to the reader, many consecutive pages of white, white, white—in imitation of her own mother’s blank journals—before she went on to meditate about voice, but not in any programmatic order. Sarah Manguso stitched Ongoingness: The End of a Diary out of the piecemeal fabric of obsession. Heidi Julavits constructed The Folded Clock as a diary whose pages have been shuffled—a diary out of sequence. Jeannie Vanasco forged The Glass Eye out of “several color-coded binders labeled ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Jeanne,’ and ‘Mental Illness.’” And in Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, Beth Ann Fennelly compiled a scrapbook of small thoughts and big—a slender book of sometimes one-page flicks on topics like married love and children. Life is iterative. Memoir is. No two stories can be the same true stories. And while it might seem today that all of this is obvious, that memoir must be plastic, it actually wasn’t nearly as obvious 18 years ago when Abigail Thomas—a writer known for her fiction, a woman known for her wit—published a collection of true stories called Safekeeping. It wasn’t a usual true-story book. It was declined, Thomas has said, by many a publishing house. There was, to begin with, no “after that happened, then this.” There was no pronouncement of a thesis. There wasn’t even a profusion of I’s (there were far more shes), and though the whole thing seemed casual enough—no footnotes, no pretense, no unforsaken woe—the casual had been run through an intensifying rinse. These pages read like poems, but there were no line breaks. These lines kicked as if they’d been enjambed, but where were the enjambments? Instead there was the hard knock of nouns. The slide of simple accountings. Sleight-of-hand suspense. A division into thirds, by which I mean sections titled “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” Meditations on, well, married love and children. Thomas could make you think that she was just delivering the facts of her life—three kids before the age of 26, three marriages, grief, passing conversations with a sister—as they occurred to her, but no. She was arranging them. The book’s first paragraph suspends time and keeps it suspended so that time becomes everything that might have been and the things that actually were, what never came to pass and what hasn’t happened yet. It’s a magic trick. There’s a white bird, winging: Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola. I played Music from Big Pink over and over. “Tears of Rage.” “The Weight.” Wheels of Fire. I had three kids. We ate on the overturned kitchen drawer because I didn’t have a table. I was young. I didn’t know what things could happen. I spent my time in the moment; everything else was shoved ahead, like furniture I didn’t need yet. We were crammed into a small space. My bed was in the living room. Safekeeping sidesteps the blunt force of a directed narrative. It’s happenstance, with a purpose. The reader has to pay attention. On a page titled “Tomorrow,” it has been, Thomas writes in first person, a year since her second husband died—the husband she loved best when they were no longer married but (somehow) friends. On the next page, titled “Witness to His Life,” this second husband is remembered as alive, a first-person remembering about a restaurant. Next we have “When He Told Her,” which recalls the time this second husband was, again, alive, but relating the news of his cancer. “When He Told Her” is a third-person remembrance. It would silence the author, we sense, if the chosen pronoun were an I. Its opening line: “She didn’t really believe it, not really, not in her heart of hearts.” We don’t understand our earlier selves, or we fear them, or we miss them, or we idolize the choices they didn’t make. In Safekeeping, Thomas’s earlier self is often a third-person self, because it’s often a truer true story that way. And when the truth cannot even be guessed at, it is not guessed at. Safekeeping, then, is also a book of blank spaces, an emptiness between micro-fullness. Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard and other autobiographical inclusionists notwithstanding, memoir making is all about the needle and the thread, the patchwork and the patches, the careful stitchery. Memoir making is as much about how we remember as what we remember, and there’s no better exemplar of that fact, now or then, to my way of thinking, than Thomas’s Safekeeping and the two subsequent, equally brilliant Thomas memoirs: A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It. [millions_ad] This isn’t to suggest, of course, that previous memoirists have not played, for example, with point of view. Bell hooks, for example, announces her methodology right up front in her memoir of childhood, Bone Black: Laying out the groundwork of my early life like a crazy quilt, Bone Black brings together fragments to make a whole. Bits and pieces connect in a random and playfully irrational way. And there is always the persistence of repetition, for that is what the mind does—goes over and over the same things looking at them in different ways. The prevailing perspective is always that of the intuitive and critically thinking child mind. Sometimes memories are presented in third person, indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance. But Bone Black is a childhood story, with a more or less chronological through line. Safekeeping, with its drifting time and shifting moods and searing gentleness, is un-diagrammable, self-forgiving. Reading Safekeeping is like reading Carole Maso’s AVA, a morning, afternoon, and night novel that ticks out the last-day memories of a dying 39-year-old