Toxic Masculinity at the End of the World: On David R. Bunch’s ‘Moderan’

“Quaint they were, these records, strange and ancient, washed to shore when the Moderan seas finally unthawed.”

So begins David R. Bunch’s first book, Moderan, which appeared as a paperback original from Avon in 1971. It was to be his only book released by a large publisher during his lifetime, and it was never reprinted in the U.S. until now, when New York Review of Books Classics has brought out a new (and expanded) edition for the first time.
New-metal man! It does have a ring. MODERAN! It did seem pretty great in concept, I’m sure, and, who knows, perhaps it had a reasonable chance for success. But all societies, all civilizations, all aspirations it seems must fail the unremitting tugs of shroudy time, finally, leaving only little bones, fossils, a shoe turned to stone maybe, a bone button in the sea perhaps, a jeweled memento of an old old love.
Moderan collects dozens of brief stories set in a future world apparently destroyed by nuclear bombs, a world where the landscape has been entirely paved over with plastic and the surviving humans have transformed themselves into cyborgs, their bodies mostly replaced with metal, leaving only a few flesh-strips as evidence of their old form. The men with the most metal become warriors whose identity is merged with the Stronghold that houses them, and the pleasure and glory of Moderan is the warring of its Strongholds. (Most of the stories in Moderan focus on Stronghold 10, the best at warring.)

The new-metal men hunker down in their Strongholds and wage war against each other. War is the most exciting thing in everyone’s lives, the way to prove strength and superiority: a force that gives meaning. “Plotting for each the other’s total destruction and coming up with countermeasures to protect each his own new-metal hide at all costs are the kinds of human enterprises that put the human animal up close to godliness.” War lets the Strongholds forget everything but the war, because “amidst the stern havoc, the hard contest demands and all the real problems of carnage, there was not time for either doubt, ghosts, or fears.” War is action, and action allows something almost like joy. “I guess I’m happiest,” Stronghold 10 says, “when I’m in my War Room handing the big orange switch of war to ON and pressing the buttons of launchers. Or, to put it another way, I’m not unhappy or worried or asking questions then—and I’ll settle for that.”

Bunch’s language is unique, sometimes reminiscent of E.E. Cummings, sometimes of Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes of folktales and sacred texts, sometimes of advertising and propaganda. With a breathless tone and many words set in blustery ALL CAPS, the stories present a diction appropriate to the hyperbolic masculinity of Moderan, a world that values only macho strength and aggression. Before their body parts were replaced with metal, Stronghold 10 tells us, humans were weak and vulnerable, susceptible at any moment to injury or death. No more. “I am a Stronghold master, BIG, in the armor plate of total invulnerability. My ammo is stacked in heaps roundabout, and I can win ANY war. My blasters stand itchy on the GO pad, ready, at the speed of a metal thought, to launch for TOTAL SMACK.”

The tone throughout is almost always positive, happy, joyful. This is depressing dystopia presented as thrilling utopia. In substance, Moderan bears similarities to various novels of terrible futures (we might make much fruitful comparison between Bunch’s book and Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, for instance), but unlike most such stories, Moderan is not told from the point of view of an outsider or a heretic. Rather like Candide’s Dr. Pangloss, Stronghold 10 and the other narrators love Moderan and think it is the best of all possible worlds, indeed the absolute height of achievement, the end of all progress—nothing could possibly be better.

The book begins with a retrospective introduction that works in some ways like the notes and epilogues of such novels as Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale: it lets us know that however eternal and immutable the systems of the story’s world seemed, they were as mortal as Ozymandias. The march of time cannot be stopped with metal and strongholds. For all their declarations of immortality, the people of Moderan turn out to be as perishable as the rest of us.

In addition to providing an added level of irony, the frame story offered by the opening pages of Moderan allows some freedom in the book’s organization. The original edition organized the stories into three parts: “The Beginnings,” “Everyday Life in Moderan,” and “Intimations of the End”; the NYRB Classics edition adds a fourth section, “Apocrypha from After the End,” which contains Moderan stories (and one poem) Bunch published after 1971. Some of the stories, particularly the first few, lead logically into each other, but most do not. They are like collected folktales or chapters from a future age’s Bible, sometimes repetitive, sometimes contradictory. I expect the book is best appreciated in small doses, a few stories at a time, rather than chugged down all at once. The individual stories, after all, were first published separately over more than 10 years’ time, and there is a certain flatness to the Moderan setting that is both completely appropriate and narratively limiting. Many of the stories work like inverted picaresques, with, instead of a protagonist wandering off to learn about the world, someone coming to learn something about Moderan and the strongholds. Thematically, this works well, making the monotony of Moderan’s monoculture palpable, but it can be trying for a reader. (In many ways, the most compelling sections of the book are the second and fourth, which are the least uniform in their topics, settings, and narrators.)

Some readers have always found Bunch trying, even in small doses. In a letter published in the May 1961 issue of Fantastic Stories of Science Fiction, a Mrs. Alvin R. Stuart of San Saba, Texas, wrote: “It is downright disgusting to read the rest of the magazine and think, with pleasant anticipation, ‘Good! There’s one more story I haven’t read!’—and then, upon turning to the page, to find such utter rot as this author—and I use the term doubtfully—has been submitting. Some of it reads like something written by a mental patient or a moron.”

In the early 1960s, Bunch’s byline started appearing regularly in Fantastic and its companion, Amazing Stories of Science Fiction, both edited by Cele Goldsmith. Goldsmith remains one of the most extraordinary and undersung editors in science fiction’s history; her taste was broad and eclectic, and she welcomed work that other editors considered a bit too odd. Mike Ashley (perhaps the most knowledgeable historians of science fiction magazines) has written that
Of the authors who debuted in the middle period of Goldsmith’s editorship, four stand out: Roger Zelazny, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Piers Anthony. There is little doubt that science fiction owes a debt to Cele Goldsmith for putting these writers on the road. All of them had already tried to sell professionally—Le Guin had submitted a story to Amazing as far back as 1939—but none of them had found an editor appreciative of their talents. Only Goldsmith saw through the fantastic trimmings to the creative core…
Though he had sold a few stories to other SF editors, he became a fixture at Amazing and Fantastic throughout Goldsmith’s tenure, allowing him to make a longterm transition from small (often regional) literary journals to the larger audience of science fiction readers. He soon found another champion: Judith Merril, who reprinted him in her annual Best SF of the Year collections, and who asked him for recommendations of literary magazines that she might find material in—advice that helped change Merril’s anthologies from good but genre-bound collections to books with a breadth that still, more than 50 years later, remains nearly unique.

I think it is no coincidence that some of Bunch’s earliest champions were women, and women readers continued to respond particularly well to his work through the years. In the desperate, patriarchal militarism of the 1960s, Bunch’s stories foresaw two tendencies that, many years later, scholar Susan Jeffords identified pervading contemporary American culture: the post-Vietnam “remasculinization” of the warrior image and the fetishization of “hard bodies” as a manly ideal.

Hypermasculinity in Moderan isn’t limited to individual bodies. Now, humans can give the entire planet a hard body:
As it whirls the world in space our planet stands out bold now and surely indestructible, coated as we have plasto-coated it, with nothing to grind it away at the big middle and nothing to wear it out at the far hubs. […] I am harder than the stones were and more mind-set than the animals. SCIENCE HAS MADE A MAN! NEW METAL MAN! Science has coated and made clean the dirty EARTH ball for him to stand on.
An obsession with masculine strength and dominance is vital for warring, but the ideology of the warmongers infects every other aspect of society, turning science into a weapon for the destruction of everything perceived to be weak. The Earth itself cannot survive a world of hypermasculine warriors.

This hypermasculine caricature additionally contains a caricature of the misogynistic trope of the shrewish wife. The New Metal Men haven’t simply hidden themselves in strongholds to protect against missiles and bombs—they have also fled marriage, domesticity, and femininity, like weaponized versions of Robert Bly’s Iron John. Stronghold 10’s wife survives the operation to replace most of her body with metal, and now her husband fears her more than he has feared any attacks from other strongholds. He and the other strongholds see nothing but nagging and emasculation:
All over Moderan that spring, when we were beginners-new and the plans not set-mold, they came walking in, struggling, falling down, getting up to come on, most of them with one aim to view — not to let that disappearing surviving rat husband get away with a thing. I’M YOUR WIFE, seemed, in their minds, to say it all and leave no questions of any kind. Doom was final; doom was sealed-down doom. That gray twilight terror-life of wife-husband husband-wife (WEEAAOOOHH YEEAAOOOHH OOHH OHH) must never be changed, not even by the ending of a world.
The men, having achieved the strength they so desired in their Strongholds, are now free to do with their wives what they always wanted: “We formed a Commission for the Relocation of old New-Metal shrews. We moved them to a place prepared for them, the walled province of White Witch Valley. The walls are high there; it is a prison, vast and maximum-security….”

Misogyny, militarism, and ecological apocalypse go together, with the strong men asserting their right to dominate a natural world viewed as feminine and weak, and therefore worthless. Women and landscapes that don’t bow to the men’s utter domination are deemed enemy combatants, obstacles to be destroyed or remade. Not only do the rulers of Moderan cover the world with plastic, but they also create plastic flowers that can be programmed to appear during certain seasons. The new-metal men seek to eradicate everything alive and replace a few items with artificial stand-ins, things easier to control than the unpredictable, other-than-human inhabitants of the wild. With narcissistic force, they blast and plasticize the world until it resembles their shallow ideal.

In a 1966 issue of the literary journal The Smith (which included the Moderan story “The Miracle of the Flowers”), a one-line biographical note declares that David R. Bunch “is a cartographer who maps madness.” This was not a metaphor only: Bunch worked for the U.S. military’s cartographic agency in the era of the Vietnam war. Mapping military madness was his day job.

In an August 1971 letter to Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) said, “David Bunch just sent me his new Moderan book, a mean treat. I’ve long felt he was one of the most undersung and ill-known landmarks in sf…not much beam-width compared say to Cordwainer Smith but oh what intensity at the focus, what idiosyncrasy, what a one roaring diamond glimpse…” Tiptree’s instincts seem accurate: both the comparison to one of science fiction’s other great oddballs, Cordwainer Smith (I would also add R.A. Lafferty), and the sense that with the Moderan stories, at least, there isn’t a lot of “beam-width” but lots of intensity and idiosyncrasy. Bunch’s non-Moderan stories do show more range of subject matter and style, and he published in a tremendous variety of venues—not only science fiction magazines but also literary journals, including Gordon Lish’s Genesis West, where his byline appeared alongside those of Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, Jack Gilbert, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka).

Yet Tiptree was right; there is a narrowness to Bunch’s beam regardless of topic or venue. I’m not sure it could be otherwise. He was as interested in poetry as in fiction, and he seems to have approached fiction like poetry, seeking a kind of poetic compression within and between his sentences. The intensity and idiosyncracy are always there, and the poetic compression adds a feeling of density, too. The Moderan stories tell of a world that is trying with all its might to narrow itself into one way of being, a world where ways of living are no more diverse than the plastic that covers the landscape. At times, the stories can feel monotonous in their obsessions, or obsessive in their monotony. It is not that Bunch’s own vision is narrow, but that he depicts a world of ever-narrowing visions, a world where imagination responds only to violence and complexity has died in the rituals of war. Read one or two stories and they seem funny, quirky, jaunty in their satire. Read the whole book, and the full weight of the apocalypse bears down, the full sense of all that is lost, and what was once amusingly odd begins to reveal a dark, hollowed-out core, and laughter starts to catch in your throat.

Other writers would try to make us feel the horrors of this world through sympathetic characters and stories carefully arced toward sentiment. We would know this is a bad world because we would feel pity and fear for the characters we cared about. That is not this book. Throughout his career, Bunch showed no interest in the sorts of scene building and character development essential to social realism and popular fiction. His inclinations were toward much older forms of storytelling, toward myths and folktales and children’s stories, toward archetypes and allegories. (It is best, perhaps, to think of Moderan as a kind of science fictional Decameron or Canterbury Tales.) In the latter half of the 20th century, there were few homes for such writing other than the science fiction magazines, because science fiction thrives on mythic heroes and archetypal situations. Just as importantly, science fiction developed its own style of compressed language, one hospitable to neologisms and to quick gestures that could suggest entire worlds. For a reader of SF, the narrator’s statement on the first page of Moderan of being one of “the beam people, the Essenceland Dream people” is par for the course and sparks a quick imagining of creatures that are somehow composed of energy rather than bodies. Because this is SF, there’s no expectation that Bunch will now explain all the details of beam people—that might have been the expectation in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback first launched Amazing Stories as a way for people to learn about science while they read tales of adventure, but by mid-century, SF’s aesthetic assumptions had developed enough for exposition-heavy stories to be considered clunky. Instead, readers thrilled for off-kilter details that suggested new worlds, and writers such as Robert Heinlein had, in the decade or two before Bunch began publishing, refined techniques for making the most of such details while also keeping a story humming along with exciting plots and characters who conformed to concepts of human behavior and representation developed in the 19th century and promulgated through countless short stories and novels.

