When I was in high school I worked as a Christmas gift wrapper at the Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs. I can remember everything about the job except how I got it. I don’t remember an interview or even an application. All I remember is that every girl—and it was only girls—who wrapped books at the Chinook simply knew she was the sort of girl who wrapped books at the Chinook, and I was one of those girls. So on a weekday afternoon in early November of my junior year, I walked from William J. Palmer High School across Acacia Park to the Chinook, opened its heavy wooden door, and presented myself in the way that, just a few miles away at the Broadmoor hotel, a different sort of girl of the same age in the same season would present herself as a debutante in a white dress and a jeweled tiara. (At the Chinook I presented myself in a messy ponytail and button-fly Levis and a down jacket.) The gift wrappers at the Chinook were North End girls, the North End being the old downtown section of a newly sprawling western city, a downtown of treed boulevards and clapboard houses so separate from the city swelling around it that only in college did I learn that the rest of the country saw Colorado Springs as something of a joke: militarized, fundamentalist, ignorant. What I saw instead was Pikes Peak from every street corner, towering and maternal and vigilant. I saw the loud and gentle Vietnam vets who lived in the Albany Apartments and panhandled out front on Tejon Street, the stucco churches with their statues of a brown Jesus, the shallow creek near the highway where in spring we waded in water the color of rust. I saw the Chinook. And the Chinook saw me. I was there nearly every Saturday, buying a Tony Hillerman mystery for my mom's birthday or a hardback copy of The Bean Trees with my saved babysitting wages. And when I didn't have enough to buy a new book, which was the case more often than not, I sat on one of the kick stools meant for shelving books and read one straight through, sucking on sugar cubes I'd pinched from the bowl next to the free coffee in the back of the store. I thought no one noticed me, but of course they did. They noticed and they made an allowance, and because they did the store became my church. And when I was 16 and they hired me to be a gift wrapper, the store became my heaven. In the weeks before Christmas the Chinook was loud and warm and full. Toddlers threw stuffed monkeys from the two-story playhouse in the children's book section; men in hiking boots and dirty ski jackets bent over topographical maps they'd pulled from tall oak chests containing all the landscapes of the West: every vein, every slope, from the prairie to the Pacific. Shoppers balanced tall stacks of books in their arms, left stacks of books on the wide black counter while they went back for more. By early afternoon the store had the feeling of a house party: forgotten scarves hanging from shelving ladders, sunglasses and coffee cups left on book display tables. Protesting children lying in the aisles. And boys. Boys looking for their sisters, boys looking for their fathers, sometimes even boys looking for a book. It was easy to talk with boys at the Chinook, despite the silly apron, despite the glossy wrapped packages in my arms. It's easier to stand solid and brave on your little spot of earth when you have a job. (I would remember this 20 years later when my job was taking care of my young children, a job that the world is very quick to tell you is not actually a job at all. I would think how strange it was that at 16 years old, wearing an apron and gift-wrapping books, I felt more solidly planted on the earth than I did when I was a 35-year old married mother of two children with an advanced degree.) [millions_ad] When a customer wanted her books wrapped, a bookseller—at the Chinook they were booksellers, never sales clerks—would call out for one of us. "Wrap, please!" he'd say, turning from the counter to the cluttered warren where we worked, a narrow space behind the sales counter that was as dark and cramped as a ship's kitchen. One of us would pop out and stand smiling at his side, ready to receive. We were taught to study the customer quickly and carefully, and to identify three physical characteristics that would distinguish her from the multitudes. We weren't given the customers' names, or even a copy of their sales slips. Only their books, which we were to return to them, wrapped, in as little time as possible. When the sales transaction was complete we scooped the books off the counter and took them back to our narrow worktop where we wrapped shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing two tape dispensers and four commercial-size rolls of wrapping paper mounted just above our heads. When we emerged with the wrapped books and approached the waiting customer we weren't allowed to ask, "Are these your books?" We were to say, "Here are your books. Merry Christmas." We were to surprise them with our speed and confidence and our knowing. That was our job. On weekday evenings this wasn't hard. But on Saturdays, when the swarm of customers waiting for their wrapped books would be five deep, 20 or 30 people waiting for their books, it was very hard. But we still did it, and we didn't make mistakes. We were the sort of girls who paid attention. On my lunch break I would walk to the cheese shop for a sandwich and I'd see kids from school, and I would say hello to boys and girls I wouldn't say hello to in the halls. I suppose I said hello because it was Christmas and there was a little snow falling, and because of that solid feeling. I didn't wear a coat because I'd been inside for hours and I wanted to feel the cold air on my skin. And I was young, and this was the West so the cold was dry and clear and you knew it wasn't going to last. The Chinook wasn't going to last either. I didn't know it in my wrapping days, but I would know it soon after. Soon there would be the Internet, and the big box stores, 9/11 and the recession that followed. In 2004, the Chinook closed its heavy wooden doors, 45 years to the day from its opening. There are other bookstores in downtown Colorado Springs now, but they rely—as most independent bookstores do—on Internet sales of new and used books, often through Amazon. They don't employ a staff of 26 or gross $2.5 million a year, as the Chinook once did. And surely there are still girls like me at William J. Palmer High School, although they no longer walk across the park to present themselves at the Chinook. I often wonder what it is they do instead, where they go to be known and needed. I wonder where they get that solid feeling. Christmas Eve was the gift wrappers' last day. The store opened at nine and closed at noon and for those three hours we never stopped wrapping. On Christmas Eve all our customers were men. We wrapped Word-A-Day calendars and enamel bookmarks and books that came with puzzles and finger puppets, books that were just barely books. Our feet ached and so did our fingers. And when, at five minutes past 12, the last customer was escorted out and the door locked behind him, everyone would give an exhausted cheer and Dick Noyes, the spry and white-haired owner of the Chinook who wore wide striped ties and crepe-soled Wallabees and called all the wrappers "babe," and "doll," would open a bottle of scotch and hand out Christmas bonuses. And us gift wrappers, who were too young to drink scotch and too shy to stand around without books to wrap, slowly hung up our aprons and collected our things, the last of the books we had bought with our just-expired employee discount, the Nalgene water bottles we kept on the shelf above the wrapping paper, our extra sweaters. We tucked our bonus envelopes into our backpacks, said our goodbyes, and left through the shipping room's back door, out into the alley where our older brothers were waiting in cars, ready to drive us home to Christmas. Image Credit: Pexels.
1. This is about Damascus, the city where I was born and raised. Today I live in London and my contact with Damascus is painful. I met a lovely old lady in our community allotment garden a couple of months ago. We had a nice chat about growing plants and growing children. My daughter was running around, her grandchildren too, we talked about the beautiful things in life. And then, in the conversation, I mentioned that I was Syrian. She looked at me and said: "Oh, you poor girl, I want to hug you and cry." It's important that the memory of a place survives the horror that overcomes it. So I find my Syrian voice in the sweet memories of a grand city. 2. I woke up that morning and my room was orange. It smelled of heaven. My mother had made apricot jam and poured it into big round silver steel pans, to sit in the sun, on the balcony outside my room. The sun was shining and it was hot. The sun was cooking the jam and infusing the air with its scent. I was born during apricot jam season. My mother was pregnant and due to give birth any minute. She had bought her usual 20 kilograms of klabi apricots—the only type you should make jam with—from the 30 varieties of apricots in the city. Meshmosh Klabi are only in season for one or two weeks, at the end of June or beginning of July. When they appear on the markets, you have to sieze your opportunity. They have red cheeks and orange flesh; they flip open and the stone pops out; they are dry and slightly bitter when raw. But when they become jam, they are royalty jam. People say you will never taste a better apricot jam than the one you taste in Damascus. On the morning of July 3, 1976, my mother deseeded the apricots, piled them up in a large pot, added some sugar and gently brought the pot to a boil. She poured the mix into large shallow pans and took them out into the sun to bask in its heat. She always said that was how they stayed golden bright and didn't go dark. The next morning, my mother went into labor and gave birth to a little girl in a city she would learn to love and to leave. 3. It’s July 2011 and I'm walking the streets of Damascus, my streets; nowhere else in the world have I taken ownership of the streets. The pavement and the dirt, it's all mine and no one can take it. The air smells of orange blossom and jasmine. It smells of onions and garlic frying up for lunch in every single house along my way. The air is so dry you can hear yourself breathe. I decide to go up the mountain of Qasioun. I hail a taxi, a yellow car with a driver wearing a printed shirt, polyester trousers, worn flip flops and a towel around his neck. He has a plastic bottle of water at arm's reach. All sorts of furry things are dangling in the interior of his car. Flashing "i love you" signs with little red lights, teddy bears, miniature triplet dogs sitting on the dashboard whose heads wiggle with the car’s movement; fuchsia feathers, heart-shaped pillows, a small Quran and prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror. By the steering whel is a picture of a belly dancer with a lot of make up and glamorous oriental clothing, and a picture of the driver's children. The radio is on; it’s the woman with the sensual voice. It's a city of contrasts. I remember walking into a kinky lingerie shop in the old market. It was run by an old pious man. He was selling women's underwear with zippers and feathers and bright coloured flashing lights. You could clap and one pair of underwear would fall off, top and bottom. A friend of mine bought that one. It actually works. It falls off if you clap. It falls of if you whistle, too. There are fake birds and fake phones positioned strategically on the tiny pieces of lace, and the old man was explaining the quality of the product. He would tell me, "Ammo, these are very good, trust me, they work." How is it possible that a 70-year-old devout Muslim—this big, round, kind man—was advising me on kinky underwear? [millions_ad] 4. The driver of the taxi takes me up to the mountain, Qasioun. I get out and I look down at my city. It's hot and dry; a layer of sand and dust covers everything. The city lays at the foot of the mountain, spread out like a coffee stain. And beyond it, nothing. Endless land with nothing on it. The city came to life through the river, Barada. Today, Barada has almost dried out. There is no life without it. I locate the buildings I know, I locate our home, in the far east of the city on my left. I see flocks of pigeons circling above the roof tops, and the men and women who keep them. Wherever I am today, when I hear pigeons cooing, I feel I am home again. The real home. The first one. Night falls, the sky turns indigo and the city starts to twinkle from up there. Every green light represents a mosque. There are many, many green lights. The prayer sounds, Allahu Akbar, God is great, and resonates from as many mosques as I can hear where I am standing. The voices of the Damascus imams are divine. I go into a sort of trance as I hear, even now as I remember. And I am not Muslim. Everyone relates to the prayer of the imams in Damascus. Foreigners and locals are called alike, some for prayer, some for contemplation, and some just to hear the wave of magic coming through the air. My father studied economics and sat for a Ph.D. in Paris at the Sorbonne. He says that he wrote his whole thesis listening to a set of five tapes of a famous imam chanting the whole Quran. The timing of those five prayers every day are as meaningful as the call itself. Dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk, and nightfall. I don't know if I think that because I grew up in a place that marks those five moments in a day, or if it's a natural pattern with which we relate to the world around us, but I always pause. 