professor of comparative lit. AVA stacks impressions, one upon the other. The sequenced lines are tethered to nothing but lifting desire: Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints’ days. Even when we were poor. With verve. Come sit in the morning garden for awhile. Olives hang like earrings in late August. It’s up to the reader of AVA to fill in the blanks. It’s up to Thomas’s readers, too. We are forced to be smarter than we are. Safekeeping is scrapbook and seam. It is ephemera if words can be called ephemera. It is wisdom without the baggage of authority. “Like most power it was utterly real and utterly illusory,” Thomas writes toward the end, about her younger, beautiful self. “But she spent the next forty years with her eye on who was looking back. This didn’t get in her way. It was her way. Her ambition was to be desired. Now it’s over and what a relief. Finally she can get some work done.” Abigail Thomas placed her unassuming trust in her own ideas about linearity and urgency, dodge and confession, frame and voice, and maybe she didn’t know at first what she was making, but she made it anyway. Her words were her needle. Her life was her thread. Some of her stitches looped and some of them frayed and sometimes there was a break in the pattern. Life’s like this, Thomas instructed. Life is everything. Life can be made and it can be unmade, too. Go on, she said. You try it. She unbuttoned a button. She unbuttoned another. We grew less and less encumbered.
Before there was an opioid crisis in America, before our national struggles with Valium, heroin, and laudanum, there was a 29-year-old dentist in Hartford, Connecticut, theorizing about nitrous oxide—laughing gas—and surgical pain. He suffered then from an aching molar and needed it pulled. Extraction, though, would be its own agony, because this happened on December 11, 1844. Anesthesia wasn’t yet a thing. Those in need of surgery faced a choice: pain from an affliction versus the pain of what would relieve it–scalpel or saw or tooth key. Testing his theory, that young dentist inhaled nitrous oxide to the point of insensibility. A colleague then yanked the molar. When Horace Wells regained his wits, he said he’d felt nothing and declared “a new era in tooth pulling.” Soon after, Wells reasoned that his discovery could be applied to amputations and other surgeries. He’d come upon a world-changing technology. But this moment—widely credited as history’s first recorded painless surgery—also led Wells to scandal, financial ruin, and a madness that now looks like addiction. Within four years he was dead: a suicide. Pain relief then, as now with prescription opioids, promised miracles—until unforeseen complications arose. Personal, cultural, and market forces that have shaped our current trouble with pain relief have parallels and origins in the dentist’s story. Deemed the Father of Surgical Anesthesia 100 years after his death by the American Dental Association, Wells could also rightly be called the Patron Saint of America’s Opioid Crisis. For several years I worked on a novel about Wells, immersing myself in 19th-century pain and his work to eradicate it, while also applying a fiction writer’s imagination to supply what history doesn’t reveal. What we know now about the opioid crisis helped me understand what happened then. Wells’s story carries a warning: to be wary of pain-free promises and to be skeptical of pain-relieving miracles, which are always likely to carry costs. Yet almost 175 years after that tooth pull, we still court fresh suffering when we try to relieve pain. At their starts, both nitrous oxide and Oxycontin were hailed as miracles. When Purdue Pharma introduced its drug in 1996, the company’s press release promised “New Hope for Millions of Americans.” The phrase echoed the 19th-century utopian ideal of “painless surgery” and an 1848 newspaper description of Wells’s work: “the most wonderful discovery in human history.” That wasn’t hyperbole. Before Wells, pain was a birth-to-death everyday proposition. Clove oil, opium tinctures, and even hypnosis offered limited relief. No one expected a “pain-free” life. Such a state wasn’t even considered desirable. As UCLA historian Marcia L. Meldrum notes in her 2003 JAMA article, “A Capsule History of Pain,” when pain couldn’t be erased, it had to be explained, given meaning. Christianity, with a crucifixion as its central event, considered pain to be a purifying force. This belief was so strong that Wells’s religious leaders impeded widespread use of general anesthesia. They “called anesthesia a violation of God’s law,” Meldrum writes. Pain was meant “to strengthen faith.” Today that concept might seem alien, even cruel. Yet it mirrors contemporary attitudes that also impede relief, especially for people who endure the chronic pain opioids are meant to numb. Consider T-shirt slogans such as “No pain, no gain” or “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Replace “weakness” with “sin” and you’ve got the 19th-century take. Americans have long wanted to believe that fighting through pain leads to personal growth. But people who can’t win that struggle might actually suffer more because of well-meaning scorn: “Why do you need those pills? You’ll feel better if you get up and do something.” In her JAMA article, Meldrum points to theories that pain has physical and psychological components. Emotional pain, she writes, like physical pain, can be “compounded with social, spiritual, and emotional concerns.” The opioid crisis and its overdose deaths—likely more than 59,000 in 2016 per a New York Times report—should tell us that pain is a slippery thing. It evades efforts