In many ways, it was into science fiction (and its related popular genres) that myths and folktales found themselves repackaged in the wake of the 18th century’s rationalism and the 19th century’s storytelling innovations. By putting the techniques of modern science fiction to use in older structures, though, Bunch threw a wrench into his stories’ engines. The effect is, appropriately, a kind of modernism where the expectations common to one form collide with the expectations of another, re-invigorating both. As readers, it’s hard to get our bearings, because everything is both familiar and new: we know how to read old myths and folktales, we know how to read science fiction, we know how to read the language of self-help manuals and advertisements and jingoistic propaganda—but do we know how to read them all together at once?

Perhaps we are ready for David R. Bunch now. Our literature is saturated with dystopias; our news is filled with blustering men who seem to want nothing so much as a stronghold from which to war, war, war; our landscape is covered in plastic. The all-caps exclamations don’t seem out of place in a world of war criminals’ tweetstorms. Discourses intermingle endlessly: yesterday’s satire is today’s business headline, political arguments sound like dulled-down Dr. Seuss, and children’s stories include shelter-in-place instructions. Moderan is catching up to us, or we’re catching up to it. What once seemed so strange as to be almost unreadable now stands inches from the de rigueur.

It is a testament to literary progress that we have reached a point where we might more fully appreciate the achievement of David R. Bunch, but it is a condemnation of the damned human race that each passing decade has leached his stories of their bitter surrealism to the extent that now they may be read as reports on the real.

Nepantla and Gloria Anzaldúa’s Queer of Color Legacy

Sitting in an undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, about seven years ago, is the first time that I heard Gloria Anzaldúa’s name. I was studying under another queer Latina poet named Griselda Suarez. Griselda was part of Las Guayabas, a queer latina poetry collective based out of Long Beach, California. Other members of this collective included Myriam Gurba and tatiana de la tierra.

At the time of studying under Griselda, I knew hardly any latinx poets, never mind a group of queer latina poets. Griselda quickly became a mentor and a refuge to me. She let me know about places for latinx poets online like La Bloga and Acentos. She told me about queer literary organizations like Lambda Literary. It is because of Griselda that I was able to discover other queer latinx literary figures, first by following her and then by following the works of her friends. I remember sitting at the Floricanto Literary Festival at USC while tatiana de la tierra was still alive, and hearing her shake maracas and sing her poem “Pintame una mujer peligrosa.” Her voice then chanting “cha, cha, cha.”

I remember sitting in
the audience of Viento y Agua coffeehouse in Long Beach listening to queer punk
chicana prose from Myriam Gurba. There is a story about her, quesadillas, and
grilled cheese that I am trying to recall. There is a punchline that I’m trying
to recall, but can’t. I was so awed to see my identity reflected in these
women, to know that I had a literary community that preceded me and that I
could write from their lineages.

Before knowing about Las Guayabas, my initial understandings of the Southern California literary scene were through the drunk and sexist Meat School of Charles Bukowski and friends. Growing up outside Los Angeles, I felt like only I could only be a poet if I were writing about baseball and beer. Las Guayabas was one of the first ways that I was able to see myself and learn about the writings of queer latinxs that came before me, like Gloria Anzaldúa.

In that undergraduate Chicanx/Latinx Literature course, Griselda assigned to the class Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from the book Borderlands/La Frontera (Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987). We spoke about code-switching, bilingual education, migration and assimilation. This essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” is one that I taught years later, while at NYU. This is an essay that I yearned to tattoo onto my body, especially where Anzaldúa writes, “wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out.”

Anzaldúa was the
first literary pathway for me to discuss and understand what it means to be
writing in English, Spanish, Spanglish. She wrote in that essay about the
various tongues that we speak in, how we accommodate the dominant tongues and
ideologies around us, what tongues are viewed as illegitimate.

In the following years, I would continue turning to Anzaldúa’s poetry, theoretical, and editorial work to find myself. She is often known for being the co-editor, with Cherríe Moraga, of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981). This anthology included many queer poets of color such as Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, and more. This anthology was one of the foremost inspirations to me when I put together my own anthology, Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, which spans nearly 100 years of queer of color literary history.

In This Bridge Called My Back, Anzaldúa published an open letter called “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers.” In this letter she compels other women of color to continue writing, while explaining her own reasons for coming to the page. Anzaldúa says:

Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency I fear… I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispel the myths that I am a mad prophet or a poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit… Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.

The final line of this excerpt, “I’m more scared of not writing,” shakes me awake. It reminds me of all that is at stake for women of color, and queers of color, when we do not speak up about the realities we are living in. Excerpt after excerpt, I find myself more and more encouraged by Anzaldúa to produce literature, to speak up in an unassimilated tongue. I keep thinking too, about the relationship between Marxist movements in the 1970s and how they intersected with women of color movements led by collectives such as the Combahee River Collective during that time frame as well. I am trying to better understand the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist and transnational coalition building work that women of color were doing during those decades.

As a sequel to This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Anzaldúa co-edited This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation (Routledge, 2002) with AnaLouise Keating many years later. This subsequent anthology was published two years before Anzaldúa passed away in 2004.

This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation is an anthology of feminist discourse written across genres and by people of various races and genders. For the preface Anzaldúa wrote an essay called “(Un)natural bridges, (Un)safe spaces” in which she spoke of the Nahuatl word “Nepantla.” In describing this word, she wrote:

Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.” Though this state links us to other ideas, people, and worlds, we feel threatened by these new connections and the change they engender.

The first years that I pondered this quote by Anzaldúa, I felt attracted to her definition of the word “Nepantla.” The feeling of transience and displacement and ever shifting boundaries that the word “Nepantla” can hold, as defined by Anzaldúa, allowed a method for me to understand my race, gender, and sexuality. I was better able to see how my relationship to my identity shifted according to the various contexts that I was in. In more recent years, I have began to question this essay by Anzaldúa, both of our usages of the word “Nepantla,” and also her ideas around mestizaje. This questioning of her work is done with great respect, understanding that even in her own lifetime she framed and then reframed her own ideas. I view Anzaldúa’s work not as flawless or full of absolute truths but more so as a process of continual intellectual exploration, field blazing in an ever changing landscape. Her work is brave and vital to the continued development of the political analysis put forth so many social justice movements that I currently affiliate with.

Almost 15 years since her passing, the legacy of Gloria Anzaldúa lives on. She has passed down so many tools for us queer poets of color to better understand ourselves. The reverberations of her of work and life continue to be felt throughout feminist discourse, literary criticism, ethnic studies classrooms, the streets of protests, coffeehouse poetry readings, and in the Nepantla anthology, where I and other poets honor her influence.

Revisiting Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ on the Day of the Dead

Last year, fighting the anxiety and listlessness that seems to have become the norm of our overstimulated era, I read Under the Volcano for the first time. Since then, I have found myself continually pulling the book off the shelf, returning again and again to its sad, pristinely lyrical pages, as the seasons change and the state of the world remains tumultuous as ever. Under the Volcano is mesmerizing, brokenhearted, almost infinitely discursive, a mescal-sodden, naval-gazing dirge. Though it is resolutely a Modernist work, replete with countless esoteric references and ambiguous plot movements, the implications of the work continue to startle me with their relevance to the Digital Age. Far from the popular notion that Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece is merely “about alcoholism,” Under the Volcano remains a dead-serious bereavement of the insurmountable space that can separate two people sitting side by side.

Under the Volcano takes place in Quauhnahuac, a little town not far from Mexico City. Two volcanos dominate the skyline, their static peaks ever threatening eruption. Our tragic hero is former-British Consul Geoffrey Firmin, who lingers hunch-shouldered in an empty cantina, having booze for breakfast as the annoyed employees set the place up for the day’s business. It is the morning of the Day of the Dead, 1938, and the world, at great distance, is beginning to erupt into World War II.

Firmin’s wife, Yvonne, left him a year previous, and this morning, she’s suddenly come back to try to salvage their relationship, but both nurse old wounds, so a complete restoration seems highly unlikely. Yvonne is anxious, Firmin static and painfully introspective. Also, extremely drunk. Probably the drunkest drunk of literature, Firmin drinks toward a sobriety beyond inebriation as he spends the bulk of the book scheming of ways he could restore his lost connections. “For him life is always just around the corner, in the form of another drink at a new bar.”

Someone really ought to count just how many drinks Firmin
takes over the course of the novel. Hundreds, it would possibly seem, his
thirst monstrous, insatiable, inescapable. It is all he knows. So, when Yvonne
shows up, unexpectedly, he first has trouble registering her presence then, as
they begin to talk, he offers her a drink. “You
have one and I’ll cheer,” is the reply. They are finally
together again, but they still cannot bond. She wants to take him away from
Mexico, and he wants her to stay with him, here, drinking below the volcano.
Distance, as always, glows frustratingly between them.

They return to their house, attempt to make love, then
Yvonne sleeps as Firmin, out of alcohol, stumbles out into the garden he has
let go to seed. Lowry writes, “The Consul, an inconceivable anguish
of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a
protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the
horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be
supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view.”

No, of course Firmin isn’t
simply strolling through his overgrown garden. What he’s
actually doing is trying to stop himself from trying to stop himself from
trying to find the tequila bottle he’d
hidden out in the bushes, for a moment such as this. He wants Yvonne to stay,
he wants things to work, but he also knows that Yvonne has cheated on him, it
becomes clear over the course of the novel, with both Hugh, his half-brother,
and Laurelle, his friend. Yvonne, after all, seems rather cozy with both men as
they accompany the troubled couple through the day’s
festivities, though she maintains that the purpose of her coming to Quauhnahuac
was to return to Firmin. There is little admission, and the locus of Yvonne’s
loyalty remains indistinct. So, ever-weighing options but choosing none of them, Geoffrey Firmin both
pursues and avoids Yvonne as he drinks. And drinks.

This paralysis, Lowry knew, is a living death. “What
is man,” Firmin wonders, “but
a little soul holding up a corpse?” While
Quauhnahuac collectively mourns those who are already dead, the novel’s
central characters mourn those who are still alive but with whom all hope of
intimacy has been trounced. It can be all-too-tempting to drown everything out
with static isolation. Pretty soon, it becomes habitual, a way of life. The
underpinnings of Firmin’s drinking are familiar to everyone.
Connecting with another person usually demands change, and change is the one
thing Volcano’s cast simply cannot do. Thus, in one
way or another, each of the novel’s
characters lingers in a purgatory of indecision. “Yvonne
knew where she was now, but the two alternatives, the two paths, stretched out
before her on either side like the arms—the
oddly dislocated thought struck her—of
a man being crucified.”

Yvonne, in a letter she’d
sent to Firmin during their separation, says, “I am perhaps God’s
loneliest mortal… My wretchedness is locked up within me… Help
me, yes, save me, from all that is enveloping, threatening, trembling, and
ready to pour over my head.” The core of her despair, we see, is
little different than Firmin’s.

In one of the book’s
most haunting scenes, Firmin, drinking away his indecision and doubts, lingers
away from Yvonne in a hole-in-the-wall bar while the proprietress, Señora Gregorio, thinks aloud, her ruminations also
similar to the thoughts tormenting Firmin. “Once
when I was a girl I never used to think I live like I laugh now.” Señora Gregorio speaks in broken English, and her
misused words are cubistic and terribly telling: “This—” she
glanced contemptuously round the dark little bar, “was
never in my mind. Life changes, you know, you can never drink of it.”

And, Firmin quietly corrects her: “Not
‘drink of it,’ Señora
Gregorio, you mean ‘think of it.’”

The ultimate tragedy of Under the Volcano is that of humanity’s wasted potential. Can, Lowry pondered, the psyche repair itself? We are capable of such great things, yet we choose mollification and comfort over almost anything—sometimes even over life itself. “I love hell,” Firmin claims. “I can’t wait to get back there. In fact I’m running, I’m almost back there already.” Under the Volcano is Firmin’s attempt to reckon with himself. He is alone, alienated and is finally unable to square himself with the world he has built for himself within the world he has, in many respects, stolen from others. And, in this, he has everything in common with those around him but, from Firmin’s point of view, the other characters are often reduced to minor characters, walk-ons. The only character that truly comforts Firmin is the beverage waiting before him. This minimization is not only Firmin’s: Each of the novel’s characters, in different ways, attempts to reduce the other to satiate the self.