5. It’s Friday, and that’s the only day off in the city. Men have brought their food and drink, chairs and mats, shisha pipes, wives and children, and have spread them out along the side of the roads, all the way to the top of the mountain. That road has been planted; it's the way to the president's palace, so it is always green and beautiful. People picnic on the side of the road for that reason—for a bit of green and fresh air. The women are veiled. By sunset, there is not one inch of grass free. Other people, those who can afford it, are in the cafes and restaurants dotted along the top of the mountain and overlooking the city. I catch a ride down back to the city’s beating heart. I feel so big on my way down, like I have taken it all into myself, this beautiful place and all its grace. 6. The cactus fruit appears on the streets in August. The prickly pear, or sabbara, as we call it. If you are going home in August after a night out, you have to stop for a few pieces of the fruit. Vendors set up their stands all over the city. They decorate them with carpets, plants, and lights. They are masters of cleaning, peeling, and offering the fruit free of prickles. The pears are cold and sweet, juicy and so satisfying on a hot night. I’m on my way home, and I’ve had a few prickly pears. I stop at the glass-blowing factory by the east door of the old city. The old city of Damascus had a wall surrounding it, and seven access points. I used to live close to Bab Sharki, the eastern door. And there, a small glass factory that you wouldn't notice walking by works 24/7 and only stops for a week twice a year, for the Eid holidays. The ovens melting the glass mix are never turned off; they would need too much time to reach the high temperature again if they were. So the men with big round cheeks take turns, all day and all night, at making sand glow and form, to become glass. They always have a glass pot of black tea sitting on the oven, and they always offer a small glass to whoever drops in. They usually won't talk to me, as I am a woman and they are men. They will kindly welcome me: "Hello sister, welcome," and that's it. The tiles on the floor are a beautiful geometric pattern as is often the case in the old houses of the city. But no matter how rich the house or elaborate the décor, no matter how intricate the floor tiles, there is always one tile that will be misplaced on purpose: perfection is for God. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Along the way, as I was helicoptered off Algonquin Mountain, wheeled into the Lake Placid ER, then driven by ambulance to Saranac Lake ER and wheeled into midnight surgery, the forest rangers, the nurses, the EMTs and doctors would ask what I did for a living. When I explained I was a writer, the response was often how at least I’ll be able to write about all this when it’s over. I certainly played the part of WRITER, reminding my husband again and again, when I was sprawled out on the trail and waiting to be rescued, to make sure my little green notebook and my pen went with me when I was helicoptered out. I kept this notebook beside me at all times, except for the surgery that would insert a metal rod and screws into my leg and ankle. I planned on recording my observations, the odd angles and discolorations of my leg, the various textures of pain, the bright personalities of the nurses, the sounds from the other hospital rooms, the kindnesses. But here’s a confession: I barely used that notebook. I have three measly pages to cover my first week of injury. My writer self, a previously eager observer of my life’s lows, appeared to be asleep or absent, cowering off in some corner of my mind. I’m still trying to understand why. Despite my lackluster notetaking, I can remember certain moments if I try. My nails digging into my husband’s arm and leaving marks. A stranger covering me with his rain jacket. How I couldn’t stop shaking. The helicopter circling over us, needing to burn off fuel, while the trees around us trembled and blew as if in a storm. I remember asking my husband to shoot me. I remember rising above the trees while strapped into a harness, and suddenly there was so much light from the setting sun. I intended to wave goodbye to my children but I was spinning the wrong way. But there are other moments that I can’t access. In particular, the time between when I was walking down a trail beside some rocks, not even a steep part, and I noticed a man to my lower left, and I was thinking, I do not feel like saying hello to this man, as I was tired of greeting people—then, somehow, I was on my back, and this kind man, the one I didn’t want to greet, was crouched next to me, explaining I’ve been hurt. That I was really hurt. I glanced at my leg, bent in angles that should have been impossible. Then I closed my eyes. Between those two moments, there is nothing. I want to know what my body was doing during that nothing time. More accurately, I want to be able to describe what my body was doing and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish someone was taking a video so I could see myself fall. It’s strange, as a writer, disorienting, to have moments, no matter how brief, unavailable to me. Did I slip? Stumble? Push myself off the rocks? Twist? Flail? Leap? Scream? Cry out? (Apparently the brain stops recording memories during traumatic events, focusing its resources instead on survival, due to increased adrenaline and noradrenaline production, says Scientific American.) I’m glad, of course, my brain stayed focused and I survived. But I still wish my writing self could have been an observer, just as I wish that same self could have been more present during the times of intense pain. When, for instance, the forest ranger was preparing to splint my leg without pain meds while my tibia was almost pushing through my skin. I needed to be splinted before I could be lifted up to the helicopter. “Ready?” the ranger asked. A quiet voice in my head was telling me to pay careful attention, but the voice was so muted, and then I began screaming, as the pain went beyond what was bearable. I went elsewhere, to a place I may never be able to describe, and there is some disappointment about visiting a place, however bleak, where there aren’t words. I am trying to write about my experience three months after the accident. One problem I keep encountering is the fact this was an accident, an awful twist of fate. I write awful but another problem is it wasn’t that bad, not when put into the context of greater suffering in the world. Yes, I felt intense pain while waiting for the helicopter. Yes, the waiting felt infinite but actually it was 2 hours. Yes, the splinting was intolerable, but that lasted no more than a minute. After that, I was rescued, saved, medicated, taken care of. My hospital room had a lakeside view with a loon! I know people have felt much worse, and been more frightened, for much longer. I know some people are never rescued. How can one’s pain be made more interesting? More complex? More relevant? Must pain be complex or interesting or relevant to warrant writing about? How does one write about a violence that has no perpetrator, no blame? Were I assaulted on the mountaintop, had someone thrown me down those rocks, there would be a villain, and presumably a motive, and therefore there would have been a clearer story to tell. But what happened was the trail was slippery, and I slipped. I can’t even blame my boots. I checked them later on. The treads were fine. Everybody was falling that day, my husband has reminded me. He fell moments before I did. A woman fell moments before him, slicing open her arm. At times, it seems I could sum up my accident in a sentence or two. Yet I can’t shake this need to continue writing about it. [millions_ad] The accident happened at the start of an annual family vacation. I was in no shape to drive home, so my initial two weeks of recovery were spent in the Adirondacks, on various beds and scenic benches. I expected I would get much reading and writing done. A mini-writing retreat, I thought! How nice. I made my husband download the stories I was working on to a laptop using the hospital Wi-Fi. I stocked my Kindle with non-fiction I had meant to read months ago. I had my pile of articles about global warming, police surveillance, that sort of thing. But even with time stretching in the way it does in hospitals—eternity was available, nothing was expected of me—any writerly impulse quickly evaporated. Reading non-fiction put me to sleep. Not a deep sleep, but a sleep lasting for only a few minutes. I’d wake up and doggedly read a few more paragraphs before nodding off. My folder of articles lay untouched on my bed. My notebook lay beside me. The laptop remained unopened. I stared at the wall more than I thought possible, the pain meds keeping boredom away. When a volunteer wheeled in what she called her “comfort cart,” I eagerly grabbed for the easy escape of People magazine. Perhaps it’s silly, after an injury, to become frustrated with one’s self for a lack of artistic interest in one’s situation. Perhaps the situation was simply not that interesting. Perhaps it’s okay I found more engagement with the amount of calories a celebrity consumes in a day. But I think there was something more going on, a collection of evidence, or a sinking feeling. The first book I was able to latch onto in the hospital was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a novel I come back to every year or two. I read it before I had my first child and thought, well this is rather showy and dramatic, isn’t it. After the birth of my first child, I read it again and wept. I don’t cry anymore at the ending, but I do find solace in its portrayal of an effective parental love and a useful suffering. The dad does manage to save his child in the end, after all. In the hospital setting, I found this novel’s bleakness to be reassuring, its descriptions of the decimated, impersonal, and brutal wilderness to be more accurate than the romantic description of trees I’ve encountered elsewhere. I would read the book, fall asleep several pages in, then wake and read more, and fall asleep, and cry because my leg hurt so much, take the pain meds, and read more. Read in this fragmented way, certain scenes stretched on practically forever. I think the father swimming out to the ship went on for most of one night. I must have reread certain parts, and I was reading so slowly. But I feel like this particular reading of the book was my truest reading, the most accurate. Perhaps suffering, no matter how pointless such suffering is, is the best state of mind when reading a book about suffering. I found solace in the idea that suffering can have a purpose, a goal. Even my suffering, I wondered? A purpose larger than the personal, I wondered? I carried my notebook with me everywhere while I used crutches. I carried it to a second visit to the Saranac Lake ER because my leg had turned a deep rich blue and swelled to an obscene size. “I’m turning into a blueberry. Like Violet Beauregarde!” I