to jaw-clench through it, to drug it, to destroy it. Wells confronted that fact, too. Weeks after he made his discovery, he demonstrated its use before faculty and students of Harvard’s medical school by pulling a patient’s tooth. But the patient groaned—no one’s sure what went wrong—and Wells was laughed out of the city. The failure devastated him. He quit dentistry. Later, he wrote that he’d suffered “a debilitating illness” that lasted several months. A 1987 British Journal of Anesthesia editorial says that Wells’s actions might have indicated “the first outward sign of a major depressive illness.” Other erratic behavior followed. He started dentistry again, quit, started. Always short of money, he imported French paintings but took a tremendous financial loss. He peddled an “improved shower bath” of his invention, which also failed. All the while, he inhaled vapors from chloroform and ether as well as nitrous oxide gas. Self-experimentation was accepted scientific practice, but for Wells it may also have masked a dependency that evened out his mood swings and volatility, especially after a betrayal by a former student led to that student receiving popular credit for “painless surgery.” Amid patent arguments and promises of wealth, Wells fought his former student’s claim, writing letters to newspaper editors and politicians and also crossing the Atlantic to press his case before French medical and scientific societies. All of this wrecked him. When Wells met with newspaper editors from New Haven the summer before his suicide, he told them the controversies caused him “extreme pain,” describing his emotional suffering in physical terms. Science now tells us this isn’t surprising. Meldrum writes in her JAMA article about 20th-century theories that pain often involves physical and psychological components, either one leading to the other. “The same nervous system that reacts to pain is the same nervous system that reacts to anxiety and distress,” she told me recently. The New Haven editors seemed to have a nascent understanding of that holistic concept. They wrote that Wells “was subject to some great mental depression, amounting to almost a disease.” Through the years since, pharmaceutical efforts toward relief have often sought large-scale, marketable, one-drug fits-all solutions. But significant and especially chronic pain is experienced in idiosyncratic ways. Wells’s patient in Boston groaned, though Wells had successfully used nitrous oxide in prior surgeries. Some users have become addicted to Oxycontin; others haven’t. Significant and especially chronic pain is experienced in idiosyncratic ways, and there might not ever be a single wonder-drug fix. In early 1848, less than four years after his discovery, Wells moved to Manhattan to open a new dental practice. He touted himself in a newspaper advertisement as “the discoverer of the wonderful effects of ether and various stimulating gases in annulling pain.” The sensation brought on by the anesthetics, he told readers, “is highly pleasurable.” But one night, likely delusional from huffing chloroform fumes, he tossed sulfuric acid into the faces of prostitutes he’d met on Broadway. Arrested and imprisoned, he convinced authorities to let him return to his quarters, in the company of a guard, to fetch his Bible. He also smuggled a bottle of chloroform and a straight razor back to his cell. America’s first chapter in its complicated history with pain relief was about to end. After Wells’s death, donors dedicated a stained glass window to him in Hartford’s Center Church, where Wells and his family had worshipped. The window remains, still catching light and displaying part of a verse from The Revelation of Saint John the Divine, Chapter 21. “Neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” Those familiar with the verse know that the promise is only realized when there is a “new heaven and a new earth.” The opioid crisis shows us that when it comes to pain and its relief, we are nearer to Wells and his struggles than to any utopian hope.
Before his execution on the 29th of October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh enjoyed one last pipe of tobacco. Then, before laying his head upon the block, he engaged in a polite disputation with his executioner. According to William Tyler Olcott in his 1914 compendium Sun Lore of All Ages, “There was a discussion as to the way he should face, some saying he should face the east. Raleigh then remarked: ‘So the heart be straight it is no matter which way the head lieth.’” It’s an anecdote that presents the explorer as calm, courageous, scholarly. One imagines Raleigh staring toward the direction of golden sunset, toward that mythic city of El Dorado, which he’d repeatedly failed to find in the South American jungles. There’s a certain poetry in his response as well; in addition to his reputation as courtier, explorer, adventurer, and war criminal, he’s also one of our greatest poets. Raleigh’s artistic stock has waxed and waned, even if his lean, muscular, and plain style appealed to a certain imperial Victorianism. Even today, any comprehensive period anthology will include Raleigh’s most notable lyrics, especially his 1592 “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” a response to Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral “The Passionate Shepherd to his Lover.” The pair were so popular that the biographer Izaak Walton would record some half-century after the poems’ composition that two milk maids would repeat the conjoined lyrics back and forth from memory, having “cast away all care, and sung like a nightingale … the ditty fitted for it.” It’s hard to categorize “verse for milk maids.” Literary historian Michael Schmidt describes Raleigh’s “preferences for plain style and brusque, masculine utterance.” Schmidt sees Raleigh as a nascent metaphysical poet, not unconvincingly arguing that his verse “rich in verbal texture and in metaphor extended” implies that Raleigh is most properly classified alongside John Donne and George Herbert. C.S. Lewis noted Raleigh’s propensity for Anglo-Saxon affectations, his rejection of the humanistic optimisms of the 16th century, and as such he classified the poet as an anti-Petrarchan, as holding a vehemently English, almost anti-Renaissance position. Raleigh rejected the flowers of rhetoric, save for those simple (but not simplistic) tropes of the plain style: contrast, antithesis, anaphora, alliteration, parallelism, and the monosyllable. Lewis claimed that such opposition merited Raleigh’s inclusion among the “drab poets,” such as John Davies or Michael Drayton. Despite Raleigh’s continued anthologizing, his reputation as a relatively minor poet endures. By contrast, the idiosyncratic American poet-critic Yvor Winters saw great value in Raleigh’s rejection of Petrarchism. The so-called “Winter’s Canon” endures as a counterfactual literary history, valorizing poets whom he saw as unfairly marginalized. Winters presented a shadow canon existing tandem Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so on. A teacher of poets including Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Robert Pinsky, Winters exacted a crucial, if obscured, role in what we talk about when we talk about Elizabethan verse. For Winters, a rejection of the excesses of Romanticism necessitated a recovery of plain style poets who’d long been passed over, a coterie of writers for whom verse was defined with the almost Puritanical parsimony of simply being “the art of saying something about something in verse,” where the poem is nothing more complicated than a “statement in words about a human experience.” In The New Criterion, David Yezzi explains that Winters’s “greatest single essay” was a piece for Poetry magazine were Winters argued that the Elizabethan era was “the most versatile in the language … unequaled, the peak from which he perceived a long decline.” According to Yezzi, Winters’s “critique of the poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries flouts convention,” especially in his reclamation of plain style in opposition to the intricate beauties of Petrarchism. Critiquing Lewis’s language surrounding the “Drab Poets,” Winters writes that the former had blamed “modern scholars for approaching the period with Romantic prejudices” while conceiving of the “entire poetry of the period in terms of a Romantic prejudice.” Winters’ condemnation of Lewis, and by proxy the academic establishment, was withering; the problem with Lewis is that “he likes the pretty so profoundly that he overlooks the serious.” In arguing that plain style was superior to the “sugared” affectations of those inheritors of Petrarchism (including Shakespeare), Winters rejected “rhetoric for its own sake” and identified an enduring strain of minimalism which has defined much of subsequent canonical literature, particular American and Modernist writing. For a fine example of Raleigh’s proficiency in the plain style, take the prefatory sonnet for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an epic dedicated to Raleigh, who was Spenser’s commanding officer during the atrocity at Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. Raleigh’s sonnet is a brief in favor of both Spenser’s mythmaking, as well as of the plain style: Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay, Within that temple where the vestal flame Was wont to burn; and, passing by that way, To see that buried dust of living fame, Whose tomb fair Love, and fairer Virtue kept: All suddenly I saw the Fairy Queen; At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept, And, from thenceforth, those Graces were not seen: For they this queen attended; in whose stead Oblivion laid him down on Laura’s hearse: Hereat the hardest stones were seen to bleed, And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did pierce: Where Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief, And cursed the access of that celestial thief! Raleigh enacts a sort of translatio studii et imperii, whereby the cultural significance of the Italian Renaissance will pass onto Britain as the site of future greatness. Spenser’s epic simultaneously built upon and rejected Italian models, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso or Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Both the epic itself and Raleigh’s sonnet make an argument for nascent English literature, in opposition to models then in vogue. Raleigh imagines the burial place of Petrarch’s unrequited lover for whom Il Canzoniere drew its inspiration; the explorer sees “the grave where Laura lay,” and though hers is of a “living fame,” her mortal remains are so much “buried dust.” The metaphorical significance in Raleigh’s nationalist argument is obvious. Raleigh’s reveries are interrupted by the appearance of Spenser’s Fairy Queen, for even whom “At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept.” The graces which inspired Petrarch have left, just as surely as the spirit of history moves in a westerly direction, where even “Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief, / And cursed the access of that celestial thief!” There is something apocalyptic in the sonnet, where “hardest stones were seen to bleed / And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did piece”; it conjures up nothing less than