In large part, Malcolm Lowry’s
genius was in the depiction of this self-centric blindness. In the grand view
of things, every person on earth is a primary character, if only to themselves.
Lowry knew keenly that, to a large extent, there is no escaping this bias.
Thus, the lens of interpretation always shimmied sideways as Lowry jumped from
character to character, even as he let each life bleed through Firmin’s

Inspired by silent-movie subtitles, Lowry peppered the prose with Spanish phrases that, as they repeat, gained meaning and become mysterious, radiant apothegms. “No se puede vivir sin amar,” goes the book’s most familiar refrain. One cannot live without love.

And so, without love, Firmin finally dies, dragged out of
yet another cantina and murdered by suspicious, crooked police who believe he
may be a political spy. Yet, even as he is carried to a ravine, bleeding to
death, Firmin continues to pine for Yvonne and for the life they ought to have

It is tempting to equate Lowry with Firmin. The
similarities are endless. Lowry, too, was a hopeless alcoholic and lived a
famously-troubled life. His first wife, Jan, also left him in Mexico. Yet, in
writing Under the Volcano, Lowry attempted what his literary doppelgänger
could not: he offered connection, and he believed that this connection would be
met. Seventy-one years after its publication, Under the Volcano remains
a compelling, widely-read work. In his broken way, Malcolm Lowry succeeded.

Since the book’s composition, the world’s situation has been remade several times over. Volcano’s world is gone but not surpassed. Our newsfeeds are violent, partisan, slapdash, and ugly. We are more connected than ever, yet our sense of isolation has only grown. Like all truly classic works of art, Under the Volcano remains a book startlingly about us, about this time in history. For, like the counter-clockwise rotation of Quauhnahuac’s Ferris wheel—ridden by the mourners who know they, too, will someday be dead—all things repeat. We stave off our potentiality with comfort and distraction.

Under the Volcano reminds us that we cannot live
without love, yet we cannot truly love unless we are willing to fight our
paralysis. Again and again, no se puede vivir sin amar flashes across
the page, and the phrase becomes a chant, a mantra, a prayer: No se puede vivir sin amar.
No se puede
vivir sin amar. No se puede vivir sin amar.
If only we would heed it.

What to Do After Decades of Teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Wrong?

My English department colleagues and I can spend a whole lunch break making fun of To Kill a Mockingbird. A literary roast punctuated by sarcastic regurgitations of Atticus Finch’s sanctimonious advice. Just, you know, take a walk in her shoes, dude, I might sneer, interrupting a teacher’s account of an encounter with a difficult student’s unpleasant parent. Most of us have to teach the novel every year, and our irreverence springs from discomfort. We’re tasked with teaching a book that doesn’t live up to its longstanding responsibility.

In ninth-grade English classes around the country, To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to deliver a reckoning with American racism. In the 2012 documentary Hey Boo, Oprah Winfrey calls it “our national novel.” Written by a white woman, To Kill a Mockingbird was published at the dawn of a civil rights movement distant to high school students accustomed to dutiful but shallow observations of Black History Month. The teenagers of today, in my experience, chortle (and bristle) at racist memes on Instagram, explore trollish sectors of Reddit, and absorb frequent police shootings of unarmed black men. As a chronicle of our country’s racism, To Kill a Mockingbird is quaint, ill-equipped to deflect turds flung by an evolved state of bigotry. Even before the 2015 publication of a controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, and a more recent legal battle over Aaron Sorkin’s newly opened Broadway adaptation, writers have scrutinized Atticus Finch’s flaws, some suggesting that the novel be excised from high school curricula.  

The problem isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird as much as how teachers have learned to teach the novel—the way our teachers taught us when we were in high school, which reveals more about our past and present relationship with race than the book itself. I agree with much of the contemporary criticism I’ve read (although not complaints that the book is too audacious in its message or raw in its language). Still, To Kill a Mockingbird lets students assail a book’s long-proclaimed importance, which is common in college, but less so in high school, where literature is usually presented as something to “get” more than attack. With To Kill a Mockingbird, I can help students, like Scout Finch, lose some innocence (and ignorance) about their country. A book exemplifying our ailments may be a better starting point than one that claims to have transcended them.

I teach very few black students in Marin County, a punchline for moneyed liberal dippiness, home of hot tubs with Mt. Tam views, elk reserves, and George Lucas. Yet my public high school’s student body is 65 percent Latinx, and in the days after the 2016 presidential election, a handful of these students reported heckling by town residents as they walked to school. Both white and Latinx students marched out of class in protest of the election results, but a contingent of white counterprotesters wore familiar red hats and swaggered among them. Three boys whooped in a jeep booming the late, racist country singer Johnny Rebel. Months later, a Latino student accidentally grazed one of their cars in the school parking lot. Via slur-riddled Snapchat posts, the owner of the car, let’s call him Darren, threatened to deliver a beatdown. After serving a suspension, Darren left school to avoid tension with classmates and teachers. His friends considered a retaliatory walkout. Some faculty fretted over Darren’s diminished college prospects while others wondered how bigotry could bubble over in enlightened Marin. But most knew racism had always been there—in the isolation of newcomer immigrant students, in the white students’ domination of student government and Homecoming courts. Brown students walk to the bus station after school as white classmates steer newish cars out of the lot. After the Darren incident, the school convened student panels and hired consultants to lead professional development lessons, but I figured that my approach to teaching could help heal my school too. From experience, I knew a classic (and mandated) text like To Kill a Mockingbird could make discussions less immediately confrontational. The responsibility felt even more urgent at the beginning of the 2017 school year when unrest over a Confederate monument saw a self-professed neo-Nazi kill a counterprotester in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, when a racist jury threatens to condemn a black man for a crime he didn’t commit, defense attorney Atticus Finch valiantly tries the case he’s supposed to throw, insisting upon the purity of an obviously flawed American justice system. “Some men were born to do our unpleasant work for us,” says Finch family friend Miss Maudie. Lawyers, like former FBI Director James Comey for instance, or former President Barack Obama, often revere Atticus. Perhaps in homage to both Gregory Peck and the character he immortalized, actor Casey Affleck named a child after him. In 2017, Atticus was one of the most popular American baby names, a testament to his towering status. Still, nearly 25 years ago, in my Louisville, Kentucky high school English class, the Finch family patriarch was badly miscast as a civil rights crusader. From listening in on the lessons of teacher colleagues at multiple schools, despite the recent critiques, I’m pretty sure many (probably most) teachers in the United States still peddle some version of the worshipful narrative I was expected to embrace at age 14: Atticus, a hero for his time (the 1930s), his author’s (the late 1950s and early 1960s), and our ever-shifting present.

This pedagogical tradition reflects a lazy analysis of the book. Transforming Atticus Finch from icon to naive man of fundamental decency but narrow vision doesn’t require a deviation from the text, just an honest interpretation.

For a well-read lawmaker whose family name is synonymous with fictitious Maycomb County, Atticus poorly understands how much bigotry shapes its inhabitants. He relentlessly, gravely sees the essential good in people who present to contemporary teenage and adult readers as various strains along the spectrum of villainous to ignorant and misguided. In the book, he’s almost lynched along with his client, Tom Robinson. His children are nearly knifed by a racist, drunk sex criminal Atticus refuses to ever consider a serious danger despite his repeated threats. When Jem asks about the influence of the Klu Klux Klan in mid-1930s Alabama, Atticus dismisses his concerns with privileged detachment. The Klan may have lost members in the late 1920s, but it didn’t feel like “a political organization” without “anybody to scare” to the families of four black girls murdered in Birmingham three years after the novel’s 1960 publication. In a mockery of evidence, Atticus supplies the story of a lone Jewish citizen embarrassing some faint-hearted Klansmen with the revelation he’d sold them the sheets covering their faces. Even Scout’s half-literate classmates (themselves young bigots-in-training) understand that “old Adolf Hitler” is evil, but Atticus makes a grand show of telling her and Jem that it’s not okay to hate him—or anyone for that matter.

As a member of the Maycomb County elite, Atticus has little experience with being on hate’s receiving end, and once he gets his taste, unlike Tom Robinson, he sustains relatively minor wounds: insults from Ms. Dubose, spittle in his face courtesy of Mayella Ewell’s real tormentor, and injuries to his children’s bodies that leave them bruised, even, in Jem’s case, slightly disfigured, but certainly alive. Atticus saves his fiery passion for threats to the courts (those “great equalizers”) because they theoretically involve white law enforcement officers, judges, and jurors doing the right thing; readers have no evidence the book’s events reshape his view of Maycomb and America. Considering Atticus emphasizes the essential niceness of “most people” to a convalescing Scout on the last page of the book, it seems likely, Go Set a Watchman’s unpopular revisionism notwithstanding, that Atticus maintains his status quo. He luxuriously learns nothing, hardly coming of age at all, and although Martin Luther King arrives in a few decades and America trips forward, it’s pretty clear that Tom Robinson will presage other deaths, real deaths.

Harper Lee gives students alternatives to Atticus. In her only appearance in the book, Lula confronts Scout and Jem when Calpurnia brings them to church for Sunday service. The Finch family housekeeper, Cal, has applied Atticus’s maxim about walking in the shoes of others, a worn piece of advice that most years I simulate by asking students to document routines in one another’s homes. At the town’s black church, where white people gamble weeknights, Lula is the sole member of the congregation to question the white children’s presence. Rebuking her, the congregation proves as welcoming as the white community is exclusive. At Tom Robinson’s trial, after Atticus concludes his stirring closing argument about the importance of fair courts, the congregation stands respectfully from their prescribed section. Does Lee mean to show that black people reject segregation because they know the pain it causes? That Lula’s separatist impulse mirrors the sentiments of white people who question her humanity and intelligence? Maybe we’re supposed to clap when the community backs Jem and Scout intruding on a rare black safe space for healing, for solidarity, for strength-building, but I prefer to have faith in Lee’s talent. For all her supposedly “contentious,” “haughty,” and “fancy” ways, Lula never reduces the humanity of Scout and Jem. She just notes that they’re invaders, giving them a tiny taste of what she has always known (and also pointedly asking if Cal is considered “company” at the Finch house). Lula and Cal would never be welcomed into a white congregation, regardless of who brought them.

Ironically, when I ask students to compare, in a response essay, Lula’s prejudice with that of white townspeople, typically a slim majority of them see no difference. To many, judging someone on the basis of skin color is wrong, and the power of white people to define and exclude black people doesn’t make racism worse than the self-preserving actions of black people. Maybe Lee wants us to see that prejudice is a two-way street (as some of my students claim in their writing). But given Lula’s limited screen time, Lee does too masterful a job at portraying her as powerless as well as impassioned, incapable of being heard by her own people, much less altering the white power in her midst, even when its envoys are two timid children. As Reverend Sykes harangues his congregation for abstracted sin with the same fervor as the white preachers Scout knows (and collects money for the Robinson family), Lula comes across as brave and realistic, attacking the essential unfairness of the scenario.

Students are usually surprised when I remind them that Atticus never explicitly denounces racism or impugns the characters of townspeople who revel in it. His warning that his children’s generation may have to “pay the bill” for crimes against black people smacks of fear, not hope. He stands against hate, but not, specifically, white people’s hatred of black people. Everyone has their blind spot, Atticus likes to say. Yet he proclaims to Jem that it’s “sickening” to take advantage of a black man. He places black people in the role of wayward children—ignorant, foolish, gullible. This is not an empowering message.

I don’t want to ban To Kill a Mockingbird. While there are novels I’d certainly rather teach, in her portrayal of Atticus and his community of hypocrites and bystanders, Lee wrote a book far more relevant than she’s often given credit for by teachers. Bombarded with daily evidence that the United States remains hobbled by institutional racism, a contemporary reader may come to a pessimistic conclusion: The noblest adult with any power in the novel offers up no assault on bigotry itself, just the notion a spectacularly innocent client doesn’t even deserve counsel. Chipping away at Atticus elevates the book to bitter tragedy, both about the legacy of racism in this country and our inability to identify and combat it effectively.