told my daughter, who patted me with alarm. I rarely wrote in the notebook. I just carried it, occasionally jotting down commandments from my doctors. Elevate. Ice. Rest. I took the notebook to the final appointment with my surgeon, whom I had fallen in love with. I say this in the most sincere, non-creepy way possible: here was a man who had put my leg back together. A man who had smiled at me with such kindness before the surgery, when I was very frightened, and afterwards, who moved my bandaged leg with great pride. It was like we had created something together. “Look at that!” he said with a little awe, moving my leg up and down. I don’t know how people cannot fall in love with their surgeons. I suppose there is a story waiting somewhere in that proclamation. My writer self eventually did wake up. Proudly, now, it waves around its updated list of things it can write about more accurately and personally: a mountain injury! A helicopter rescue! An ambulance ride! Being wheeled into a frigid operating room and hearing Pink Floyd! Going under for surgery! Metal implants in one’s leg! Becoming hysterical from pain while one’s children watched. The queasy loneliness of a hospital room at night. I could turn it all into a story, adding some kind of tension, or forcing something more to happen. Give the injured wife and her husband a history, perhaps a violent history. Or maybe the child could be the one injured, and the mother would have to watch her child in pain rather than watching her own pain. But part of me has become bored with reshaping the details of my life into a narrative with an exciting enough plot that also satisfies a need for completion and revelation by the story’s end. Part of me wants this experience to be enough as it was. I will get back almost everything that I lost. I’ll be able to walk without a limp. At some point, I should be able to run. My family will go back to the mountains and have a proper vacation. And there have been little gifts along the way. Reading returned to me in a fury once I went off opioids at the end of week two. When was the last time I had so much space to read since I was a child? The Executioner’s Song, Borne, Fever Dream, The Book of Joan, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Against Depression. I had love affairs with each of these books. I read gratefully, whole-heartedly, without distraction, as I had nothing else I could do. I read through my insomnia, and I read while my leg was elevated and iced, and I read while doing my physical therapy exercises every three hours, and I read to my children while I rested, and I listened to the books as I hobbled around the block. What I won’t get back are those moments I can’t remember, the falling, the pain. Those are the parts, if I do tell this story someday in its completion, I will have to make up. Here are some of the ways my accident changed me. I will hike less joyfully next summer. I will hesitate on rocky trails. I will bring an emergency beacon and consider trip insurance with helicopter evacuation coverage. I may stop below the ridges of mountains rather than climb. I have lost my certainty that hiking up mountains has a point. What is the point? Gazing at them from a distance might be enough. I hope environmental descriptions in my writing will gain some kind of brutality, that I will say no to romanticism when it suggests itself, especially when the sun is setting on a scene. Because the mountain stood there while I screamed. Of course it did. And then my family, my husband and children, had to climb down it in the dark. Did I ever think nature had a heart? Yes, I suppose I did. Maybe this is the real loss or revelation. We talk so much about trying to save the natural world as if it is a living breathing person. It’s not. It’s still worth saving, but not because of its kindness. Photo courtesy of the author.
You are a tourist to Canada in the season of book awards and writers’ festivals. You have timed it this way. You are a literary tourist, or a book lover, at least. The kind of traveller who seeks out immersive cultural experiences. Wherever you go, you do your homework. It is a trip to Anglophone Canada, so you have brushed up on your English (which was pretty good to begin with). You study maps. You read up on the history, current events, and controversies. And now you will go deeper. You are looking for literature in situ. You will talk with some Canadian readers, meet some Canadian authors, perhaps. You will ask big questions and really get inside the soul of this country. For the most part you get what you came for. You find some good reads. Books you will take home and really savor. You will get inside the Canadian experience, for sure. You find an enticing rural family saga. Some nice books about identity—quite a few. And some of the anxieties-of-the-bourgeoisie style books you find so charming. They seem beautifully written, and you look forward to making time for all of them. So you are satisfied—but not satiated. There is something else you are looking for. Another kind of story, by another kind of author. A dissident novel, by a dissident author. An overt challenge to complacency—or to the state, even. All throughout this journey you have found it hard not to think of a particular novel—not the one you are seeking, but one that serves as analogue for your experience in Canada. And it isn’t even a Canadian novel, perhaps not even one that could be written by a Canadian—as you have lately, tentatively, concluded. Time and time again, you are reminded of Event Factory, by the American author Renee Gladman. It is a strange and challenging book, and you think of it because it seems to depict the situation in which you find yourself as a literary tourist. Event Factory takes place in the fictional city of Ravicka, and its protagonist—just like you—is a visitor from afar, with a goal to immerse herself in the local culture. Like you, she has studied the host society and language and is ready to converse with the locals. But immersion proves elusive. Among a variety of other things, she is seeking—just like you—an important text and its author. It is not, in her case, a dissident text, but a book nonetheless. And like the book you seek, it proves elusive. Are the locals being evasive in response to her enquiries? Or is it that she misses some component of the language to make her desires understood? It is not clear which. Your trip to Canada feels much the same way. You have asked for, but still not found, your dissident novel by a dissident author. You are not sure why. Certain events in this country—contentions, protests, and catastrophes of the past decade—have not escaped your notice. But they seem not to have found their way into the literature; or rather, they haven’t found their way into the novels you see on short lists or book festival display tables, anyway. What you are looking for is something edgy. Something from the counterculture. About someone blocking a pipeline through unceded territory, maybe. From anyone who writes in opposition to power, or writes about people who take chances. You ask around, and a few suggestions come up—quite a few, actually. They are all novels by Canadian authors, to be sure. But they are about people taking chances in other countries. No—that’s not what you’re looking for, you say. You want books about people taking chances in this country. In Canada. You are directed to some nonfiction titles, but that’s not what you want, either. You say it has to be a novel. A creatively imagined, perhaps contrarian response to whatever turmoil has happened in this country. [millions_ad] You try to be as specific as possible. You would be happy with some critical satire, at least. Each country surely must have its satirists. A Kurt Vonnegut, or a Michel Houellebecq—someone taking liberties at the expense of his own countrymen. Vonnegut gets some understanding nods, but it seems few have heard of Houellebecq. So you tell your Canadian interlocutors that even an earnest, disgruntled Marxist will do. Doesn’t every nation have one of those? A Takiji Kobayashi, for example. Someone taking on their own society in their own present age—as Kobayashi did, a lone voice against Japan’s paramilitary intelligence service. Alas, no one has heard of Kobayashi. It is hard to convey a common point of reference. Eventually you find a bookseller advertising arcane knowledge of even the most obscure titles, au courant of the contemporary novel. By this point you are desperate, so you spill your guts. You know what’s been going on in this country, you say. You have been following events. That man, you say. That last prime minister. The one who wanted to sabotage all the climate negotiations. Yes, she knows about him. And the new one, who lobbied to send the oil down south. She knows about him, too. And that day—the day when 900 protesters were jailed in a single scoop. And the people who turned off the pipeline valves. The grandmother who went to jail. Those people up north—First Nations people—the ones crammed into shacks who can’t get clean drinking water. These are all dramatic stories, are they not? Surely they must have made their way into Canada’s novels. The bookseller hears you out, but remains silent. She looks pensive, but you can’t read in what way. Perhaps she is thinking about a book. Or perhaps she is insulted that all you seem interested in is Canada’s dirty laundry. So you tell her you like that other stuff, too—the family sagas, the identity stories, the midlife crisis stories. It’s all great stuff, you say. But you want to see the other side of Canada, too—through another kind of Canadian novel. The dissident novel. Perhaps, you venture, there could be a Canadian Dostoyevsky. A political risk taker. You tell her you imagine there must be at least one Canadian novelist like that. There must be someone like that right now, all things considered. The bookseller maintains her reticence, and finally you say this: “I am a professor of dissident literature.” It is a lie, but how else can you encourage her to bring forth the novel you desire? “My interest is purely academic,” you say. “In every country I visit, I seek out dissident novels, dissident writers. That is all. I have no political motive. Simply, I wish to return home with a research sample—with an example of the dissident Canadian novel. Or having had a conversation with a dissident Canadian novelist.” The bookseller asks whether, because you mentioned Dostoyevsky, you would like a crime novel. And so you leave her shop empty-handed. And soon you leave Canada, too—on your scheduled return flight home. Perhaps if you had had more time, you think, you might have found that obscure, dissident novel. And you wonder if it was some fault of your English—your lack of facility with the Canadian dialect—that prevented you from finding it. Or was it that the Canadians you met were being evasive? Had you insulted their national pride by asking for some contrarian—perhaps, in their eyes, “anti-Canadian”—literature? Or could it be that no such book, that no such author exists in Canada? It would be incredible, you think, that such a thing could be true. It would be very strange, indeed. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