the raptures of Judgment Day itself, of the dead arising after the crucifixion, and as such it connects the project of English literary greatness to a millennial project. The sonnet is crafted with a certain parsimonious, minimalist elegance. An argument could be made that poems are best evaluated by how visceral their first lines are; as such, the memorable “Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay” would place Raleigh within the caliber of Donne or Emily Dickinson. His initial line is perfectly wrought. His range was impressive, more impressive than has sometimes been claimed. Consider his unfinished “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia,” probably written while he was first imprisoned, possibly reconstituted by him from memory, and only rediscovered in 1860 among the papers of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser. At an intended 15,000 lines, Schmidt describes it as “his longest and most ambitious poem,” best understood as “essentially autobiographical epic romance.” Schmidt explains that Raleigh has “moved beyond the aphoristic style, pithy and spare” and that the piece “traces English poetry’s transition from plain to aureate style,” arguing that the poem “can be read as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre.” Written from the perspective of the Ocean addressing the Moon, the symbolism involves a rather obvious declaration from the seafaring Raleigh to the Queen. These poems must be read as part of the project of bolstering British literary and imperial greatness; they should, of course, be understood as part of that hagiographical scripture for Elizabeth’s Cult of Gloriana. It would be apt, though, to also read something like “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a primogeniture of “American” literature, both because of who wrote it and because of its thematic concerns. Raleigh writes, with America in mind, that “To see new world for gold, for Praise, for glory, / To try desire, to try love sever’d far, / When I was gone, she sent his memory, / More strong than were ten thousand ships of war. / To call me back.” If there was any constant in Raleigh’s mind it was this “new world of gold,” this constructed El Dorado to which he would ever sail, and that image of a land overflowing with material opportunity that has been an American myth since the beginning. Scholar William Spengemann explains that the “writings we call Early American Literature enact and document” that discovery itself, “standing as they do at the crucial point where the geographical history of English, previously confined to a corner of Europe, first crosses the eastern shoreline of the New World.” In Raleigh’s poetry one sees intimations for elements of American literature from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway, arguably the genesis of a tradition where appropriately enough Raleigh is himself the first “American” writer. For Spengemann, Raleigh’s writings mark the “beginning of a long process of geographical expansion, demographic redistribution, and linguistic change,” and as such one could classify “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a type of “American” epic. Yet his most arresting poetry lay elsewhere. Raleigh’s considerations of mortality rank him alongside Donne as one of the most perceptive in a particularly melancholic era. Schmidt describes “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrim,” supposedly written on the eve of execution, as “the most amazing confrontation with death in English verse.” The explorer writes: And this is my eternal plea To him that made heaven, earth, and sea: Seeing my flesh must die so soon, And want a head to dine next noon, Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread, Set on my soul an everlasting head. Then am I ready, like a lamer fit, To tread those blest paths which before I writ. His unadorned style conveys homespun piety, where God is simply addressed as He that “made heaven, earth, and sea” (note the descent downward, and the end stop with that geographic feature that made Raleigh’s name). Part of what’s so remarkable is the thought of Raleigh envisioning the promise of “an everlasting head” the evening before he was to lose his; the Christian hope that his “soul, like a white palmer, / Travels to the land of heaven.” It’s like a Protestant version of jisei, the Japanese death poems written by Zen monks prior to their passing. Far from Raleigh’s reputation for impiety, the libertine quaffing drams at the Mermaid Tavern, or the supposed member alongside Marlowe of an infernal “School of Night,” his death poem reconciled him to orthodoxy. In fairness, there is also that other Raleigh, the radically skeptical one; the poet who described “Our mothers’ wombs the tiring house be / Where we are dressed for this short comedy”; the Raleigh who condemns “Heaven the judicious spectator is / That sits and marks still who doeth act amiss”; the dour cynic who preaches that “Our graves that hide us from the searching sun / Are like drawn curtain when the play is done.” This is the Raleigh who in his History of the World would describe God as “the author of all our tragedies,” for whom “there is no other account to be made of this ridiculous world than to resolve that the change of fortune on the great theater is but as the change of garments.” His contention is as old as Ecclesiastes and as recent as existentialism. Raleigh arguably expresses a conventional contemptus mundi pose in keeping with the melancholia of the age which produced Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, yet there is still something arrestingly modern about it. Even more