Every year, I am more enthusiastic about sharing Beloved with my seniors. Its “malevolent phantom,” far grimmer than Boo Radley, comes to torment a formerly enslaved mother who made the profoundly human decision to try to kill her children instead of allowing them to be enslaved. The horrors of Sethe’s past have scattered mines throughout her present, walled off her future, and fragmented her autobiography. The book ends on an ambiguously ominous note. Yet in giving us Denver, her (possibly) Oberlin-bound adult daughter who finally steps off the porch of the old haunted house at 124 Bluestone Road, Toni Morrison offers some hope. Even with Denver’s bedridden mother adding a question mark after the pronoun “me,” as if she’s not quite sure of the self Paul D assures her she freely possesses. Once incapacitated by fear of an enslavement she never experienced firsthand, Denver brims with potential, a reminder to students that tattered stories can be stitched. In contrast, To Kill a Mockingbird leaves wounds gaping and, more offensively, ignored. Tom Robinson’s hopeless trial and eventual off-screen death is, as Roxane Gay suggests in this recent NYT piece, a formative event in the childhood of a precocious white girl. His imprisonment and casual annihilation is swallowed up by Ewell’s attack on Scout and Jem. Tom’s wife and three children live on, and I always wonder what it’d be like to read their pain, to trace the vacuum in their lives. I ask students to envision it. Beloved allows students to imagine how the surviving Robinsons live with that vacuum and the accompanying bitterness, for generations to come. As Sethe says, some things go, pass on, others just stay.

Predictably, white students often clam up during the Beloved unit. “I can’t relate to it,” shrugged Nick, a good student, when I asked why his quiz grades on Beloved had slumped. He’d probably never wondered why his Guatemalan and Mexican classmates might have struggled to connect to 1984 or The Stranger. He could not find himself in Beloved unless he wanted to slip into the white skin of a slave owner, aging abolitionist cynic, or abused teenage girl. He was used to finding himself, if not in the behavior of Meursault or Winston Smith, at least in their bodies. Tracy, a transgender student who once pointed out the unfairness of teachers addressing class as “boys and girls,” insisted that slavery was over and that dwelling on its horrors didn’t help anyone. An English major friend from college has never read Toni Morrison, and when I once asked why, he responded almost exactly like Nick. Melanie, conscientious and quirky, seethed when I pointed out that the Bodwins’ boarding arrangement with Baby Suggs borders on slavery, and that Mr. Bodwin himself characterizes his radical political phase as a romantic episode that, by the end of the war, and with his advancing age, has lost its luster. Bodwin fights against slavery without understanding its evil. Atticus fights for the law without understanding the people expected to obey, serve, and be abused by it.

Race is such a severe line of demarcation for the quality and character of the American experience, white students find contemplating it daunting and disquieting and try to avoid it as much as most white adults. In an interview published shortly after the book’s publication, Morrison called slavery our “national amnesia” and suggested that she struggled to write Beloved because she felt like she was “drowning” in a history she’d gone out of her way to duck.

“We haven’t forgotten; we never knew,” says lawyer John Cummings in a short New Yorker documentary about the Whitney Plantation, the unique Louisiana slavery museum he founded in 2014. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told, Cornell professor Edward Baptist compares slavery to the first crucial years in America’s retirement portfolio; it juiced our economic strength and permitted political and military power to expand in the 20th century. Sharing such ideas over the course of the Beloved unit is my way of asking students to entertain the tattered narrative from which they initially recoil. What’s much harder is having them feel invested in its repair.

I’ve sometimes debated amicably with colleagues, the same who join me in tweaking Atticus, about the extent to which class material should be tailored to the interests and lives of students. To foster buy-in, teachers need to make material relevant. Sometimes that means students essentially only end up thinking and writing about themselves. Facing To Kill a Mockingbird, Latinx students often turn the discussion toward immigration. White girls tend to focus on gender, LGBTQ students on sexual orientation, and so on. As a conclusion to my To Kill a Mockingbird unit, I have students write appointed and elected officials proposing potential solutions to symptoms of America’s continuing struggle with racism. To date they have received responses of varying depth from Department of Education representatives and Sen. Kamala Harris’s office. When I assigned the project, students had no qualms asking if they could avoid writing about race and instead focus on marriage equality or the environment. One girl picked an alternative topic and submitted a letter without asking permission. The point of my assignment is not to strip students of agency. I want them to get out of their comfort zones and practice empathy. To imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus says.

My colleagues agree with me: a teacher can provide bridges between the unfamiliar and the known, but to be serious students (as well as decent human beings), kids have to learn to be curious and uncomfortable. They can’t loll in the padded cells of their own personal experiences and social media feeds.

I came to my current school from a school in Los Angeles that served only low-income students of color. When I made the move, I told a grad school friend that I felt a little guilty, like helping relatively more affluent students embrace their power and potential might make my work feel less meaningful. He saw no discrepancy. “Your white students need to understand power maybe more than anyone,” he said.

For six decades, To Kill a Mockingbird has been taught with the comfort (and power) of white students (and their mostly white teachers) in mind. Ensuring this comfort has led millions to an absurd reading of a seminal work of literature. It’s this misreading, and misteaching, ironically, that truly makes it our national novel. A To Kill a Mockingbird unit needs to be about the way this book was taught to students’ parents, and those parents’ parents, and why that problematic understanding of the book hasn’t benefited any generation. The repetition of the teaching mirrors the repetition of errors, from Selma to Charlottesville, the narrative tapestry shredding again and again. It’s good if, through English class, all students—Darrens as well as those they might target—come away with a rich understanding of how racism is foundational to America and how it affects the lives of black and brown people. It’s better if they recognize that all marginalized groups in the United States and abroad can find common ground. It’s a profound thing if they come away more empathetic, less likely to contribute, as a hound of Twitter or meme-sharing troll, to a culture of ignorance, callousness, and knee-jerk antagonism. It’s worth noting that Atticus, who preaches such magnanimity, never once suggests his kids slip into the skin of someone who isn’t white. Students in 2019 can learn from his weakness even more than his wisdom.

Why “Self-Promotion” Is Bullshit

The first time I ever heard the hyphenated word “self-promotion” uttered as something writers do, I was an MFA student. Seemingly every editor, author, or agent who spoke on a panel about “the publishing industry” came to tell us amateurs we had to build a platform and learn self-promotion. The work doesn’t stop when you sign your book contract, they said. The book isn’t going to sell itself; you have to.

As a debut author with an essay collection published through a small independent press, I understand how important it is for writers to participate in promoting their book. What made me wince 10 years ago, when the writing world was new to me, and what bothers me now, as a rookie author, is the continued proliferation of the word self-promotion and its associated misconceptions.

Book-tour angst is real. Maybe you saw the recent essay former Congressman Steve Israel penned for The New York Times, “Why a Book Tour Is More Brutal Than a Political Campaign,” where he wonders why “rejection in politics rolled off my back while even one person’s rejection of my book sticks in my craw?” He says, “sitting behind a pile of books at an Authors Night, watching people pick up your book as if it’s a piece of spongy fruit at the market, is sheer torture.”

What if the years we spent laboring over a manuscript in private become a product the public never finds out about, or worse, discovers and ignores? It seems most authors have a self-effacing story to share about poorly attended readings, like the one Tom McAllister opens with in  “Who Will Buy Your Book?”

It’d be disingenuous of me to pretend that rejections to requests for readings and reviews don’t sting. Of course they do. But my beef with self-promotion’s existence in publishing is the word’s power to conflate the work and the person who wrote it. Writers are not politicians whose entire curriculum vitae are to be endorsed or condemned. We’re not campaigning to sell ourselves during an election of literary minded voters. We’re selling our work.

What writers do in the necessary stage of discussing their books
online and at in-person events is not an ego-driven series of acts trying to
draw attention to the self, but rather an extension of the private labor that
has become public.

If the writing is any good, the author always had the audience in mind. It’s always been for the reader, and trying to engage people who could be interested in reading your book is a continuation of the act of writing for them. It’s a gift to the reader. The writers are not promoting themselves; they are sharing their gift, presenting it to potential recipients, placing it before them and saying, here, open it.

Maybe self-promotion is such an
uncomfortable phrase for many writers because of its associations to
self-absorption, self-adulation, self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement,
self-congratulations, self-interests, selfishness, and so on. Self-promotion is laden with the
solipsistic ugliness of narcissism, of navel-gazing.

I’ve heard self-promotion uttered at the writing conferences I’ve attended the past few summers. I’ve seen, on occasion, writers qualify a post on social media with “Sorry for the self-promo, but…” We covet including more applicable words in our bios such as appeared, awarded, award-winning, published, named, included, longlisted, etc. So how did such an anti-literary term like self-promotion bully its way past the diction police and into our lexicon?

If we consider the word’s origins we can glean an even better understanding of our discomfort with self-promotion: Merriam-Webster lists its first known use as 1653, from Edmund Hall’s He apostasia ho Antichristos: “He exalts himself and magnifies himself..self-promotion is his end, that he may be mighty in the eyes of the world; he makes himself god.” While it’s fair to concede our egos can become knotted around sales, reviews, or awards, Hall communicates the precise misconception self-promotion expresses—the idea that a writer is attempting to “exalt” themselves “in the eyes of the world,” rather than the truth of authorial promotion which is to publicize the book and invite engagement.

On the website belonging to the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, I learned “An early form of self-promotion can be found in Gothic stained glass windows. Guilds, organizations formed to maintain a trade standard and protect their interests, donated windows to churches that included likenesses of themselves engaged in their craft.”  Perhaps you could argue that’s one reason readers want to meet authors: to see and hear, in person, a likeness to the voice telling the story. But another early example the site lists is closer to how social networks can function for writers, specifically related to publicizing their events: “In the 17th century, visiting cards were used by European aristocracy and royalty to announce the impending arrival to their hosts’ home.”

I’m more comfortable with the word sharing. That’s what we’re doing. We share updates about our work and where we will be physically sharing it, as well as sharing ourselves in the way we read, answer questions, and talk to book buyers when we sign their copies.

Engagement is not selfishness, but
rather a giving away of the self, an offering—take it or leave it. Scroll past
the picture on Instagram, buy the book, don’t go to the reading—whatever. It’s
all happening whether you’re into it or not, but in case you are, here’s where
I’ll be.

“I know this may sound strange, but I don’t think of it as ‘self-promotion.’ I’m talking about my work. This is what I do. I love what I do, and I’m going to share that because it’s my life,” says Sophfronia Scott, who’s had three books come out in the past year. “I write,” she continued “but if I want my writing to be read I have to tell people what it is and where it is.”

On whether or not writers can post too much
about their work on social media, Scott told me, “Those who matter don’t mind,
and those who mind don’t matter. The people who care about you want to know
what you’re doing. The readers you reach will want to read your work. The ones
who complain probably don’t read your work and most likely never will. So, what
is the loss there?” 

Promote your book. Share your work
and what you’re comfortable sharing of yourself with your potential readers,
but please, let’s abolish that terribly ill-fitting word: self-promotion. So
much of what is good about the literary community is striving toward
inclusivity, but this word doesn’t belong.

While the avatars we post with and the public face we wear in front of audiences is a role some writers are more comfortable with than others, the real question, at least for this debut author, is this: After we’ve booked our readings and sent out review copies, how can we find peace existing in the chasm between promoting our work and letting the book live in the marketplace? Most writers can’t lean on name recognition and a marketing team. Even the ones who can would probably eagerly tell me they have to hustle, too. At some point—at least, one can hope—a book eventually develops its own efficacy, leaves the warehouse and finds other people’s hands, however many that becomes. If the writing is any good, the audience has already been in mind the whole time—the author is just now appearing to greet them.

How to Buy a Used Car During a Wildfire

I am staying at
my mother’s house. California is on fire. My children and I live in a tent in
the woods. There is no way to keep the smoke from the wildfires at bay, no
matter how much we stretch the canvas door, the buckles snapping shut,
threatening to pinch little fingers. The tipi is worse. The door just hangs in
front of a round gaping hole like a dead leaf on a broken branch. The top of it
is open to the stars.

At my mother’s house in the city, there are walls. There are windows we can shut, even though the glass is so old the sunlight shines through the slowly falling glass unevenly, the thicker parts of the window pane holding tightly onto the light. The front door is always locked.

At times, my daughter, the 10-year-old who has lived outside during wildfires, clamps her hands over her ears and complains of high-pitched sounds hurting her head, which I can not hear. My husband says it’s the sound of electricity or wifi, something that she’s unaccustomed to living with. She coughs. Her chest hurts.

We have lived
outdoors in a tent or tipi for over seven years. Off-grid, without even solar
electricity or running water. Just heat from the wood of the trees, a canopy of
brown and green cools us, heats us, drips water that we collect at the base of
wide trunks. We save our money. Take turns holding part time jobs, while the
other one home schools the four kids, coaches soccer, culls the dead trees for

My mother’s boyfriend shuffles into the kitchen. I can hear him coming before he enters the room, while I stand at a too-high counter chopping the last root vegetables we brought with us from the land. The kids call these chopped carrots “candy” because they’re so good.