1. This will delete all the media and data, and reset all settings, my phone warned me. Yes. Are you sure to continue? All the media, data, settings will be deleted. This cannot be undone. Yes, I know. I’m also aware that my phone hasn’t been backed up for three months, because my free iCloud library is already full. Which means when I get a new phone and restore the data from my cloud, my phone can only remember what happened until this May. It will be greeted with few recollections of what happened and a strong sense of emptiness. Three months’ memory mysteriously gone, buried deep in an inaccessible corner of the old phone, only to be either completely pulverized when the unusable hardware is crushed or split into pieces when segments are recycled. The memory will become the shadow of someone else’s, a heart pumping for another body. What about me? How about my three months’ memory? On which date does the clock of my memory stop ticking? I visit the store and get a replacement. My new phone looks exactly the same as the old one. If I were willing to pay for a bigger cloud storage, I would be able to retrieve all my data from the cloud and my transition between phones would be seamless. But I’ve lost three months’ worth of memory. When I stare at the screen of my new phone, I feel like I am looking at a familiar face, as if I am watching a slightly younger self in last year’s birthday photo. The layout looks a little different: some apps are missing, the photo library is empty, my favorite songs, calculated by the music player, look slightly different. I have gone through some minor changes during those three months, but exactly how I can no longer recall. Clumsily, I download Netflix and a few photos from another cloud server in an attempt to piece together a semblance of the new self that I’ve become. But I am no longer the “I” I would have become if I hadn’t absent-mindedly spilled half a bottle of water in my bag and ruined my phone. Is it true that my data—the pictures I’ve taken, the history of my search engines, the music I’ve liked—have become my new memory, or, at least, a new form of access to my memory? When I am holding the dear dear phone in my hand, am I actually holding my life, my brain, and my soul? What an unsettling thought. 2. A few years ago, I can’t remember the exact date, I went on a two-day trip to Suzhou with my best friend. We’d known each other for seven years by then, but we had drifted apart as we stepped into adulthood. To patch things up, I suggested (or was it she?) that we revisit Suzhou together. There are two Suzhous—one restrained and fragile, a dreamy reflection of history, the other shambling and disjointed, a cacophony of instinct and irrationality. As we rode our rented bikes along the streets and across the bridges, hundreds of steely bicycles, electric motorcycles, and fuming motorbikes screeched past me like arrows. I felt like I was a character in a video game whose rules I had yet to grasp. But my friend was fearless: she pedaled hard, with every step, I could see her calf bulging beneath her jeans. Sunglasses pushed high up on her forehead, her black long hair floating in the wind, in no time she was at least a mile ahead of me, all I could do was gasp for breath and pick up my speed yet again, following her to make turns and dive into streets and lanes whose names I didn’t have time to remember. And then all of a sudden, the bustling vehicles receded from me and it seemed we had entered a quiet boulevard; there were old yellowing plane trees stretching out on both sides. Under the soft daylight sifting down through the web of leaves and branches, my small, powerful friend slid down the slope, and I could feel the breeze pouring into me. I’d love to take a picture of this moment, I remember thinking to myself. The idea grew along with the realization of its impossibility. A car could rush around the corner any minute; it would be dangerous to call her to turn back. My phone and camera were inside the tote bag tucked in the bike basket; what’s more, we were moving forward, in the middle of the “present.” In that fleeting moment, time overwhelmed me with its irresistible will to move on. Well, then I will remember it really hard, with my best effort, I thought to myself. I’d like to remember it for the rest of my life. Every time I try to recollect this moment now, I remember not only the soft and warm canopies against the sky, the back of my friend’s blouse wrinkled by movements, but the ardent desire to grasp the scorching moment and brand it into my memory. 3. I had a dream this spring. In the dream there were a few peach trees in full blossom, and I was somewhat younger, urging someone in the dream to take photos of me in front of the trees. This is something I would do and have done in real life, asking people to capture an ordinarily beautiful or beautifully banal moment. Smart phones have made it so easy: they squeeze slices of time into brightly colored cans and stack them in a vending machine. In my dream, I checked the photos and was satisfied with several of them. The elation felt so real: I took more delight in having taken the pictures than having seen the flowers. And then with a mild spasm of joy, I woke up. You understand that I had to check my phone first, don’t you? My mind was still fogged by the illusion, and I still felt a glimmer of hope that I could find the photos in my photo library. But as I reached for the cold metal, my dream was sucked back into invisible pipes and, drop by drop, it returned to the dark pond of unconsciousness. A strange feeling rose in me, disbelief and disappointment. Before this dream, the abstraction and physical inaccessibility of dream or memory had completely escaped me. For a second, utterly shocked, I sat against the headboard, awed at the seemingly elastic but utterly unyielding line between the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the spiritual. That I couldn’t export my dream photos sounded ridiculous in my brain, as if someone had played a prank on me. Last winter I re-watched The Ghost in the Shell, a famous Japanese sci-fi animation film featuring a female cyborg, Motoko, who is engaged in a seemingly hopeless search for her identity. I guess watching engineers plugging colorful wires into the little round holes on the back of Motoko’s neck influenced my way of thinking, and I subconsciously thought this fictional imagination had already become true. Far from being wary of devices, I welcome the things they could do for me. I find myself toying with the ideas of implanting microchips or flash disks into my body, or even sticking my head into photocopiers. Needless to say, my understanding of the accessing of memory, even my understanding of memory itself, has been shaped by my relationship with machines. If I have learned anything from living with these silent creatures, it is that they are highly accessible, reliable, and, above all, accurate. But what is memory, if not a bundle of errors, a poem covered with edits? Let me try to remember the act of “remembering.” As if someone has switched up a film projector, a scene is cast into my mind, a scene to which I find myself frequently returning. I remember that day when a plum-flavored candy got stuck in my throat. I was five, or maybe younger. My parents and I were living in an old classroom at the back of the campus where my mother worked, waiting to be relocated. Several classrooms aligned in a row, facing a makeshift brick wall. A candy was luxury in those days. I let it linger on my tongue, rolled it greedily, until it tumbled down and ended up between the tender walls of my throat. I must have gasped for help, since my mother immediately came and grabbed my ankles. Before I realized it, I was dangling upside down from her wrists, following her instructions to cough the candy out of my mouth. But these are nothing but a logical deduction, based on what I see when I try to remember the episode: a collage of pictures, superimposed upon one another. Somehow they look like a series of footage shot from different angles and by different cameras: The dark glimmering concrete floor feints and parries the thrust of my face. Sweat beads my mother’s forehead. Through the colored windows of the classroom, a woman can be seen dangling a child as if she’s emptying a schoolbag. Wait a second: Whose eyes are observing us through the colored windows? Who is the wordless third party in this scene? It’s me. I am the person standing outside the classroom by the wall. In my memory, I have become the intruder, the Peeping Tom, the spy. Who is this ageless, genderless “I?” Intuitively I recognize this person as the fusion of my present and past selves as I attempt to remember. It is a projection of repeated remembrances. Remembering is like stepping onto an impeccable snow field; you can never visit it without leaving footprints. Neuroscientists have proved that memory-making process “needs new proteins … (and) requires some cellular construction,” that “every memory begins as a changed connection between two (isolated) neurons.” Remembrance takes place on an empty ground known as “synaptic clefts;” every connection is a makeshift project, an imitation of the last one with varying degrees of loyalty. When it comes to remembering, our brain is designed to blunder. 4. Last winter, in a class with students from a design and technology concentration, a girl nicknamed Chao introduced me to her project, a user interface featuring an intelligent personal assistant. I have forgotten its name. Let’s call it Harry. Chao had recruited dozens of volunteers to participate in her project. She told them they were communicating directly with Harry, in fact it was her who was chitchatting with them. She wanted to see whether it was possible for human beings to develop an attachment with an AI. For the first few days, Chao said, Harry would aim to build trust with participants, inviting them to share jokes and personal anecdotes, even their saddest memories with her. Like the movie Her? I said. Exactly. What I am looking for is a workable plot: in the end, the system, that is to say, me, will inform the participants that due to a bug or whatever, Harry suffers a total loss of memory and won’t be able to recollect any conversations with the participants, even to recognize them. I want to know, Chao looked at me, with her perfectly-lined eyes, will they feel upset, disappointed, even hurt a little bit by the amnesia of the machine? What does the memory of the machine look like in the first place? An artificial intelligence, after talking to thousands of interface users for over 10 years, will have what we humans consider to be a mammoth quantity of materials. When it recalls someone it has talked to, the AI will be indiscriminative, remembering each and every user with equal clarity, whereas we always remember someone better than another, our memory colored by preferences and biases. The memory of the machine is one-dimensional—Emma Bovary’s eyes will have only one color, and we will know for sure where Albertine’s beauty mark lies—it has neither perspective, nor depth. Nowadays, I remember not the meaning of a word but its location on the Internet. Instead of paragraphs of notes, I remember key words for the search engine and its rank on the result list. My relationship with the world has shrunk from excerpts of a dictionary to excerpts of a table of contents; my memory has been replaced by a list of hyperlinks. When I try to recall the silhouette of Manhattan in sunset, I shiver a little, as a string of fluid ghostly shadows flow past my mind. Then the location of a photo capturing that very scene occurs to me, and I rest assured, as if I have recovered a piece of myself, so I stop remembering. It is true that revisiting the snow ground of the past incur damages with scrambling imprints, but if you stop visiting it altogether and take satisfaction in gazing at the picture of the snow, you will never be able to find your way back to the place. What I find most intriguing about Chao’s project is that she is trying to think like a machine. The conversations have to be perfect; they shouldn’t be too human, I remember her emphasizing. Yes, you are right, there has to be a quality of machine-ness, I nodded, but I was also thinking: in the beginning, we build machine to imitate human brain, and what we are doing here, is the imitation of the imitation. Chao wants to gauge the possible attachment between machine and human, but for me, it looks like she is trying to find out how much damage it can bring us. A child throws stones into a well out of the desire to know how deep it is, and how badly it will hurt if one falls down to the bottom. Erasing the data on my phone actually felt like a dramatic moment, the climax of our relationship. (When I brought it for the technician to examine, he joked: Actually two weeks from now it will be your first year anniversary.) Do you want to delete all the media and data, and reset all settings? Do you want to delete all my memories? Do you want to delete all our memories? Do you want to delete yourself? The tip of my heart fluttered like a hummingbird. I knew what would happen to my phone, but I didn’t know what would happen to me, how my life was going to be altered, or whether my future would be rewritten. And I didn’t know how to face a loss like this. My fingers tapped out the password, and clicked “Yes” several times. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrei Niemimäki.