so a translation of Catullus: “The sun may set and rise, / But we contrariwise / Sleep after our short light / One everlasting night.” No intimations of immortality, nor succor of God; understandable that some would impugn Raleigh with the charge of “atheist,” even as he speaks through the deniable persona of a long-dead Roman. I’ve no idea to Raleigh’s personal atheism; the record is contradictory, and besides, overly autobiographical readings of literature are avoided for a reason. I suspect, like all of us, he tended to be a little bit of both, to varying degrees, depending on circumstance, despite Schmidt’s contention that “He speaks for and as himself.” Hard not to want to read Raleigh that way, this ever evocative, ever vital, ever romantic, ever troubling man. An innate attractiveness in this poetic explorer whom Schmidt reminds us had to live by “talent, wit, chicanery, and strength,” who “writes not out of habit but necessity.” If I can conjecture about Raleigh’s spiritual orientation, however, I wonder if not his variable agnosticism was born out of a desire not to necessarily see a Paradise in heaven, but to find one on earth. America, after all, was that which he pursued unto the very gates of mortality, the failed expedition to an El Dorado cause of his final misfortune, for it was that which spent his life. In “Farewell to Court” he writes of a “country strange without companion,” using prescient language eerily prefiguring his circumstances in 1617, stranded on Trinidad after seeing his son killed, and awaiting transfer back to London to be punished for violating the terms of his agreement with the King. William Carlos Williams, in his 1940 response to Raleigh’s response to Marlowe, writes that “We cannot go to the country / for the country will bring us / no peace.” Williams used the word “country” in the same pastoral sense as the original pair, but we’d be apt to think of it in the sense of the Americas as well, for America certainly brought Raleigh no peace, even as he prayed that the discovery of some temporal Eden would earn him respite from the punishment to which he’d been condemned. The poet was no atheist when it came to belief in America, though that god had ultimately betrayed him, as he placed his head upon the block towards the westerly direction of paradise, a country from which no explorer, not even Raleigh, may return. Image: Wikimedia Commons [portrait by Nicholas Hilliard]
1. On impulse, before anything else, in a white E350 Ford van I drive into Mauritania at sunset. I see a duneland, and then houses built as if to imitate matchboxes. Today Eid ul-Fitr begins. Men are walking back from mosques, women and children trailing them, sure-footed and celebratory. I see all this with my nose pressed to the window. The men wear long, loose-fitting garments, mostly white, sometimes light blue. I watch them from behind, and think of the word swashbuckle. I am moved by these swaggering bodies, dressed in their finest, walking to houses that look only seven feet high. I envy the ardor in their gait, a lack of hurry, as if by walking they possess a piece of the earth. I want to be these men. 2. Awake or in a dream, faces and images and gestures from my travels return to me in great detail. Sometimes it is the wind, sputtering against the window of the car I am in. Or an underfed dog, rummaging through rubbish for a glinting bone. Or a boat unmanned in the middle of a river, seen from afar. I began to exchange emails with a relative who requested anonymity. My first email was a list of all the towns I had slept in during my travels, at least for a night. Towns in which I turned in my sleep unsure of where I was, whether I was bathed in sweat or in tears, or if I lay beside a lover or a travel companion. I hoped, I wrote, that the cities appeared untethered to their countries—an atlas of a borderless world. In the first response I received, I was urged to recount stories of strange sightings, emotions, and encounters, remembered or imagined. Take me with you on your journeys, my relative replied. Let me go in your place. 3. Once, I arrived at a bus station in Lome 10 minutes past departure time. The buses headed for Accra left every two hours. An agent advised me to purchase a new ticket. An arts centre had taken great pains to create and maintain a schedule for my West African book tour. I spoke little French and had no working phone to explain the predicament to my hosts. In my attempt to salvage the situation, I walked up to a few strangers in the terminus. I asked if I could borrow their phones, and for a few seconds each would listen, confused at the meaning of my French, which was little more than gestures and babbles. Then, when understanding came, they would shake their head in the negative, making one excuse or the other. The physical details of that Lome terminus skip my mind, but I do not forget the heads of potential benefactors shaking in the negative. Hadn’t I deserved this turn of events? That morning, before taking a shower, I sought familiarity with the streets around my hotel. I took photographs of walls, gates, and passageways, passing time. Facing one of those walls, I attempted to make sense of the notice: “vendre,” a word for sale; “ne pas,” a sense of disallowance. Beyond the wall, life seemed unrestrained, yet the inscription seemed to warn against crossing over. If the people moving on the other side were tall enough I saw their heads, nodding in conversation, turning in dissent, steadied in motion. 