He says, “My
sister’s in-laws just lost their house. They just got out with their meds and
the clothes on their back.” He is stirring orange Metamucil in a red plastic
cup. My mother is upstairs watching TV. Too frail or overwhelmed by our
presence to come down. He gulps down the contents of the cup and throws it into
the sink. “Your mother wanted me to remind you not to eat any of the food in
the freezer. Or the bins. If you need drinking water, we have some upstairs.”

“OK. Thank
you,” I say. He shuffles away past the futons laid out in the living room
beside couches where we will sleep.

We are trying to make the best of our situation. We’ve had a lot of practice over the past decade or so, ever since my daughter was diagnosed with some disorder while showing signs of various mental health issues that bring up the painful memories of my husband’s childhood.

My older daughters play pass with a soccer ball in the living room. A very focused one-touch between the couch and the coffee table. Bap, bap, bap, bap. The thumping goes on and on. Even in their wildest dreams, I bet the neighbors that share a wall with us couldn’t imagine what was going on in here.

Soccer is my eldest daughter’s obsession. Ten years ago, when she was 4, the specialists gave us a list of things to do for her: brush her skin with a specific brush in a specific way, carry heavy objects in her little outstretched arms, buy a contraption to hang from the ceiling she can spin in, buy a weighted blanket to lay on her. Most of the suggestions involved purchasing something. We found that she was most calm when she was outside, testing the edges of her body between branches, the bark beneath her naked feet, or a ball bouncing off the top of her knee.

I open my Facebook page. There’s a story about a woman who went to the store to buy some cat food and left her dog on the couch curled up with the kitten. When she returned, the streets were blocked, and all she could do was stand there as her house and her pets burned to the ground. There is a picture of the world on fire, yellow hats illumined by the flames.

“At least we still have our dogs,”
I say to my husband as they howl in the van as someone walks by on the street.
For days now our wolf dogs have had to stay in the car. We tried tying them in
the backyard. As soon as I shut the back door, I heard honking, a few shouts.
When I opened the front door, there was one dog with something furry in her
mouth. A couple hours later we saw her brother trotting down the sidewalk with
a smile, the chewed up rope trailing behind him.

He has been the source of the
destruction of a couple of our cars now. An old Subaru Outback now gutted. The
interior is solely metal. The children like to touch the ceiling with the
exposed wires dangling from it, to see if it will help us get a radio station.
It doesn’t. The 1982 diesel Isuzu I-Mark, which was never the best thing to
pile kids and two dogs in, has a cracked windshield from the head of our dog
going after a black Shepherd pulling its owner on a skateboard in the street.
Yet still, I love that car.

“It’s not safe,” my husband says.
“It was made before there were SUV’s driving 90 on the highway while texting.
You got to understand. People keep building things up protecting us from the
elements. Look at the houses now, not just the new cars. Even in a federal
emergency, no one has to stop what they’re doing. So we’re just gonna keep on
burning and people are gonna just keep on going to work.”

My husband is brushing my
daughter’s teeth. He doesn’t exactly look happy.

“Why don’t we look for a car while
we’re here?” I suggest opening the Craigslist page.

He raises his eyebrows at me while
my daughter, with a mouth full of toothpaste, is desperately trying to go out
the back door. “What are you doing?” he asks.

“I need to spit! I need to spit!”
she is screaming with white stuff oozing from the corners of her lips.

“In a house, you use the sink, Stupid,” says my eldest. The 6-year-old realizes her mistake and runs to the sink. We’re all laughing. We all miss our toothpaste-splattered Doug Fir sapling, like a strange Christmas tree we adorn at the same time nightly. So we’re all laughing.

My son gazes into the toilet mystified by the swirling water. “Where does it go?” he asks. Even though I have explained how it all works, he still stood at the back door earlier, smacking the glass windows to get let out to pee like a stubborn cat, the urine leaking down his legs into his cleats, the only shoes he owns. Here, we lock all the doors so no one can go outside into the smoke.

A thousand acres are burning. A
thousand people missing. How many bodies now are ash settling in our hair?

“Look!” I say. “There’s a mini van for sale 15 minutes away. We could all fit in it!”

Ever since the fourth child was
born we’ve had to pile into two cars to go anywhere, if we wanted to go
anywhere at the same time. My husband and I realized how much we used the time
driving to talk to one another. Now, we no longer talk because we’re never in
the same car.

Before we evacuated, I grabbed the can I stashed beneath the platform in an old Woodrat’s nest that my dog dug out. There are 40 hundred-dollar bills rolled into a tube, many months worth of tips that I’ve saved waiting tables. Because you never know when you might want to buy a used car when you’ve evacuated during another wildfire.

We drive to a suburb to look at a car (we’ve left the eldest at my mother’s), and I am happy because now I can talk to my husband. “We need to figure out what we’re doing with our lives,” I say from the passenger seat, double checking the right lane as he exits the freeway.

“What do you mean? We’re living
them,” he says. “Move your head out of the way. I can’t see.”

“I miss home,” I say smashing the
back of my head against the headrest.

“I wanna go home,” says the
youngest mostly to himself, his faced smashed forlornly against the window,
watching the large similar houses pressed into the hillside passing by. “But
too ‘moky.”

“Do people actually live in those?” the 6-year-old asks in awe.

“Yes,” my husband says.
“And sometimes only two people might live in one of those.”

“I hate these fucking places,” I
say turning off the radio.

We are winding our way around a
reservoir. The sides of it are all brown. The bottom is covered in a little
water and green algae. A brilliant green golf course with rolling hills borders
the reservoir on one side.

“It looks like a man-made water holder,” the 10-year-old says.

“You mean a lake?” I say

“It’s called a “reser vwah,” my
husband says in a mock accent. “What is the ter vwah of your reser vwah?”

I do not laugh but the children do.
“I hate these fucking places,” I think again, turning the radio back on.

I grew up in a city where kids from
suburbs like these came in their new old clothes to steal our spots on the
Avenue begging change, picking fights, buying the schwag that we were selling.
They wouldn’t give me props because I’m Asian. But what did they know about a
Korean adoptee on the streets, her Chinese American parents just a block away
with their doors locked to me.

But that was a long time ago. Now, I’ve made myself another home, another life without closed doors. I think about all the people who have done the same whose houses are burning as we drive. I think about the land where we live, with its seasonal creeks making little water falls and musical pools in the gully when it rains. Nothing is a straight line or a straight curved line like the contours of this golf course. Even our hills are jagged. And when the sun comes out after it rains, the vultures sunning themselves on the snags, the dry trees holding up an impossible blanket of smoke, while nearby, their brethren are burning. Our brethren too. Although we try to forget, but especially when it comes to matters of the earth, truly, what’s mine is yours and yours is mine.

The man who stands waiting for us at the bottom of the driveway is big chested. His two little white-haired boys play too close to the street. We park across the street next to the golf course. My children get out and climb on pipes, presumably for irrigating the golf course. They wind their fingers into the fence and stare at the white haired men around a hole.

“Is that golf?” one asks,
although they all pronounce it “goalf.”  The dogs bark when the ball flies.

“Stay there!” I yell at them as my
husband crosses the street. It’s one of those suburban streets in the hills.
Not much traffic, but windy, and to my tastes, terrifying. “Don’t cross the
street! You hear me? Make the sure the dogs are tied down in the car! Close the
doors! Go inside the car and wait!”

The white-haired boys run across the street to check out my black haired children, their dirt streaked faces, grubby bare toes stuck into the fence. “I need to give them a bath,” I think. The boys run back across the street.

“My wife and I are having another
kid,” the man says without introducing himself. “We just bought a new mini van.
$23,000. Can you believe that? We only really drove this one to the store. We
both work in the financial district so we usually take the train.” My husband
gets into the car to test drive it. He looks small in the drivers seat beside
the big chested one. All my children run across the street after they leave.

The wife never comes out of the
house although I can feel her watching us from inside. Her boys run across the
neighbor’s yard to play in the bottom branches of a tree. I sit on their steep
concrete driveway on the ground with my children. I hiss at them, “I said,
‘Don’t cross the street.’”

“What street?” says the 6-year-old, honestly ignorant.

I sigh.

“Look, ma! Junco!” says the
youngest. He is in this phase where he can identify any bird by its call. A
friend of mine said her son went through a similar phase where he could
identify cars by their sound. “Peyeated Woodpecka,” he’ll say. Or, “Baawd owh,”
or “Ospwey,” and he’s almost always right.

My 6-year-old daughter gets tired of the concrete driveway and tromps across the neighbor’s front yard as well. She kicks off her shoes and, like a monkey, begins to climb to the top of the tree above the boys. The neighbor, an old man who I didn’t notice before, yells out, “She must be from the country. Only country kids can climb like that.” And I feel a a moment of pride.

Most of the time when I’m out with
my kids, I feel a little self-conscious: They have more dirt on them than most
kids. The youngest has never had a shower in his life. They act just a little
different when they’re out and about. They gawk at other kids on their devices,
intensely watch the delivery drivers with their loaded dollies, and are always
asking amusing and insightful questions. I forget to appreciate how unique they
are in the way they move in this world, and in their bodies, and how they think
about things.

When it’s my turn to test drive the car, I ask the man, “How long have you lived here? Where did you live before? How do you like it? Where are you from?” I’m a waitress. This is my job: to get to know who and what a person is in a very short time. The car is a 2000 Toyota Sienna. Of course, there is nothing not to like. It fits all of us. It’s here. I have no questions. They’re asking $4800.

When his wife comes out of the house I ask her, “When are you due? Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl? Where did you and your husband meet?” I know I might sound rude but I can tell that they’re the kind of people who are relieved to be able to talk about themselves. She says they met in Kazakhstan where her family lives. “You are Kazakh?” I ask. I once waited on a woman from Kazakhstan with dark brown hair and a wide face like mine. We had agreed that we looked like we could be sisters. I was overjoyed. I had never met anyone who looked like they could be my sister before.

But this pale blond woman says,
“No. I am not. I am Russian,” and walks back in the house.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m
Russian because of my name. There was a Russian woman who worked at the food
pantry we used to go to, before I got the waitressing gig. She looked at my
name on the ID card, then scrutinized me closely.

I said, “My mother likes
Russian names.”

In a strong Russian accent, the food pantry woman said, “That was my daughter’s name.” She told us all about her daughter as she filled our bags with battered cans and day olds, as the people behind us in line began to complain to one another about the amount of time it was taking. As the Russian food pantry woman continued talking about her daughter, it became apparent that this woman’s daughter was no longer with her, and that her daughter was eternally 4, the age of my third daughter who stood clutching onto my jacket. She walked us to our car and stood there waving as we pulled away.

Later that night, in the tent, I woke up for some unknown reason. Just, all of a sudden, I was wide awake, the others sleeping sweetly in their bags beside me, the barred owl in the canyon: “Who-cooks-for-you” is the cadence of his call. And half asleep, yet wide awake, I heard the Russian food pantry woman calling my name. It was clearly her voice calling me. She called a couple more times, with urgency, and then her voice dissipated into the sounds of the night time forest. Then I realized it wasn’t me she was calling. Her longing for her, “Sasha,” her daughter, was so strong that I could hear it. Does that mean that when the suffering of others is so strong, we too can at least feel it, even if we can’t hear what’s being said?

I cried then, with the owl still
questioning, the tree frogs singing, the night continuing with its nightly
things. I cried feeling the pain of this woman who lost her child, of my own
mother who gave me away. I cried with the heart of a mother who feels death and
love simultaneously, tickling her from the branches of the trees.

When I walk into the woman’s house
to talk about the car she is cleaning the kitchen. “I knew you weren’t Kazakh
because you don’t speak Russian,” she says. “I thought you were
Mongolian at first. Do you like the car?”

My husband and I look at each
other. We both know what the other is thinking and what we’ll decide without
having discussed it.

“Yes. It’s a great car,” I say
leaning against the kitchen counter, almost feeling like I should offer to help
wash dishes. “Are you guys planning to stay here for awhile or will you go
back to Kazakhstan?”

“No,” she says pausing to rub the
bump of her belly. “This is home. What could be better than California?”

“I guess,” I say.

“Other than the fires, of course,”
she says pausing. Then adding, “And the earthquakes.”

“Or the droughts.” I say.

“And the floods,” she says. And we

We look out her kitchen window at our children playing together now with a football. My son is trying to kick it. The 10-year-old is yelling at me through the glass, “How can they even call this a ball?” pointing at its tips. “It’s not even round!”