1. Most serious consumers of culture are, in one way or another, indebted to Susan Sontag. More than a decade after her untimely death in December 2004, it’s difficult to deny the resonance of her essays, whether it’s “Against Interpretation,” the 1964 ur-text that would solidify her reputation as a public intellectual; On Photography and Illness and Its Metaphors, with their trenchant takedowns of how we take photographs and live with cancer; or her last major work, 2003’s Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she lays bare our own culpability in viewing images of suffering. One cannot read a Susan Sontag essay and come away unscathed about the modern world: how we see it, how we capture it, how we live and die in it. One marvels to imagine, were Sontag alive today, what she would think (and write!) about our hyper-connected, Instagram-and-Twitter, President-Trump, ISIS-threatened world. Then again, this is one of the defining characteristics of a great thinker, a great polemicist: You wish she or he were still around to illuminate our present moment, to help us make sense of the whole damn mess. For me, Sontag is, first and foremost, a cultural gatekeeper. It was through her essays and think pieces that I learned not so much about her aesthetic arguments as about the works supporting them: the novels of W.G. Sebald and Victor Serge; Jean-Luc Godard’s tragic Vivre Sa Vie and Ingmar Bergman’s hallucinogenic Persona; Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Andre Gide’s The Immoralist. I am forever indebted to her for introducing me to an entire canon of work I’d likely never have encountered without her guidance (or, admittedly, her name-dropping). Then there’s another canon of work I’d never know of were it not for Sontag’s essays and her intellectual mystique (the furor of her cultural passions, the near-impenetrability of her writing, that skunk-white stripe in that black mane): her fiction. 2. When we say we love someone, what’s implicit in that statement (if we mean it genuinely) is that we love the person with all their faults. We love the best of them and the worst of them. So to say I love Susan Sontag’s writing means I must come to terms with the fact that much of her fiction just isn’t that good. It’s a personal judgment I’ve struggled with ever since I first decided to plow my way, like an icebreaker, through novels I’d been warned were cold and impenetrable; fiction too frozen in ideas to allow characters to live and breathe. What saved me from giving up at the start, I imagine, was starting in reverse, with her 2000 National Book Award-winning novel, In America, and, after it, 1992’s The Volcano Lover. (Her earlier fiction being hard to find in bookstores, I had little choice to but to read backwards.) I didn’t understand what the problem was. Where others saw limp narratives, I saw historical novels in which time and place were the reason to keep reading. Where others complained about Sontag inserting her own thoughts, wedge-like, into the prose, I relished a writer daring enough to poke her head out from behind the curtain of history. I’d never before read contemporary historical fiction where the author begins her book with a “Chapter Zero,” in which she eavesdrops on a 19th-century dinner party in Poland and, in essence, walks us through the process of how a novelist transforms history into fiction. Or an author who’d step out of time, breaking a dramatic moment in which an 18th-century diplomat stands on the lip of a volcano for an aside on public suicide in the streets of 20th-century Manhattan. I still consider The Volcano Lover and In America two of my favorite novels. I’m in love with their strangeness, their mixture of romance and critical thought, their language and style, the beguiling ways they flirt with our expectations of how a historical novel should sound and read. I stumbled away, awestruck, from my first reading of these two books certain I’d encountered not just a good novelist but a great one. Then I read the first 50-odd pages of Sontag’s first novel, The Benefactor. Then I read an excerpt from her second novel, Death Kit. Then, for fear of ruining the taste of Sontag’s last two novels, of my entire conception of her as a fiction writer, I decided to call it quits. 3. The recent release of Debriefing: Collected Stories by Sontag’s longtime publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which brings together the stories in Sontag’s 1977 collection, I, etcetera, as well as several standalone pieces), spurred me to rethink my stance on Susan Sontag’s fiction. Yes, there was a selfish opportunity to re-read The Volcano Lover and In America, but there was also a reason to finally make my way through the bland and baggy early works. It was a chance for me to figure out, as someone unashamedly in love with Sontag’s work, what exactly went wrong. It starts, I found, with reading her fiction chronologically. To do so transforms the mission from a search for what went wrong into a search for what went right; a chance to witness a writer’s skill grow over the years instead of wane. Nearly 40 years passed between the original publication of The Benefactor in 1963 and the publication of In America in 2000; in that span of time, it’s clear just how much Sontag transformed as writer of fiction. If one places the stories collected in Debriefing at the center of this, what emerges is something of a triptych in which the stories, many written during this span, act as the central panel on either side of which is Sontag the apprentice and Sontag the master. 4. No one reads The Benefactor for pleasure. Instead, one reads it out of a sense of duty, out of the desire to be comprehensive. A complete reading of the novel—memorably slow, memorably arduous—reveals what I understood the first time I flipped through its pages: the book is just plain dull. One can argue the pros and cons of novels that rely too heavily on a character’s dreams, but in The Benefactor, dreams are really all there is. The entire novel is structured around a series of highly detailed dreams that haunt the cultural libertine Hippolyte: the “dream of two rooms,” the “dream of the unconventional party,” “the dream of the mirror,” to name but a few. We spend the novel following Hippolyte as he mingles with fellow enlightened Europeans and labors over the philosophical implications of his dream life. At one moment, Hippolyte proclaims, “What a promise the dream is! How delightful! How private! And one needs no partner, one need not enlist the cooperation of anyone, female or male. Dreams are the onanism of the spirit.” Indeed, a novel in which dream leads to dream leads to dream leads to dream soon become masturbatory, to our detriment. (Alas, Hippolyte, you require the cooperation of one person to tolerate your dreams: the reader!) In the context of Sontag’s essays, The Benefactor reads like a way for Sontag to play with concepts she writes about in pieces like “The Aesthetics of Silence” (one of Hippolyte’s lines: “I am looking for silence, I am exploring the various styles of silence, and I wish to be answered by silence.”) and “Against Interpretation” (Hippolyte again: “Let nothing be interpreted. No part of the modern sensibility is more tiresome than its eagerness to excuse and to have one thing always mean something else!”). This is less a novel of ideas and more an idea of a novel, something just as cold and sterile and obscure as one of the narrator’s nighttime fantasias. 5. Death Kit, published four years after The Benefactor, takes these dreams to such an extreme that the entire book reads like one long, uninterrupted dream. It, too, like a dream, fades away as soon as the reader awakes. Our libertine is replaced by a humdrum advertising executive named Dalton “Diddy” Harron, a man Sontag describes as a mere “tenant” in his life (the ghost of an early suicide attempt hangs over his head). On a business trip to upstate New York, Diddy might or might not murder a railroad worker in a Raskolnikovian attempt at shattering societal norms. While some of the novel is dedicated to pursuing this mystery, the majority of it is spent following Diddy’s daily life (often in strange indented asides and bizarre shifts in tense). It’s slightly fantastical, deeply Kafkaesque, but undermined by the novel’s impossible length. And here we see the chief problem with Sontag’s early novels: there’s not enough going on to warrant the real estate of a 300-page novel. While her intellectual ideas condense well into digestible essays (that, nevertheless, require fervent chewing beforehand), packed inside characters we’re expected to follow for hundreds of pages, they’re impossible. And yet where Death Kit succeeds is at its close, where we get a glimpse of Sontag’s narrative style at its best. Walking through a train tunnel in an effort to prove to his blind wife, Helena, that he really did murder a railroad worker, Diddy finds himself, alone, in a surreal series of chambers, like the Catacombs of Paris, packed with corpses. Sontag’s frequent obsession with lists (see numerous entries in her two volumes of journals and notebooks, Reborn and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh) here takes on the shape of a macabre inventory of American history. The earliest specimen Diddy could find belonged to the seventeenth century: a Pilgrim with a broad-brimmed hat, round stiff collar, breeches, and buckled shoes. But nearby, many modern types. A banker in a top hat and striped pants and cutaway coat. A boy in his Cub Scout uniform. A registered nurse. A policeman, one of New York’s Finest...In another room, only firemen. Decked out in their uniforms, with rubber boots to the tops of their thighs. Many with the huge, red, oval-brimmed hat that’s their trademark. Cocked on their skull; not so much rakishly as awkwardly, since the head, with or without meat and hair on it, tends to slump forward...Over there, a catcher for the San Francisco Giants—if one can trust the evidence of the uniform and the mask whose metal bars cover the dead man’s lean, contorted, well-preserved face. It goes on. And on. And on. Restraint is something Sontag won’t discover until her last two novels. Taken as a piece on its own, however, this conclusion to Death Kit illustrates the strengths of Sontag’s shorter fiction. 6. According to Benjamin Taylor in his woefully brief introduction to Debriefing, Sontag’s short stories are “where we go to know Sontag most intimately.” It’s an apt word, considering that much of her short fiction feels of a piece with Sontag’s journals and notebooks. Several stories, in fact, look and feel as if they were assembled from Sontag’s private scribblings, using diary entries, daily logs, and notes as methods for organizing narrative information. “Project for a Trip to China” tries to create a story from sparse notes and phrases and jottings (“Consider other possible permutations.”, “Chinese patience: Who assimilates whom?”, “Why not want to be good?”). So, too, does “Unguided Tour,” in which we find the source of that most iconic (and overused) of Sontag quotes: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” “Old Complaints Revisited” takes the form of secret messages by an unnamed narrator intent on defecting from a cult-like organization. “Baby” is divided into one-sided conversations during therapy sessions between two parents and a psychologist in which they vent their frustrations with a son who appears to be both old and young at the same time. While these and other stories are as obscure as Sontag’s first two novels, it’s their brevity that gives them power, that allows the reader to more willingly engage with Sontag’s intellectual preoccupations. Debriefing opens and closes with what, either deliberately or coincidentally, are two of Sontag’s most memorable, accessible, and human stories. The first, “Pilgrimage,” recounts a moment in Sontag’s youth when she and a friend paid a personal call to the German giant of letters Thomas Mann, then living in exile in southern California. There’s a humor in which Sontag retells the story of being in “the very throne room of the world in which I aspired to live.” And Thomas Mann continued to talk, slowly, about literature. I remember my dismay better than what he said. I was trying to keep myself from eating too many cookies, but in a moment of absent-mindedness I did reach over and take one more than I had meant to. He nodded. Have another, he said. It was horrible. How I wished I could just be left alone in his study to look at his books. Then there is “The Way We Live Now,” Sontag’s most well-known story (and rightly so). Built around a series of conversations between a group of friends in which the gaping hole, given no voice of his own, is the one friend ill with AIDS, “The Way We Live Now” strikes the perfect balance between formal inventiveness and emotional force. It’s appropriate this story comes at the end of a collection in which form and feeling appear at odds (with form usually winning the day). Here, feeling triumphs. Life triumphs. The story’s last line: “He’s still alive.” 