4. I travel under the evening cloud, an ochre sky. The first word I regard is “marché.” I see a vulcanizer’s pile of discarded tires beside the kiosk and imagine the word suggests anything but a small market. It is here, my first time outside Nigeria—on the dusty road leading outside Kouserri, 25 kilometers from N’djamena—that I learn I have crossed into the other side of the language border. If I could show my face, it would indicate the creases and frowns of a mute observer. 5. For days, depending on the availability of Mamadou, I had no guide in Dakar. It amuses me, now that I remember, how I walked in Point E nervous of what world was possible without English words. My French and Wolof constituted no more than a sentence when combined. Once, overlooking the sea in Ngor, my eyes followed the path the surfers made as they performed their stunts. I see what rivers—the Nile in its stretch beyond the Mediterranean, the Niger as it joins Timbuktu to Lokoja—teach with their flowing mass. Wave falls on wave, as one dialect inflects on another. All rivers are multilingual. I was nothing without the translators to whom my questions were entrusted, whether in Bamako, Abidjan, or Casablanca. But, alone, as was often the case, I wondered how to survive without them. 6. I looked at French words to guess their meanings. But there were times I faked understanding. In Rabat, when I went to Pause Gourmet for salad and café au lait, I would say yes to everything, hoping the question posed required a yes or a no. All my yeses were indicative of a larger paranoia, that of being marked as a clueless stranger. What the hell was a person who didn’t speak French or Arabic doing in Morocco? Sometimes yes would be inappropriate, or insufficient, requiring a modification. The waitress would immediately perceive my limited understanding, and ask for what I wanted in a clearer, drawn-out way. Again, I’d nod, suggesting finality with a smile. That would settle things. Or when Khadija rang the bell of my apartment. I got dressed and went for the door. She was mopping the floor, this middle-aged woman who began to speak in rapid French when I appeared. I perceived she was talking about her work in the building—travail, ici. My nods were tentative, speculative. She didn’t seem to mind. She wanted to exchange numbers. If I wanted any help with the apartment I could call her. She left and returned with her number on a small piece of paper, written in blue ink. Also, a small piece of paper for me to write mine. When I gave her my number she asked if it was okay for her to call me. Oui, oui. Or when a man came from the hotel to take me to a new apartment. The agreement was for me to stay in the first apartment until the new one was ready. He came to take my bags, explaining this with limited French. Frustrated by our translation problems, he asked if I spoke Arabic. No. From then on he seemed impatient, and yet subdued—almost rash in the way he suggested what he meant by lifting things and moving them before attempting to communicate where we were going. After regular visits to Pizza Zoom for lunch and dinner, it seemed I was marked alien. I perceived—perhaps by dint of exaggerated self-importance—that I was the subject of fleeting discussions in the kitchen. Waitresses and their male colleagues recounted their encounters with me: He nods to everything, he wouldn’t pronounce “brochette” the right way, he always reads an English book. English is my fate here. The cashier, once when I tried to pay for my meal, switched to English to confirm what I’d had. I responded with relief. At last. I wore my language deficiency like a veneer, like gauze, like stratum. Underneath was tangible communication, out of reach. Yet I did not bemoan this. My deficiency was benign in comparison. For migrants arriving in Morocco from countries south of the Sahara who have to make a living or wait almost interminably for a better life, to acculturate is to survive. Without the knowledge of French or Moroccan Arabic, they face the belligerent wall of inadmissibility, confined to the fringes of their new society. [millions_ad] 7. The cost of my travels, if I made a tentative sum, included a precarious love affair in Lagos. I gathered memorabilia in each new city, as if they were placatory bricks to bridge the distance; paid passage from her to me. Those potential keepsakes had the feel of poems written on the spur of sentiment, for immediate effect: petals of a sunflower carved on a wooden brooch; a key ring with the depiction of a local Marabou; baking instructions behind a postcard. On two other postcards, covered in doodles, I wrote the following: I practice what kind of shapes I’ll make on your body: Clusters of circles on the back of your wrists… Repeated triangles around your navel… Spheres with my lips on the corners of your face, then your mouth… A rhombus around the scar on your left arm… Numerous inch-wide rectangles from your knee to your hip… Squares with curved edges along your torso. For the sake of this exercise, I have bought a sketchbook. When will I see you again? I’ve made my days into dispatches and unsent letters. I sleep little. I switch beds, and night after night hope is gathered in sacks of the unknown. 