Her husband walks into the kitchen.
“Let’s say, we will give it to you for $4000?” he says looking at his wife. She

My husband and I exchange glances.
He raises his eyebrows.

“Sure,” I say nonchalantly and open the can handing them the roll of curled hundreds. “This is all the money we have,” I think. “But now, at least we can all get into one car and drive home together, after the smoke’s cleared.”

Image: Flickr/Jeremy Miles

France as Told by Two

Two books by two important French writers appear simultaneously in the English language. Furthermore, both volumes take up French history of the last 50 years, with a focus on growing self-awareness of the working class in France. Annie Ernaux is a prominent French writer, known for her memoirs A Man’s Place (1984) and A Woman’s Story, works dedicated to her parents. Didier Eribon is a professor of sociology at the University of Amiens, who has published noted works on Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. The theme of this last book is taken up again in the latest publication. What is more, Eribon is an admirer of Ernaux’s work, and often cites it in the present volume.

Walter Benjamin has written about Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot that it resembles a massive crater. The same metaphor illuminates Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years, and on an even more explicit level. This work, which was received with great praise in France 10 years ago, and now again on the occasion of its English translation (Les Années [Paris: Gallimard, 2008]; translated 2017, Seven Stories Press, now with Fitzcarraldo Editions), attempts to narrate the very flowing away of time by taking a very specific attitude towards words, events, objects, and people. In this sense, Ernaux’s book puts itself before a metaphysical task. For this reason, there is a consistency to Ernaux’s arresting decision to write in the third person plural “we”—fittingly described by Lauren Elkin in The Guardian as a “choral we” or—and in the singular “she.” Elkin’s observation is well put because it brings out how this entire narrative is like a chorus, repeated after each verse of a song or lyric, providing its pivotal momentum. Accordingly, The Years develops a personal story to attain a general or collective significance: It becomes the story of France of the last 50 years.

In contrast, Eribon goes exactly the other way. Eribon, an established sociologist, uses his academic vocabulary, the language of abstraction and generalization, to bring out his highly personal story. Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims [Paris: Fayard, 2009]; translated 2013, Semiotext(e), now with Allen Lane) relates Eribon’s personal journey from his childhood in Reims to his uncertain steps onto an academic career. On this journey, he feels constantly the pull of two opposed sides of his identity: his working-class background and his homosexuality. Eribon himself notes how he has been able to make an intellectual concern of homosexuality, writing successful books like Insult and the Making of the Gay Self precisely by rejecting and even denying his class origins. One coming out coincides with another closeting. Compared to the metaphysical aspiration of The Years, Returning to Reims can be read as an introduction to sociology, to the understanding of truths that envelop us whole.

The Years’s special
quality, its resemblance to Benjamin’s crater, asserts itself from the

All the images will disappear: the woman who squatted to urinate in broad daylight, behind the shack that served coffee at the edge of the ruins in Yvetot, who stood, skirts lifted, to pull up her underwear and then returned to the café.

A little bit further, this preamble pauses, to commence another series: “Thousands of words, the ones used to name things, faces, acts and feelings, to put the world in order, make the heart beat and the sex grow moist, will suddenly be nullified.” This preamble of the novel consists of a series of about 50 short aphorisms, all of whom, some stronger than others, display a way of folding away in themselves. None of these aphorisms is dressed up as a full sentence. They are not capitalized, and there is no full stop at the end of any of them but the very last. In that sense, they are less than statements. They mean to prepare the reader for what comes next, the story of the particular way in which time flowed over or through France these past 70 years.

The difficult, aphoristic folding away of statements is achieved by presenting the component on which the aphorism opens as married to something heard in a very minor key, or very singular, as to shut it down or sidetrack it and show how its potency runs out. Here is another one:

…on an outdoor stage, the woman shut into a box pierced all the way through by men with silver spears—and emerging alive because it was a magic trick, called The Martyrdom of a Woman.

In this case, the formula works so well because it connects the history of patriarchy and its abuses to a dramatic title, but only through a provincial scene of entertainment, of folklore, even, and thus by way of an exception on this history. It heightens the horror of patriarchy precisely because this formulation—like the others—does not attain the rank of statement: It enacts the very suppression it describes.

Ernaux soon departs from this aphoristic style. She then goes on to describe the experience of her generation: the poverty of rural Normandy after World War II, the hatred of Germany, and the way in which time, for the children, was experienced as received, as a given thing. Time and history were present in the stories told by the generation of the parents, and invariably, these stories would involve the occupation. Indeed, this part of the book articulates time as some kind of sediment, something washed up on the shore. Time has as memory a physical dimension to it that is absolutely evident to the children: “Memory was transmitted not only through the stories but through the ways of walking, sitting, talking, laughing, eating, hailing someone, grabbing hold of objects.”

The children simply take this dimension of time for granted.
Yet over time they discover their capacity to answer to it, even if they remain
for the most part silent witnesses. In fact, Ernaux reports that only as
teenagers they become gradually become a partner in conversation to their
parents and other grown-ups:

In the mid-1950s, at family meals, teenagers remained at the table. They listened but did not speak, smiled politely at the jokes that were not funny, the approving comments whose objects was their physical development, the salty innuendos designed to make them blush, and answered only the cautious questions about their schoolwork.

Gradually, Ernaux’s generation awakens to the life of time, its characteristic of moving along with human beings—although never in sync: There is always a discord between the pace of history and the generation that occupies it, and The Years relates the experience of this dissonance.

Compared to Eribon’s Returning to Reims, there is the strong similarity of people discovering at a young age that their education has already exceeded that of their parents, or indeed their entire milieu. This presents them with a crisis of authority: Within the household, they cannot make knowledge-based claims that would undermine the position of the parents, the father most of all. As Ernaux’s parents were shopkeepers at a time when almost everyone was feeling the aftermath of the War, her experience of the class struggle appears relatively mild. The lower middle classes, and a context of general scarcity, help to mediate her awareness of class of identity. Her character, “she” or “we” is aware of being in school together with the children of doctors and schoolteachers, but is always able to reconcile, or at least make sense of these conflicting worlds. Eribon, however, describes his background as extremely poor. There exists an absolute separation between his, and the middle class. This separation can only be traversed by pretending to be someone he is not. In turn, for Ernaux’s generation, and more importantly for women the main predicament of being a young adult is the inexistence of contraception in the 1950s in France.

The same class distinction and difference for their respective generations mediates access entry to intellectual debates, books, and representatives. For Ernaux, these come as a matter of course: studying to be a teacher, listening to the radio news, and generally making her way into the world means for her a pre-existing acquaintance with de Beauvoir and Sartre, and the rest of French intelligentsia that follow their trail. When les nouveaux philosophes appear on the scene in the early 1970s, they arouse only a mild and fleeting interest:

Unlike Sartre, who was said to be senile and still refused to go on TV, or de Beauvoir with her rapid-fire diction, they were young. They challenged our consciences in words that we could understand and reassured us of our intelligence. The spectacle of their moral indignation was entertaining, though it was not clear what they were trying to do, other than discourage people from voting for the Union of the Left.

It is interesting that in Ernaux’s account, philosophy—but also art and often cinema—is talked about as an integral element of the general French culture (there is scattering of namedropping throughout The Years, indicating an easy and self-evident familiarity with high culture). Indeed, Ernaux skips those thinkers whose rigor is much more respected in academic circles today, like Foucault and Derrida—exactly thinkers of the caliber that Eribon ends up close to. For instance, Eribon’s intellectual debt to Sartre, in terms of his coming of age as a philosopher, is massive, as he Sartre is a lasting presence when he describes his formative years. Nonetheless, he is keen to point out, in his biography on Foucault, how young philosophers of the latter’s generation admired Merleau-Ponty even more because Merleau-Ponty “was more academic, more rigorous, less ‘in vogue’, and, above all, took more risks in his attempts to open philosophy up to contributions from the human sciences.”

It seems that Eribon shares Foucault’s attitude, that philosophy or academia is always in need of another kind of legitimacy, as it, from Eribon’s perspective, cannot be a part of a culture as a whole. Indeed, for Eribon, all of this, the intelligentsia, was a strange land from the outset, to be taken only by an utmost effort of will and determination, and not without a measure of self-denial and the pretence of being something other than he was. The very activity of reading Marx or Sartre was revolutionary and borderline insubordinate for Eribon as an adolescent. This break constitutes his experience of embarking on an academic life, leaving his native milieu behind him and explains his affinity for Foucault taking leave of Sartre at the end of the 1940s: a thinker with the setup of Eribon is never easy with his environment and must always take the avant-garde.

Ernaux’s character, navigating the
predicaments of sexual autonomy, family life and its disruption, and financial
independence, appears simply to lap up the world of philosophy. Her social
mobility is constrained by other factors or by exceedingly more factors at the
same time, not permitting of one or two significant ones. For Eribon, being gay
and being working class together set up the north and south for his entire life
to span.

This process, for Eribon, is far from
completed. In fact, he notes how this book is yet another step in his journey
of removing himself from his origins:

I’m painfully aware that the way I have arranged the writing of this book assumes—both about me and my readers—that we are socially distant from the circumstances and from the people who still live the kinds of lives I am attempting to describe and to reconstruct. I am equally aware how improbable it is that any of those people could end up reading these pages. When people write about the working class world, which they rarely do, it is most often because they have left it behind. This happens even if they write with the goal of exposing and critiquing the very status of social illegitimacy to which these people are relegated over and over again, because in writing they take a necessary critical distance because they have left it behind, and with it comes the position of a judge or an evaluator.

Annie Ernaux was born in 1940, Didier Eribon in 1953. Both spend their upbringing in the North of France. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulties for women of her generation, Ernaux relates a vastly more open social reality from the one that appears in Eribon’s pages. That same difference, however, coincides with their slightly differing social backgrounds, from the lower middle classes and the working classes. Furthermore, to highlight this difference does a disservice to The Years, which is not about class and sociology. It is about time, and how sexuality can take its pulse.

“Near the end of her book, Ernaux presents her methodology and her instrument: “the palimpsest sensation.” In these final pages of The Years, the protagonist—“she,” “we”—describes a relationship with a younger lover. Although the relationship appears exclusively sexual, it is to the protagonist least of all about sex. Instead, sex becomes an antenna for reconnecting to a lifetime of experiences. It is because she does not belong to this man’s generation, his life and his world, that during their rendezvous she is displaced onto the span of her life as a whole. Her body in these moments attains the capacity of feeling sensations from decades ago, as it records once more the sensations of her life, that become manifest this time as their duplicate: the palimpsest sensation.

There are very moving pages, particularly in the description of the closeness of the lover as recording her former bodily closeness to her mother. This kind of reconciliation is only hinted at in Eribon’s book, in its consistent but implicit reverence for his mother, who he describes as a very intelligent person, and someone who craved education but was always in a position too disadvantaged to get it. This woman gets a couple of great lines, for example about her son’s prejudice towards his own class, as well as the final say when it appears that Eribon has arrived in the world of academia.

Binding the Ghost: On the Physicality of Literature

“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)

“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)

At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.

Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”

An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.

It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.

If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.

More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.

For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.

But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.

This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.

What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.

Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”

Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.

Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.

Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.

Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”

We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”

If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fail Like a Poet: Ambition and Failure in Christian Wiman’s ‘He Held Radical Light’

I was 23 when I first read My Bright Abyss: Meditations of Modern Believer, Christian Wiman’s stirring poetic memoir on art and faith in the face of death. I was dizzy with ambition, full of passion but unsure of where to put it, so it felt like Wiman was speaking directly to me when he wrote, “So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence on existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt, and you are pursuing a ghost.” It’s one of many passages that reads like one side of a correspondence between a seasoned writer and a young, ambitious one, like me—a contemporary Rilke tossing hard-earned pearls of wisdom from success’s far shore.

Wiman spends much of Abyss recounting the early days of his life as a poet when he pursued the aforementioned ghost, and how he eventually sacrificed that ambition for a purer and more rigorous one, aimed not for lesser eternities like fame or reputation, but animated by “that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated, and all you want is the poem.” In this kind of writing, this kind of life, the individual artistic self is willingly snuffed out for the sake of the truer, bigger art it pursues. The way to channel my own ambition, Wiman seemed to be telling me, was to sanctify it, which to me meant scrubbing the rank smell of the self from its pores. This charge is present in his new and similarly stunning memoir, He Held Radical Light, though I can’t help but feel his latest book is less a reiteration of that charge than a response to the questions that emerge after one accepts such a radical call.