7. Both The Volcano Lover and In America are the only two Sontag novels where characters feel like human beings instead of automatons. They’re also, curiously, the only two Sontag novels to fully entrench themselves in the female voice, to engage with women who feel alive with lust and rage and agency. While the body of The Volcano Lover belongs to “the Cavaliere” (Sontag’s stand-in for the famed British diplomat and collector Sir William Hamilton), its spirit belongs to women, specifically his second wife, Emma (the future lover of Horatio Nelson, here simply “the Hero”). The Volcano Lover leaves no question that it’s concerns are about more than just Enlightenment masculinity, Enlightenment ideology. The magisterial final section of the novel, after the death of Hamilton, belongs to the voices of four women who were previously background characters: the Cavaliere’s first wife, Catherine; Emma’s mother (posing as her maid), and Emma herself. But it’s the last monologue, written in the voice of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, the revolutionary Italian poet executed by the restored Bourbon monarchy, that reads like an act of rebellion. It’s a scathing indictment of the story’s anti-republican heroes that leads up to the novel’s haunting final lines. Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or wellbeing. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all. In America’s Maryna Zalenska, a stand-in for the Polish actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrates with her husband and son and several other compatriots to Anaheim, Calif., where they aim to start a commune. Typical of most commune-set novels, the utopian adventure doesn’t turn out as planned, and Helena leaves to rediscover herself as an actress in defiance of the trappings of her gender’s expectations. “Will American audiences accept the idea of a woman who leaves her husband and children not because she is wicked but because she is serious?” Maryna’s husband, Bogdan, asks himself late in the novel. (Even as he, in this new world, unearths his suppressed love of the male body.) The obvious connection between these two late, mature novels is their reliance on history. Speaking to Charlie Rose in 2000 about In America, Sontag noted her use of history as “a trampoline” to “tell a great story that’s very resonant.” One gets the sense that, with the structure of the narrative already provided, Sontag was finally free to invent and reinvent at will while still satisfying the demands of a traditional story. The reader, too, feels this palpable freedom, this spirit of adventure, when reading The Volcano Lover and In America. 8. Sontag, with her typical self-awareness (or, critics would argue, her typical self-absorption), knew she was on to something with what would turn out to be her last novels. In that same Charlie Rose interview, she notes that most writers tend to do their best work in the first third or half of their writing careers. “I think my best work is now,” Sontag says. “I think these books are better. I think I’m freer. I think my writing is more expressive. I don’t think I’ve changed, but I think my access to myself has changed. I think I was going through a kind of narrow door, and now I’m going through a big wide gate.” She goes on to describe her younger self not as a storyteller so much as a ruminator; someone more interested in the process of consciousness than in making that consciousness accessible to those of us who live outside her mind. We are grateful that Sontag changed and that we have for posterity these two powerful examples of her storytelling potential. Our only sadness about these novels (and this, too, is the measure of a lasting writer) is we won’t get any more.
It’s easy to buy into the classic image of the isolated female author: the eccentric Brontë sisters, wandering the moors; lofty George Eliot, sequestered in her London villa; a melancholic Virginia Woolf, loading her pockets with stones before stepping into the River Ouse. Male writers, on the other hand, often come in pairs: Fitzgerald and Hemingway on their riotous drinking sprees, Wordsworth and Coleridge hiking together through the Lakeland hills, Byron and Shelley encouraging each other’s sexual escapades. As two modern-day writers, we’ve long found it intriguing that legendary male authors are cast as social creatures while their female counterparts are remembered as cloistered figures. We became close friends more than a decade-and-a-half ago when we were taking our first tentative steps on the long path to publication. In the years since, we’ve supported each other every step of the way: commenting on countless drafts, sharing details about literary agents and competition deadlines, and offering a sympathetic ear when the going got tough. Our experiences as struggling young writers suggested to us that history’s best-known female authors would also have welcomed a literary friend, especially, perhaps, during those difficult early stages of their careers. But if these women had enjoyed relationships like ours, we realized that such bonds had rarely made it into the annals of literary history. And so, our interest piqued, we set out to investigate. The case of Jane Austen particularly captured our imagination. She devoted 24 years to writing before securing her first publishing deal—a feat of endurance that put our own experiences into perspective. Could she have forged a friendship with a fellow writer, we wondered, who gave her the strength to keep going? A fleeting reference in a biography provided the first clue to a hidden creative alliance that would eventually take us to old census records, volumes of unpublished diaries, and our discovery of two previously unknown Austen family documents. It turned out that Anne Sharp, a governess to Austen’s niece, and a household playwright, was a dear friend to Austen. Despite the gulf in their social positions, their shared status as amateur writers functioned, for a time, as a kind of leveler. Ignoring the raised eyebrows of Austen’s relatives, the two women enjoyed lengthy conversations, acted together in one of Sharp’s theatricals, and went so far as taking a six-week vacation together. By the time a publisher finally brought out Sense and Sensibility in 1811, Austen had been working on the novel intermittently for 16 years. Even after Austen’s books had become fêted by high society, attracting admirers as powerful as the Prince Regent, she continued to value the insights of this unpublished working woman. When Emma came out in 1815, Austen set aside one of her 12 precious presentation copies for Sharp—the only friend she singled out for such an honor. But Austen continued to seek Sharp’s appraisals, and the governess remained happy to oblige. While sharing her delight in the character of Mr. Knightly, for instance, Sharp admitted that she was not convinced by Jane Fairfax, who dreads the future mapped out for her as a governess. It’s a telling criticism, since Sharp was so well placed to judge. On a later occasion, when Austen asked for feedback on Mansfield Park, Sharp again summed up her thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses. “As you beg me to be perfectly honest,” she concluded, “I confess I prefer P. & P.”—a view shared by many readers over the centuries to come. In 1817, Austen would pen from her sickbed her last ever letter to this “excellent kind friend.” After Austen’s death, Sharp received three deeply personal mementoes: a pair of Austen’s belt clasps, her silver needle, and a lock of her hair. And yet, when, half a century later, the great author’s descendants penned her first full biography, they excluded even a single mention of Sharp. By expunging any trace of this class defying friendship, Austen’s relatives maintained their carefully crafted image of her as a conservative maiden aunt, devoted above all else to kith and kin. This kind of omission is all too common. The important literary friends of Charlotte Brontë, Eliot, and Woolf have all suffered similar fates. The Brontë sisters are rarely envisaged away from their father’s moorland parsonage, but Charlotte in fact ventured far from her Yorkshire home. In the early 1840s, the 25-year-old—encouraged by her old boarding school friend, the future feminist author Mary Taylor—traveled to live and study in Brussels. Taylor, who believed in female financial independence, was certainly a force to be reckoned with. She pushed Brontë to pursue her dreams of publication, and ultimately shaped the radical elements of her friend’s novels such as Jane Eyre and Shirley. Taylor’s important impact on her friend’s career, however, is rarely acknowledged. The studious neglect of Eliot’s literary friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe is even more surprising given the towering stature of each author. Despite never having the opportunity to meet, the two literary legends maintained an 11-year, transatlantic correspondence that came to an end only with Eliot’s death in 1880. In deeply personal missives, the two discussed their families, scandals that befell them, and, of course, their work—with Eliot’s final novel Daniel Deronda bearing the imprint of Stowe’s whirlwind bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But this historically important alliance has been seriously overlooked by biographers. Unlike the literary allies of Austen, Brontë, and Eliot, Katherine Mansfield’s name has frequently been paired with Woolf’s—but for all the wrong reasons. While they regarded each other as important friends, the competitive nature of their relationship has led to the widespread assumption that they were sworn enemies. Woolf’s burning literary drive, it is too often assumed, must have extinguished the possibility of friendship with another ambitious woman. By contrast, all the great male writing partnerships involved large doses of rivalry and yet the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald are regarded as rambunctious comrades. When the two of us began our research, we were propelled by curiosity about whether our literary heroines had female writer friends at all. But, having soon discovered that behind every great woman was another woman, our focus shifted to the question of why these crucial influences are so little known. We initially wondered whether these writers themselves had contributed to this obscurity by guarding their privacy—an understandable stance in the days when a woman could court controversy simply by attempting to publish her words. But, through the process of uncovering a veritable treasure trove of female alliances, we came to the conclusion that there are also more troubling reasons for the disregard shown towards these crucial relationships. Persistent images of isolation can be used to weaken female power by giving the impression that there are no tried-and-tested models of intellectual collaboration between women. A one-off genius, set apart, is an aberration who poses little threat to centuries of patriarchy—as is the ambitious woman, cast as the enemy of her peers. Especially in today’s uncertain climate—when women are fighting for control over their own bodies, and when their contributions are so often dismissed—we must resist such insidious tactics of divide and rule. The rich history of sisterhood offers a shaft of light during dark times: it is imperative to turn to the example of female forebears—women who always knew that they could best achieve greatness by aligning themselves with other women.