8. Once in N’djamena, whilst in a market, I walked with a small camera. In the course of my strolls, I refrained from taking photographs. Sometimes I made exceptions, depending on what was in view. The market in N’djamena was the first place where I saw the head and entrails of a vulture being sold. For voodoo, I was told. A woman in hijab held a weeping man, patting his head, wiping his face, their legs sprawled on the dusty ground. I approached, uncertain. When I realized I had caught the attention of the woman, who had managed to calm the man a bit, I held up the camera for a shot. The woman’s sudden scream jolted the man, and he became inconsolable, again. I grew nervous when I noticed people pointing, encircling me. A policeman appeared—I might have been watched, or, worse, followed. The policeman pointed to the camera. I handed it to him without protest. He led me to a station I hadn’t noticed before, about 50 yards behind where the weeping man lay. I was released six hours later following the intervention of an hotelier I met on my first night in Chad. The photograph had been deleted. I walked back to the market, to make my way out. The woman in hijab still comforted the weeping man, who, in addition to being inconsolable, now threw dust, from time to time, at people walking past. 9. Most mornings in Nouakchott I sit with Lejam to eat. For breakfast we pay a total of 1,000 ouguiya for baguette and egg, juice and butter, café au lait, and water. It takes me 10 minutes to walk to the restaurant. For 10 minutes I walk with music, Sony earphones around my head, a notebook in my pocket. I walk, wearing the slippers I had bought in Dakar. Sand flies in every direction. Desert sand. Despite its modernization, writes a visitor, Nouakchott still seems like an encampment of nomads. Lejam, one of the nine artists I’m traveling with, takes pictures of me. He does this as if he has his finger and eyes on moments of significance—like the photograph he takes in Rosso, the town with a river that separates Senegal from Mauritania, right at the moment we enter the ferry. And it is after one of those breakfasts that I go with him to a visa preparation office, which bore “Formalite Visa—Maroc-Espagne-France” above it. White Mauritanians oversee would-be applicants as they gather required documents. Many of these applicants will fail to get visas. They will risk deportation and the harshness of the sea, and immigration officials armed by the European Union. I do not enter the visa preparation office. The conversation about preparing documents to apply for a Moroccan visa have been left to E., the director of the organization undertaking the road trip. He is fluent in French. The trip, expected to last a total of 150 days, is a stretch from Lagos to Sarajevo. Mauritania is the last frontier before Morocco, and Morocco is the last frontier before Spain. Six persons in my group require Moroccan visas. In the months before now, E. and I have attempted several applications for the Moroccan visa—in Abuja, Bamako and Dakar—without success. Each consulate, in turn, referred to an earlier intolerable mistake: We had included “Western Sahara” in our itinerary as an independent country, ignorant of Morocco’s claim to control its territory, its people, and its resources. Now Lejam, who owns a Canadian passport and doesn’t need a visa, takes a photograph of me with his phone. I pose beside the office door, my eyes half-opened. But my face, when I consider the photograph later, indicates I am aware of how I position myself. Lejam asks me to stand beside the door after he has seen how E. stands—his stance more or less an indication of tenseness, as if readying to spring back into the office. My pose camouflages this tenseness, even nullifies it. I rest my back on the wall, standing in a way that suggests that if a chair were placed behind me, I would have slouched. I appear carefree, as one deferring worry. Asked by Lejam to pose beside a tense E., I wonder about how, on certain occasions, in the course of travels in which nothing is certain, to pose for a photograph is to acknowledge the possibility of respite. E. is a good dancer, so good that when we go to parties people stop to watch him, even making videos with their phones. In Nouakchott, Lejam downloaded a number of Nigerian pop songs from iTunes, and when the day had come to an end, after another unsuccessful visa attempt, he would sometimes play the same songs back to back. E. and I would begin dancing, my moves hoping to imitate his. In that moment, being without a visa becomes a minor, distant worry. The only thing that would matter while we danced, like in the photograph, would be the here and now. How the body dancing, finds reprieve. 10. On the night I arrive in Benin City I sit in a taxi. I am calmed by the driver’s chattiness. He describes the city’s quarters as we drive along. We are headed towards the G.R.A., and we drive past a hotel. It is lit with a floodlight, famous at night for men looking for sex. In front of the hotel there are taxis waiting. Even with a brief glance at the taxi drivers who loiter to pick up other men, I see that each is prepared for a long stay into the night. Perhaps they arrived early to claim spots. Or, tempted by what their eyes imagine their pockets can afford, they’ll make an offer to one of the women. I do not see any woman waiting to be picked. It might be too early for this. It is only 8 p.m. How interesting, I think later, that there are men around the hotel for whom, like sex workers, this isn’t merely a question of pleasure. For both, the body is put to relentless work. I ask the taxi driver for his number. Responding to impulse, I want him to take me around the city at daylight. He has lived all his life in Benin. Men like him carry routes within themselves. As though with each shortcut he takes, he sketches a less officious map of the city. I want to assimilate, in the shortest time possible, the knowledge of all the routes he favors, the city mapped by his hand. He recites his number to me, confirming he could drive me at daylight. But the next day, and the day after that, I forget to call him. Excerpted from A Stranger's Pose by Emmanuel Iduma. Published with permission from Cassava Republic Press. All Rights Reserved.