My Bright Abyss has become nothing less than a cornerstone for a small but deeply serious contingent of faith-intrigued artists in my generation. Acolytes of Marilynne Robinson, Mary Oliver, or Annie Dillard might consider Wiman of the same ilk, a writer of both high literary merit and great spiritual depth. A mentor put Abyss in my hands in my first aimless year out of college, when the possibility of pursuing a life of art, an art which aspired to the standard Wiman put forth, was still something I could decide not to do. But his ultimate purpose in Abyss was more urgent and worthwhile than any I’d considered until that point in my life: to resurrect the lifeless body of religious language in order to adequately approach the spiritual conundrums of modern life. Wiman knew that the old well of spiritual metaphors and symbols had gone dry, but instead of cursing the soil, he set out with a divining rod to find new springs. And he urged a whole generation of other writers to do the same. So, I committed—one might say converted—to a life I did not know how to live, a life where art and faith were so tightly woven that to unravel one thread might put too much tension on the other. Pulled taught, it wouldn’t be long before one of them snapped.

itself,” writes Wiman, early in Radical
Light “like love, like any spiritual hunger—thrives on longings that can
never be fulfilled, and dies when the poet thinks they have been.” This fits
with the earlier image of the insatiable, selfless artist, who erases her
tracks as she marches further into the dark; satisfaction with one’s work
equals artistic death. But its appearance so early in the book alerts the
reader that Wiman may not consider this the key
to an artistic life but the cost of
it. More accurately, it’s both, but Wiman has oriented the thrust of Radical Light around the recurring
realization of every serious artist that the molten core “at the heart of
creation itself” which once pulled him to an urgent, selfless art is the same
fire that would inevitably burn him.

In an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippet from 2014, Wiman mentions the modern tendency to favor the self and neglect the soul. True as this may be for many Americans, I suspect that the kind of person who gravitates to Wiman’s work in the first place may be more inclined to the inverse. In the hands of a young writer who’s embraced the self-obliterating art that looks a lot like faith—the kind of writer who considers satisfaction a sign of death—this plea for balance becomes a stick to beat back the needy hound that is the self. A self needs affirmation, needs companionship, needs a “real mattress”—things which may seem superfluous, even detrimental, when positioned against the needs of a soul.

hard-scrabble years into a frantic but still exciting life as a writer, led
into the Abyss by Wiman’s ethereal hand, it occurred to me that fierce commitment
to my own artistic craft simply wasn’t enough; total devotion meant congruence
between private art and public work. I had a challenging but generally
fulfilling job teaching writing to high school seniors on the Southwest side of
Chicago, but I still felt a lack of artistic purpose. I wanted more—more art,
more meaning, more…something. So, I moved from Chicago to Seattle to take a job
at a small but well-respected literary magazine that tended to the intersection
of art and faith. A crucial section of My
Bright Abyss had originally been published in the magazine’s pages. Even
though the job was largely administrative, promising only modest editorial
input, I took it. I would have taken it if they’d hired me to clean the

What narrative thrust exists in a book that relies mostly on poetry for dramatic effect surrounds Wiman’s experiences as the editor of Poetry Magazine and his eventual departure for a teaching post at Yale Divinity School. The move, we find, had little to do with Wiman looking for a more “meaningful” role than with discrepancies between his personality and the Poetry job’s demands. He’s more inclined to penning a poem on his train ride to the office than wrangling Poetry’s suddenly massive budget. Leaving Poetry seems a fairly easy decision for Wiman, but I suspect his ability to walk away from such an esteemed post is related to his long quest to understand the relationship between art and faith, that the hard work he’s done to disentangle poetry from salvation—in work, in relationships, in sickness—prevents him from equating his identity with his Very Important Job.

At my own moderately important job, I began to disappear within a matter of weeks. A toxic and emotionally dysfunctional environment effaced itself as a test of my own intellect and will, a test I quickly realized I would not pass. I gritted my teeth and mustered the manic energy to get through each workday, only to collapse into a despair-like exhaustion within the first hour of leaving that acerbic office. Depressed, I hacked away at a novel in the evenings, drinking alone to numb the day and forestall my fantasies about what unforeseen humiliations awaited me in the next, tamping down the unsettling and undeniable fact that the job I thought would bring me closer to the “heart of creation itself” had brought me to the edge of a void. You signed up for this, I told myself, blaming myself while patting my own back. In no time, the novel—the actual art I’d sworn to pursue— took on the quality of so much fiction written by a depressed person: All of the characters were depressed. The limitless scope of human emotion I’d so desperately wanted to explore reduced itself to three or four variations of the same dejected malaise; “brooding clouds” figured heavily in the text. Still, I trusted that something important was happening to my soul, that feeling terrible all the time was the necessary cost of a meaningful artistic life.

Wiman’s mortality, and his gradual but profound embrace of faith in the grip of a rare bone cancer, was the primary subject of Abyss. Radical Light, on the other hand, draws primarily upon the lives, work, and deaths of other poets—Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, C.K. Williams, and Phillip Larkin, among others—and courts the occasional temptation to revel in the glow of literary celebrity. But Wiman, having lived the life most writers would envy, cuts such romantic illusions off at the quick. His authority privileges him with witnessing firsthand the tension between the lives of our world’s greatest poets and their transcendent poems. His proximity to those figures, in their lives and in some cases their deaths, affirms the recurring conundrum that, more often than not, a poem’s truth may elude the poet who wrote it. In his work, Phillip Larkin inches toward a Void he won’t call God but can proceed no further than the page allows; Seamus Heaney confesses to Wiman that faith keeps breaking free of the language he’s so ardently crafted in his lyrical life. Time and time again, the people most capable of unlocking the kingdom’s doors have begun to doubt the efficacy of their keys.

I had been in Seattle for one year and felt myself on the verge of an emotional, mental, and spiritual collapse. I was spent and cynical, paranoid and thin. I slept too much or not enough, avoided crowds but feared true silence. I dreamed of running from angry religious clowns. I had swapped a conviction for art’s civic and spiritual value for a bitter disdain towards earnest expressions of both faith and art, like Indiana Jones swapping gold for a bag of sand. My triune method of self-preservation—endorphins, prayer, and beer—wasn’t cutting it anymore. For the first time since I’d started the job, I managed to call friends and family and tell them what had been happening, to confess that for the last year I had been unraveling in secret. It took hours to explain the situation, how day in and day out I allowed myself to be a witness in the petty theft of my own self-worth, my passion for the written word, my love of life in general—all of it there and then suddenly not, as if by slight of hand. I’d kept all this hidden for one main reason: admitting to anyone else that my dream job turned out to be a nightmare would mean admitting it to myself. Quit, they said. Now.

Wiman frequently mentions his “wriggling on the hook” of ambition for the first several years of his writing career. At first, I pictured the kind of hook where you might hang your keys, a holding place fastened to a wall, dangling something. This gives the impression of ambition as toil and nothing else, and by extension may encourage a crude dismissal of ambition altogether, may temp an ambitious person to hate the hook for snagging him at all. But Wiman’s careful treatment of the the metaphor suggests that the Hook has a more mysterious function beyond restraint, beyond wriggle and toil. “For a time I would say I was released from this hook by faith…” he says, alluding perhaps to the moments recounted in Abyss when art could no longer withstand death’s weight, and faith buoyed him. But he continues: “But I would also say that it was ambition that released me from ambition.”

The night I wrote my resignation letter, wildfires burned north and south of Seattle, in Canada and Oregon, and the smoke had carried on the winds of a heat wave to settle over the city like a lusterless fog. The temperature hovered above eighty until well after midnight, so by the time I finished writing I was covered in sweat. It may have been the sirens bleeding through my open windows, or the smell of smoke lingering on the wind, but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d committed some terribly selfish crime, like quitting the job meant quitting the life I’d committed to living.

It is in wriggling on the hook—in his ambition to write poetry and live a life worthy of the standard he previously put forth—where Wiman discovers the ultimate insufficiency of his or anyone else’s art. And it is in acknowledging this insufficiency that his art becomes true, where it shape-shifts into grace.

no longer believe that suffering in a tedious and dehumanizing literary
non-profit job was part of some holy artistic struggle. I could have wriggled
anywhere; depression is not a pre-requisite for grace, and despair is not the
only key to breakthrough. It was in recognizing that my struggle there was not
a sacred one that I finally allowed the hook to do its work. The hook—“both God
and Void, grace and pain”—holds us whether we wriggle or not.

“The best way out,” Wiman reminds us, quoting Frost, “is always through.” I knew, when I turned in my resignation, that the collapse I had been staving off through denial and repression would quickly follow. I knew that the loneliness I felt both in the job and outside of it, the despair which had begun to seep through the cracks of my denial, would not dissipate when I acknowledged their presence. But I also knew, finally, that the diminishment of a self was not the same as true artistic or spiritual sacrifice.

I knew that for a long time I would feel like I had failed—failed to become the
dynamic literary pro I once wanted to be, failed to write my novel, failed to
transform in the way I imagined I would when I packed up my car and moved across
the country for that job. In those ways, I really had failed, and it was
painful to see those dreams dry up. But sometimes it’s not until a dream is deferred
that we can recognize its insufficiency, its utter wackness as a dream.

Christian Wiman concludes, “is our only savior.” It is the poet’s failures, his
myriad brushes with death in poetry and life, which give him the authority to
make such a claim. The rest of us have to find out for ourselves, as often and
as fully as we can.

We Are All Cold Callers Now: Sam Lipsyte’s Savagely Satirical Fiction

“The consolation of acute bitterness is the biting retort.”—Hark

1.“Is it too soon?” It’s one of those recurring cultural questions that has lately been revived in the context of the #MeToo movement, regarding the matter of when, if ever, such high-profile sexual abusers as Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, Garrison Keillor, and Kevin Spacey might make their way back into the public sphere, or at least a paying job. Alpha males, however disgraced, get twitchy on the sidelines, and so, as James Wolcott put it in his Vanity Fair column on “The Return of the Scuzzies, “we hear the # MeToo Men tap on the microphone as they seek to reintroduce themselves.”

For a male fiction writer, a foray into this massively trip-wired territory might seem about as inviting as a several-mile stroll atop a third rail. Yet there, in the pages of the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, was the fearless edgemeister Sam Lipsyte with “Show Recent Some Love,” surely the first male work of fiction to address, in no way obliquely, the issues raised by the movement. To do this in what we call “the current climate” was an act of perhaps foolhardy courage; to have pulled it off with as artful and well judged mixture of sensitivity and sharpness as Lipsyte did, is a high-wire achievement of no small dimension.

The story succeeds in “going there”
without inducing moral nausea because the ogre of the piece, the abusive and
predatory Mike Maltby, CEO of Mike Maltby Media Solutions (now renamed Haven
Media) is unambiguously presented as one of “history’s ceaseless cavalcade of
dickheads.” Left to navigate the treacherous cross-currents of Maltby’s ignominious
departure is Isaac, his one-time stepson, whom Maltby rescued from a life of
video gaming and Jagermeister shots by giving him a job as a copywriter. Not
unreasonably he fears for his position now, given the toxicity of his
association with Maltby; underneath Isaac’s vocal disgust he also experiences
involuntary and unnerving spasms of sympathy, as confused and anxious humans
will do.

In Lipsyte’s fiction it is the
wives who see right through the husbands, and Isaac gets pinned to the specimen
board of contemporary male fecklessness by his wife with this observation:
“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not
the same as being a hero, Isaac.” Isaac stands in here for the legions of men trapped
in the queasy twilight zone between innocence and complicity. “And don’t be
certain they won’t come for you one of these days,” she adds with brutal

Since his 1999 debut story collection Venus Drive Sam Lipsyte has published four novels and two more collections that have established him as the premier anatomist of contemporary male malaise and sexual confusion. A skilled and consistently hilarious satirist with tummler-tight timing, he explores with merciless and lacerating precision the demoralized state of the urban man-boy and alterna-dad, marinated in gender guilt, trapped in the low-paying and uncertain jobs that are the portion these days of liberal arts majors, barely tolerated or peevishly despised by his spouse and children. Call him Lipsyte Man—a baffled and wounded specimen.

2.A North Jersey native and high school shot putter and teen literary phenom (“a little show pony writer”, in his words), Sam Lipsyte amusingly was named as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts by none other than Ronald Reagan; the award was given to him by the once famed virtuecrat William Bennett. A no doubt formative lesson in the uses of cognitive dissonance. He attended Brown in the late ’80s in its peak years as a powerhouse in semiotics, cultural studies, and advanced fiction, studying with such luminaries as Robert Coover and graduating in the same cohort as Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides. Dispirited by the hegemony of literary theory over practice, however, he drifted into music for a time when he came back to New York, fronting a noise rock band called Dung Beetle and dutifully picking up the bad habits of dissipation the position called for.