When I heard the news that a novel called Barren Island by Carol Zoref had been long-listed for this year’s National Book Award for fiction, my first reaction was Oof! Had another writer beaten me to the punch? There can only be one Barren Island, I told myself. It’s a wafer of sand and scrub in New York City’s vast Jamaica Bay, so named by the early Dutch settlers for the bears that may or may not have roamed there, and later destined to live up to its Anglicized name when it became the final destination for the city’s garbage and for its dead horses and other animals that were brought there by barge to be skinned, dismantled, boiled, and turned into fertilizer and glue in the ghastly factories of Barren Island. Those factories were manned mostly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, Greece, Italy, and Ireland, and by African-Americans up from the South. Diphtheria and typhoid epidemics were frequent visitors. The stench and filth and vermin were appalling. “Horrors,” recalls one man who grew up there. I happened to know this obscure history because for the past dozen years or so I’ve been gathering string, off and on, for a novel I am (was?) hoping to set on Barren Island. Its central character is based on a schoolteacher named Jane Shaw, who rode the trolley from her home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the boat that carried her to Barren Island every Sunday night. She then spent the weekdays teaching the children of the immigrants who worked the factories. She brightened their lives by helping them plant vegetable and flower gardens, sew curtains, dress up homes that were little more than shacks. She bought a piano with her own money, gave lessons, held dances. On Friday nights she returned to her Brooklyn home, where she invited her eighth-grade graduating class to a proper tea every year, the first time many of them set foot off their isolated island. She did this from the end of the First World War until 1936, when the city’s ruthless master builder, Robert Moses, evicted the residents and bulldozed the settlement to make way for his Marine Park project. Jane Shaw got Moses to agree to let her students finish the school year before the bulldozers moved in. The people of Barren Island revered Jane Shaw, which gave me a working title for my novel: The Angel of Barren Island. So I opened Carol Zoref’s novel with a feeling of—no other word for it—dread. On the very first page I learned that, yes indeed, there is only one Barren Island, and Carol Zoref had beaten me to it. The novel is narrated in the first person by 80-year-old Marta Eisenstein Lane, who is looking back on her coming of age on Barren Island’s smaller, fictional neighbor, Barren Shoal, where her father, an immigrant from Belarus, works in the factory dismantling horses and other dead animals so they can be transformed into such valuable commodities as glue and nitroglycerin. Marta’s tale unfolds amid horrors, tenderness, and beauty that have the iron ring of truth. One day Marta’s mother fails to save Marta’s infant sister from drowning in a washtub full of scalding water. Another day there’s a devastating explosion in the factory. Marta also experiences grace notes, fishing and picking berries, witnessing a rally at Union Square, seeing Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, tasting first love and watching, from a distance, as the Depression grinds toward another World War. Jane Shaw even makes a cameo. This is Zoref’s first novel, and there is some implausible dialog (and a few unfortunate typos), but it’s an assured and deeply felt work. By the end of the book, my initial dread had given way to delight—that another writer shares my belief that stories from a forgotten place, a blend of the made-up and the real, can be worthy of telling. After I finished the book, I phoned Carol Zoref in her office at Sarah Lawrence College, where she teaches creative writing. (She also teaches at New York University.) First, I asked Zoref how she became aware of Barren Island. “A long time ago I saw an article in The New York Times about a book about the trash of New York, and it mentioned Barren Island,” she replied. “The article had a picture of a guy who had grown up on Barren Island, and I thought that was an extraordinary thing. So I bought the book and read it. And I had a question: what would it have been like to live there on Barren Island? It’s one thing to work in that sort of setting, but to actually live there as a child, to grow up there, so close to the city and but so far from the city—I just couldn’t imagine what that would have been like.” Amazing. That newspaper article was my introduction to Barren Island, too. It was written by Kirk Johnson and published on Nov. 7, 2000, under the headline “All the Dead Horses, Next Door; Bittersweet Memories of the City’s Island of Garbage.” I, too, read the book mentioned in the article, Benjamin Miller’s Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last Two Hundred Years. That book spawned a fascination with the city’s waste that’s still alive today. I asked Zoref, “What kind of research did you do? Did you do a lot of archival stuff? Was it mostly imagining?” “There was no archival research,” she said. “In fact, I never saw a photograph of Barren Island until the spring of 2016, when the book’s jacket designer and I started talking about what the cover should look like. The public library of New York had just digitized its collection, so I was able to see what the place looked like. Much to my relief, my imagination had served me well. As far as the rest of it was concerned, it was a combination of flotsam and jetsam stuff that I knew but wasn’t exactly sure when it happened. A simple timeline helped. Then looking at photographs, programs on television about the Depression, descriptions of the flora and fauna of Long Island. When I started, I knew the bookends would be 1929, when the stock market crashed, and 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. What happened between the World Wars? I ended the book a little after Barren Island was actually closed because the coming of World War II is present in the novel the entire time. People are escaping Europe because things are lousy for Jews and they need to get out. People are working these jobs on Barren Island because they’re working any jobs they can get. People are picking through the garbage because they’re starving. Those smokestacks and those rendering plants certainly are waving a flag saying the death camps are coming, and a different kind of oven is coming.” “What was the appeal of this spot and these people to you as a writer?” I asked. “The appeal to me had to do with power and powerlessness, and the ways in which the awfulness of quotidian life can’t be escaped. Each of these characters has their own lives and ambitions that aren’t that different from our own in the 21st century.” One of my favorite characters in the novel is Miss Finn, who teaches in the one-room schoolhouse. “Did you model her on Jane Shaw?” I asked. “Where did she come from?” “I knew Jane Shaw existed and I knew she stood up to Robert Moses, who I’ve always found an interesting character. I read The Power Broker and I thought, wow, what a brilliant crazy wonderful horrible human being—all those things rolled into one. We wouldn’t have parks if we hadn’t had Robert Moses, but we also wouldn’t have the Cross-Bronx Expressway running through the middle of people’s lives. I couldn’t believe Jane Shaw stood up to him and won. Nobody did that again until Jane Jacobs. Somebody teaching in this one-room schoolhouse could have a tremendous amount of influence. A lot of stuff got tucked into Miss Finn. What happened to these teenage girls in her classes? Well, girls got pregnant and had abortions—long before abortion was legal. It was dangerous and complicated. Miss Finn seems quiet and humble, but she’s worldly in her own way. Her sister was the doctor who performed abortions.” It was time for me to make an admission. “I read that article in The Times and I read Benjamin Miller’s book,” I said, “and I became totally fascinated by Barren Island. Now I’ve got my own Barren Island box. But I got busy with other things, and my idea of writing a novel about the place went on the back burner. When I heard that a novel called Barren Island was nominated for the National Book Award, my heart dropped into my shoes.” “Sorry!” she said, with a laugh. “So I got your book, and as I read I felt uplifted. Somebody else out there sees the potential of a story about a place, about a moment like this! It’s been an uplifting experience. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you.” “Well, thank you. I think there’s no place or no story that exists that wouldn’t be written about differently by different writers. And that’s fine. That’s good. As obscure as things can be, so what? Everyone’s interest comes from a different feeling.” And I have a feeling, a surprising feeling, that The Angel of Barren Island still has a pulse.
There has long been an interest in “running” writers. The Atlantic, The New York Times, Runners World, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker have all published pieces exploring why so many writers enjoy lacing up their running flats. For the most part, these articles focus on the ways in which running relates to their writing process. For example, Joyce Carol Oates sees running as distinctly poetic, likening the experience to dreaming. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell sees running as primarily an opportunity to solve “writing problems” and Andre Dubus valued running for its “cathartic” qualities. Yet with all the focus on running writers, few publications have explored “how” running is used as a device in literary works. And as an avid runner, I can’t help but notice a few distinctions between the way writers talk about running and the way running is used in literature. Many authors note the mental clarity and routine that running affords them when it comes to their creative work. But the act of running in fiction often symbolizes an attempt to flee the chaotic conditions of a character’s emotional life. Such chaos might take shape as a difficult home life or financial stress. It may be because of a broken relationship, the loss of a friend, or the need to escape the emotional realities of the present. Take “O Youth And Beauty!” by John Cheever, where running is used to clarify the internal conflict of the protagonist Cash Bentley. Cash, a former track star, is obsessed with proving that he is still young and able. His motives are fairly clear—he is in financial straits and seeks to control his life by taking on the impossible task of fighting his aging body. This is expressed by running laps around the interior of houses during cocktail parties. As he runs, Cash hurtles over living room furniture while the rest of the party guests cheer on the spectacle. For Cheever, running becomes the ideal metaphor to encapsulate one of the story’s themes: you can’t run from time. Ultimately, it’s Cash’s desperation to find the fountain of youth that leads him into a spiral of depression, and at the end of the story it’s this depression that brings him to his untimely death. The juxtaposition between death and physical health are likewise paramount to the story’s running theme, as it highlights the certainty that sooner or later our bodies are no longer able to perform, and in this decline, Cheever exposes Cash’s helplessness. Linking physical ability to control is of course not exclusive to Cheever. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, sport makes up a crucial component of T.S. Garp’s life. Whenever placed at a moment of crisis, Garp turns to sport to remove himself from the present through “mindless” activity. Although wrestling is Garp’s primary sport, running also becomes a means of escape in order to find control through pattern, repetition, and routine. Interestingly enough, it is Garp’s routine that links the way he uses running to the way many of the aforementioned authors talk about running. Like with Gladwell, Garp even turns to running when faced with a “writing problem,” as he is a novelist. However, where Garp’s motivations differ from Gladwell’s utilitarian approach is that his runs are strongly tethered to moments in the narrative where his career is at a crossroads. In this case, running to solve “writing problems” is merely the superficial motive, as sport is primarily used to ground the reader in Garp’s anxieties, particularly at moments when he feels emasculated. Running therefore becomes a physical example of his discontent, and is indicative of a search for comfort in his physical body. If there’s a common idea in run-centric stories and the way writers discuss the subject in interviews and articles, it’s that running has an inherent physicality to it. In the article “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates discusses how the mind “pulses” in conjunction with the “feet and the swinging of our arms.” In an essay for The New Yorker, Murakami describes his “pounding heart” and “shaking body” after his first experiences as a runner, and how continued practice led to changes in his physical being. However, describing the body is not the only way to emphasize such physicality. In some instances, a similar effect can be created in stories by placing emphasis on the tangible world surrounding characters. This can be useful when establishing setting, as seen in Andre Dubus’s story “The Doctor.” The story begins in late March during the transition from winter to spring, as the weather fluctuates between cold and warm. It is on one of these warmer days that Dubus’s protagonist Art goes for a jog. Here’s a description of what he encounters: About a mile past the brook there were several houses, with short stretches of woods between them. At the first house, a family was sitting at a picnic table in the side yard, reading the Sunday paper. They did not hear him, and he felt like a spy as he passed. The next family, about a hundred yards up the road, was working. Two girls were picking up trash, and the man and woman were digging a flowerbed. The parents turned and waved, and the man called out, “It’s a good day for it!” In this case, Dubus uses running to generate a feeling for the layout of Art’s town, and likewise provides a sense of the types of people who make up of the neighborhood. Very little attention is paid to the action of running, but rather, the actions of those Art encounters. This allows Dubus to both imply Art’s movement through space and establish a sense of the community. Beyond clarifying physical space, Dubus uses running to set up the conflict of the story. As Art runs, Dubus describes his warming body as a metaphor for the changes in the physical landscape as winter gives way to spring. Furthermore, Art’s rising body heat brings us nearer to the crisis, as it’s only when Art leaps into a sprint that we realize the story’s primary conflict: a boy is drowning in a once frozen brook after a slab of concrete from a footbridge falls and traps him beneath its weight. Like with “O Youth And Beauty!”, death serves as a counterpoint to the able-bodied in “The Doctor.” However, for Dubus it’s the boy trapped under the concrete slab who dies, and it is Art’s inability to lift the slab that demonstrates his failure. In both stories, tragedy occurs because the protagonists overestimate the body’s limitations. This idea is underscored at the conclusion of “The Doctor,” when Art realizes that if he had instead tried to rig up a snorkel from a garden hose near the brook, he could’ve saved the boy’s life. The message: brains over brawn. Attaching the physicality of running to a mental experience is one of the more common themes in both the way writers talk about running and how it’s used in literature. In an article for The Washington Post, running writer Amanda Loudin says that for both writing and running “you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.” And while the “comfort” Loudin mentions is not a term readily used in association with characters like Cash Bentley or Art, Loudin’s comments do help explain why these stories are effective. It’s because they are stories about the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing, a relationship that keeps coming up time and time again in run-centric texts. Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.