Sam’s path back to literature took him through Gordon Lish’s fabled and/or notorious writing workshop, where the shameful and unsayable were quarried for the rawest of raw material. Lish was also fanatical on matters of style, and perhaps Sam’s chief takeaway from his time in Gordon’s boot camp was that every word of every sentence had to count. “There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part,” he once approvingly quoted Lish.

Venus Drive, published in 2000 by the much-missed literary magazine and publisher Open City, strongly reflects that aesthetic. Its sentences display aphoristic economy and keenly calibrated rhythm, as in this specimen: “His eyes had the ebb of his liver in them and he bore the air of a man who looks right at you and only sees the last of himself.” Several of the stories draw on the druggy discontinuities, moral squalor and grim, bone-in-your-throat humor of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. One character does Keith Richards considerably better by shooting up his mother’s cremains. (What stage of grief is that anyway?) Another informs us with addled precision that “I wasn’t nodding, I was passing out.” William Burroughs’s algebra of need was clearly a familiar equation to the author.

Other stories engage with a broader consensus reality, specifically the emerging service economy that appears to be our portion until the robot overlords dispose of us. In “Probe to the Negative”—the very title can be taken as an ars poetica—a failed artist with dependency issues works as a phone marketer under the faux-helpful supervision of Frank the Fink.

“Maybe Frank was a decent guy once, but he’s management now … the higher you move up, the more of a tragedy you are,” the narrator mordantly observes. But as he also says, “We’re all cold callers now,” an epitaph that has ominous ring of truth.

“My Life, for Promotional Use Only”
opens with a perfect snapshot of the emerging dot-com economy:

The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start-ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three-picture deals. It’s very arty in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of tiny telephones, keepers of dogs on battery-operated ropes.

The basis of
effective satire is simply close, cruel observation.

I heard Sam Lipsyte read one of his stories at an Open City event, a literary event for me of major proportions. So I made my predatory desires known and as a result became the editor of his first novel, The Subject Steve. The shock of recognition I experienced upon first reading it was electrifying; somehow this young writer managed to channel the irreverent and unruly reading of my formative years of the ’60s and had made that sensibility his own. It was the first of many times he has caused me to use my inhaler for an episode of laughter-induced asthma. 

Black humor had emerged in the late ’50s as a literary mode and broader cultural style as a release valve for the stifling seriousness and repression of the decade and also an expression of paranoia and delayed trauma from the horrors of the late war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its strategies were the send-up, the put-on, the resigned shrug, the spasm of panic, the barely stifled scream, the bitter laugh, the taboo-busting saying of the Unsayable. It was born on whatever day the first lampshade joke was told. Its emergence was coterminous with and fueled by what Wallace Markfield, a now forgotten black humorist himself, called in 1965 “The Yiddishization of American Humor”—comedy that, drawing on the traditions of the Borscht Belt and the shetl, was” involuted, ironic, more parable than patter”—and infused with a distinctively Jewish fatalism.

The ur-black humorist was of course Joseph Heller and as I read The Subject Steve I could, I thought, detect his influence in every line. Begin with the book’s premise: The book’s narrator and antihero Steve is informed by two quack doctors that he is dying of a disease unquestionably fatal, yet with no discernible cause nor duration; they dub it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. A terser name would of course be “Life.” Lipsyte elaborates this illogically logical Catch-22 premise with caustic wit and a verbal energy that recalls Stanley Elkin at his most manic. Savor the spritzing pungency and tart wordplay of this passage:

The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had every died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. … My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.

Heller’s brilliantly morose novel of white collar angst, Something Happened, is also a presiding influence on this and subsequent novels by Lipsyte. Steve quits his indeterminate cube-based job, stating in his exit interview: “My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry.” He fails to get much sympathy from either his divorced wife or disaffected daughter, and fleeing a media frenzy goes on an increasingly violent and saturnalian New Age odyssey in search of a cure or at least of modicum of certainty.

The Yiddish word for a hapless soul like Steve is “schlemiel,” a character without much agency and dignity, buffeted by domestic or historical forces far beyond his resistance. The schlemiel is a stock figure of black humor fiction—Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim, Benny Profane, just for starters—and can be traced as far back in American literature as Lemuel Pitkin, the All-American designated victim who gets literally taken apart in Nathanael West’s Depression-era demolishment of the Horatio Alger luck-and-pluck, A Cool Milllion. With The Subject Steve Lipsyte had revived a tradition of gleefully cynical disillusion that had largely faded from our increasingly earnest literary fiction.

Sadly, rather too much black humor of a distinctly unfunny sort attended the novel’s publication, as it was literally published on Sept. 11, 2001. Irony of any sort, however well achieved, was not in favor that grievous season; the reviews were complimentary enough but thin on the ground, and sales suffered accordingly. As a result Sam’s next novel, Home Land, was not offered on (with the keenest possible sadness) by me, and went on to garner an astounding 22 editorial rejections before being finally published as a Picador paperback original in 2004. That the novel quickly became the book to be reading on the L and M trains and with each passing year feels more and more like a masterpiece—to the point of having been selected by Christian Lorentzen in New York as one of the canonical works of fiction of the newish century, calling it “a Gen-X Notes from Underground—must prove something besides the need to pick your pub date carefully, but what? Perhaps that as the Iraq War and the broader war on terror were both clearly becoming clusterfucks of Vietnam-esque proportions, black humor Lipsyte-style acquired a new relevance and resonance that has only become stronger in the 15 disillusioning years since Home Land’s publication.

Among other things it has one of the best premises for a comic novel ever devised. Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” the member of the Eastern Valley High Class of ’89 who most conclusively has not panned out, pens a series of uproariously bitter letters to his Alumni Newsletter, bringing his cohort of bankers and brokers and doctors and state senators and “double major[s] in philosophy and aquatic life management” up to date on “the soft cold facts of me.” At first he “shudders” at the prospect of his successful classmates chortling at the particulars of his dismal tale, but quickly rethinks his phrasing: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”

Miner rents a dismal apartment in his hometown, attends the occasional “aphorism slam,” and ekes out a sort of living concocting fake anecdotes for a soft drink’s newsletter Fizz (while spending even more time trawling the net for lovelies in legwarmers). His dispatches at once satirize the nauseating smugness of most alumni updates and recount in granular detail the hell on earth that was most people’s experience of high school. The novel’s climax takes place at a predictably disastrous tenth anniversary “Togethering” reunion—“one big horrible flashback,” as these things tend to be.

Miner’s spew of snark is a beautiful thing to experience and he represents Lipsyte Man in his first full incarnation. Imagine—work with me on this—if Rodney Dangerfield had somehow managed to attend Oberlin or Hampshire College, but emerged with his sense of humor intact. Miner and his successors also partake a bit of W.C. Fields’s befuddled in-the-American-grain misanthropy and his sense of terminal male embattlement. These suckers are never going to get an even break.

Published in 2010 in the rump of the Great Recession, Sam’s next novel The Ask shifts the scene to an academic setting: the development office of an institution its denizens call the Mediocre University at New York, whose art program affords the marginally talented the opportunity to “take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Milo Burke is a failed painter who works there none too effectively; as the book opens he has been cashiered for using an ill-advised epithet to an obnoxious coed whose ‘father had paid for our shitty observatory upstate.” Saddled with a wife and young child, his one route back to a paying job is if he can engineer a hefty give from his college friend Purdy, who ‘had been one of the first to predict that people only really wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life forms”—in other words a pioneering internet tycoon. (One of the many updated and flourishing Milo Minderbinder-types who populate Sam’s fiction.)

In Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte perfected his portrayal of the sad sack contemporary male—a failure at work, a barely tolerated presence at home, overloaded with seemingly immortal student debt and untenable notions from his trendily overpriced liberal arts education. All that Lipsyte Man has to fight back with is his hefty reserved of disappointed spleen and a verbal facility that is a consistent delight to the reader if not to his interlocutors. The Ask is saturated with the feeling that the promise of American life has curdled and vanished, leaving us the task of managing our disappointments as best we can. Sam’s acute sense of the small-bore sorrows and indignities of contemporary domestic life sometimes puts me in mind of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, his late, terminally disenchanted satire of two dimwitted clerks failing to escape their petit bourgeois fate. Wherever you go, there you are—unfortunately.

Eight years on, with his new novel Hark, Sam engages with the Age of Trump, aka the Big Con—a time when our disappointments are so acute that the need to believe on the part of a large percentage of the citizenry apparently cannot be extinguished by the preponderance of evidence or application of common sense.

The first thing to be said about the book is that Sam has never been sharper or funnier. It is my habit when reading a bound galley for review to dog ear pages where passages that made me laugh or that seem worth quoting strike me. My galley of Hark is so comprehensively dog eared that the whole thing resembles a dog’s ear. The second thing to be said is that Hark presents Sam’s most socially expansive portrait and diagnosis of American life, tinged with a slightly futuristic and dystopian vibe. It features the largest canvas and cast of characters of all his novels, and is the first of them to be written in the third person rather than the first, allowing access to a several competing and complimentary points of views and interior realities.

The Hark of the title is Hark Morner—his mother mistook the word in the Christmas carol for a name rather than an exhortation—who has accidentally drifted from stand-up into guru status when his routine on “Mental Archery” and its sharpening of “focus” proves congenial to corporate conventions and TED-type conclaves. Despite his lack of internal conviction he has attracted a circle of seekers who see in him whatever it is they seem to need. Chief among them is Kate Rumpler, an heiress and financial angel who is on her own private atonement tour, flying bone marrow from donors on flights around the country. Then there is the obligatory Lipsyte Man, Fraz Penig, an unemployed—actually never-employed—filmmaker who tutors the children of the one percent for a sort of living and produces video content for the Harkist website. He is married to Tovah Gold, a poet who earns the real paycheck in the family concocting bullshit-speak for something called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project”; both partners are “locked in a low-level quotidian apocalypse” and the marriage is mired on the shoals of her boredom and barely contained annoyance. (“The qualities in Fraz she once claimed to adore are not so adorable anymore.”)

Hark, a cipher to himself and an empty vessel similar to the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, serves as a blank screen on which these and other characters project their ambitions and unreasonable hopes, family, work, sex, country and community having proven to be letdowns or outright delusions.

Lipstye’s satire in Hark has never been more cutting or timely. Meg, one of Hark’s acolytes, excitedly extols the virtues of something called Mercystream: “It’s amazing. Instead of letting refugees into the country, we can give them laptops and listen to their stories as they stream them from their camps. It’s all about empathy.” Fraz’s prematurely wised-up daughter Lisa declares, “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.” Musing on the root of her attraction to Hark, a character decides, “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief”—in itself a neat capsule statement of the novel’s controlling theme.

Lipsyte crams quite a lot of event into Hark’s 284 pages, much of it violent, some of tragic and fatal, and some of it even mystical and visionary, with a final chapter taking place in what is clearly the afterlife. To my mind Sam is attempting to craft a contemporary parable about the birth of religion, how faith, battered into near-extinction by the fraudulence and mendacity of the world, will batten on to the nearest plausible object. In this sense the novel is strikingly similar to Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, the powerful, even overwhelming first novel of his teacher at Brown that similarly deals with the birth of a cult in the wake of death and disaster. There are also many parallels to be found in the way Nathanael West handles the volatile mixture of credulity and rage in the people he calls “the disappointed” in his indelible The Day of the Locust. In this as in so many other ways Sam Lipsyte is West’s truest successor among our living American novelists. I can offer no higher compliment.

3.Sam Lipsyte began writing in earnest in the early ’90s, just as the pundits were declaring the end of history and a global reign of liberal (or neoliberal) democracy and a goodies-producing market economy stretched into the foreseeable (hah) future. It was not perhaps the best psychic weather for a natural-born naysayer with a provocateur’s instinct and a shot putter’s explosive delivery. But what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent dot-com crash and then the Great Recession opened up a space in the culture for the sort of uncompromising and truth-telling satirist Sam was born to be and the mode of black humor most congenial to his extravagant gifts of language and imagination. It is a critical commonplace that the brain-numbing events of the Trump presidency have rendered satire powerless—a critique of fiction’s incapacity in the wake of American idiocy that dates back to Philip Roth’s in the early ’60s, a time of comparative legibility. Tell it to Aristophanes, Juvenal, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, the George Orwell of Animal Farm.

Tell it to Sam Lipstye. And then you’d better duck.

Image: Flickr/Pete Banks