The professor slides the chalk in his long fingers, then taps it on the desk, raising a faint cloud of yellow dust. “Setting,” he says, “isn’t really one of the important craft elements. Not even close to character and plot. Don’t worry about figuring out your setting until you’ve at least got one main character nailed down.” I nod. The man’s hair is gelled to a gleam and his black, ripped-at-the-collar t-shirt is simultaneously chic and casual. He’s got an acclaimed novel under his belt and is finishing up another. I have a secret crush on him, as do most of the women in the room, I later discover. His teeth are just so white. I mentally cross setting off my list. The word itself has an unimportant feel, reminding me of the long rolls of butcher block paper that we’d tempera-paint with branchy trees and turquoise skies that would crack when they served as a backdrop for the school play. The real action happens elsewhere. But when it comes to writing my next story, I can’t get Golden Gate Park out of my mind. I have no real clue who the characters are, whether we’re in first-person POV or third, or even if this is fiction or nonfiction, but boy, can I picture Golden Gate Park. And not just any old place in the park, but its historic merry-go-round. I’m hearing the music, the tinny notes that pull my child body across the long sweep of grass toward a spinning blur of color—promising not only lions and tigers and dragons, oh my!—but also the salty sweet pink popcorn that my grandmother always buys me after the ride. She had lived in San Francisco with my mother in the ‘30s before moving back to Sonoma County and reuniting with my grandfather. But she loved to take grandkids to the city. Writing, I’m transported to a place I haven’t been in decades. When I bring this story to the MFA workshop, a classmate comments, “I’m not sure what the piece is about, really. Whose story is it? Maybe that’s the problem.” Another adds, “I don’t get the main character. What’s motivating her? But the setting details are cool. I like that description of that carousel music. Haunting...in a good way.” He smiles at me, but it feels more like consolation than compliment. The prof agrees. “The setting details are great, though the plot’s got a few holes. But nothing you can’t fix,” he says, flashing me a toothy grin. The story morphs over the next several years. The plot—about a brother who seems to vanish into thin air and the newly married couple who can’t stop searching—expands and contracts, only to spill over again. I title the story “What You Do When You Don’t Know What To Do” (a good description of my writing process, too), then “Brother, Brother,” and finally “Bigger Than Life.” A first person narrator comes and goes, and the piece becomes solidly fictional, though its meaning remains elusive. But in each successive draft, the verdant places of Golden Gate Park keep calling me, reminding me of my childhood self who so badly wanted what I could only half-see. Other seemingly random setting details accumulate, the hollow look of fall sycamore leaves pressing against the window when the couple first learns the brother has gone missing, the diesely sound of the husband’s pickup gunning it up Broderick Street, the silver beams of the Bay Bridge floating overhead on their way home. Some details—the briny smell of Fisherman’s Wharf with a dollar crab cocktail in your hand, for instance—are memories of a San Francisco long gone. Many of these images never appear in the story itself, but all of them offer a way in. I do not abandon this piece, as I have done with so many before it, but keep working. As the environment fills in, the characters feel fleshier, as if at last they have a place to throw a backpack, or set down a coffee mug. By now I know setting reveals character, that’s Fiction 101. But strangely, setting details also suggest some sort of narrative arc: the brown-edged sycamore leaves show up as thick-veined and green at the story’s end. Not that the piece has a happy ending. Far from it. But whatever shape I can find I relish, because this story does not fall within the conventional conflict-crisis-resolution pattern. In fact, it seems the dénouement could just last forever. An underlying meaning surfaces, too—as slowly as a Polaroid developing –when a person goes missing, nothing can be neatly contained or expected. The prof goes on to teach at other universities and publishes a second novel, widely praised as gritty and redemptive. The characters are indeed powerful and act out their struggles inside cars and bars and bathrooms, walls that trap not expand them. I take other workshops, always heavy on the craft elements, because how else can you get your hands solidly around something as elusive as creativity? I notice that “setting” is always stuck somewhere in the middle or end of the course, as if to say, now we’ve got the meaty subjects out of the way, let’s turn to others. Some courses don’t touch on setting at all. The books on writing I read reflect this lack of emphasis. Stephen Koch in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop warns, “...unless you’re writing a travel book, it [setting] will never get you where you want to go.” John Gardner’s The Art Fiction asserts, “plotting...must be the first and foremost concern of the writer.” In the Table of Contents of other books—Julie Checkoway’s Creating Fiction and Sarah Stone and Ron Nyren’s Deepening Fiction—setting falls in the long shadow of characterization and sensory detail. Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction does not mention setting in his “Alphabet for Writers of Fiction,” though character, dialogue, plot, point of view, and narrative appear. So is my experience with “Bigger Than Life” a one-off? I wonder. It’s not that I find character and plot and structure unimportant. It’s that, for me, they’re deeply intertwined with place. The smell of pine needles crackling in a living room fireplace, a blue-brown mountain appearing around the curve of a narrow highway, a parking lot full of battered and broken San Francisco Muni buses, these images open doors to worlds of other stories that come. These details are not simply “germs,” as Gardner would put it, but at the heart of the story itself. And none of them belong to places I now inhabit. It seems I can bring these images forth only long after I’ve gone. After several years, I’ve completed seven stories based in and around San Francisco. A good chunk, but hardly enough for a collection. If the books on writing I come across don’t reflect the importance of place, many of the stories I read do. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” could not exist outside 1950s Harlem; its shadowy light and dark are keys to meaning. In Charles Baxter’s “Snow,” we focus on the ice of Five Oaks Lakes threatening to crack under the weight of a teenager’s Chevrolet. John Cheever’s narrator, Ned, in “The Swimmer” makes his way through the pale green and gold waters of a series of swimming pools, his life falling apart over what he perceives as a single afternoon. When I finally receive my MFA—a year later than everyone else in my class because I’m such a slow writer—I’m lucky to land a job teaching writing in Berkeley. Instead of paying attention to my own experience, I dutifully take my place in a long line of creative writing instructors and cover “setting” somewhere in the middle of an introductory creative writing course. Sometimes a student looks annoyed when I ask where the story takes place. “In New York City,” one replies. “I put that on page two.” “But where in New York City? It’s pretty big. What do the streets look like? Do they smell like roasted chestnuts, or bus fumes?” She frowns. “Setting’s not all that important in this story.” My own stories push ahead at a glacial pace, as I begin work, put it aside, then circle back again. I add a couple to the seven I’d gathered. But if there’s a book ahead, I can’t see the finishing line. Frustrated, I find myself thumbing through John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story because a writer friend swears by it. Flipping to the Table of Contents, I notice that “setting” doesn’t appear, but “Story World” does. There Trudy writes, “Meaning is embedded in all kinds of forms and spaces, from shells to drawers to houses.” From Truby’s point of view, “creating a unique world for the story...is as essential to great storytelling as character, plot, theme, and dialogue.” At last, I feel the flicker of recognition. Truby’s right, there’s no hierarchy, just an intimate connection between people and place. I feel a new license with the details that keep rising in my mind, a freedom to let them take me where they want to go. Many of the places I visualize no longer exist, destroyed by the wrecking ball to make way for high-rise apartment buildings and supermarkets. But many—Benjamin Franklin’s statue in North Beach’s Washington Square Park, the rose garden in Golden Gate Park, Dewy Monument in Union Square—remain. The pace of my writing picks up, but not all that much. Writing, no matter how you cut it, is hard. What changes most are the words I use. No, not setting, not backdrop, I tell students and myself, but world. A word with seemingly endless possibilities, a word you could walk around in, climb a tree, or float from a cloud, then maybe settle down and finish a book. Amazingly, two years later, I do. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.