Am I a Bad Feminist?

“How could you publish this novel?” That’s what I heard after I chose to write about a girl falsely accusing a man of sexual assault during the #MeToo era. When The Liar was first published in Israel, a male journalist told me I should have delayed the publication. “You are hurting the struggle,” he said. It’s always nice to have a man telling me what a woman should or shouldn’t write about. But in the following weeks, I wondered: Am I a bad feminist?

I consider myself a feminist. Like most women, I have also experienced sexual harassment, which I never reported. One of the things that silenced me was the fear that people would say I’m making it up, as they often do in these cases. And yet, I wrote a story about a girl who’s “making it up.”

When my baby girl was born, I knew for sure that, one day, she’d experience some sort of sexual harassment, like so many women do. It was terrible: There she was, lying in her crib, and though I didn’t know yet what music she’s going to like, or what she will want to do when she grows up, I already knew that she is going to be harassed. One day or another, there will come a man who will say something, or grab something—simply because he can.

I hope she won’t feel ashamed, as I did when it happened to me. I pray she won’t blame herself as women in my generation so often do. I wish she won’t ask herself if it’s because of what she wore or something she said. I hope she’ll be able to talk to me about it. I never talked with my mom about it.

In the rain of thoughts, standing next to my baby girl’s crib, one thing was certain—somewhere along the way, this horror is likely to occur. I cannot protect her from this experience, which is written in the future of almost every woman.

But when #MeToo started, I began to hope that I was wrong. Is there a chance that my little girl won’t have to go through the sexual exploitation that my generation suffered? Is there a chance that my girl will be able go to high school, to summer jobs, to university without any creepy suggestions, or overtures made by bosses, professors, or other men in position of power? If #MeToo will manage to truly change the way women are treated, it will be a real revolution.

A few months after my daughter was born, I began writing a novel about a girl who gets caught in a story about a sexual assault that never happened. I decided to write it after a friend of mine, a public defense attorney, told me about an illegal migrant who was jailed because of what turned out to be a false accusation. My friend was so furious at the false accusation that she called the woman who filed the complaint “a psychopath, a monster.” But as I heard my friend calling the accuser names, I felt sorry for her. As a psychologist, I asked myself what can cause a woman to make up such a lie? It’s too easy to turn this woman into a monster. It’s much harder—and a whole lot more interesting—to try and understand her.

The work of literature—for both reader and author—is to dare and face the human condition, human complexity. Good people do bad things. False accusations of sexual assault are rare, but it doesn’t mean they never happen, or that we can’t talk about them. Sometime we write fiction not about the common case, but about the uncommon one.

And yet, it was very important for me to respect and represent the real statistics of sexual assault: Apart from the protagonist, all the other female characters in the novel have a back story of sexual harassment or assault, and this echoes my observations in reality.

As I wrote the novel, my biggest fear was that it would be read through a chauvinist perspective, one that automatically assumes that all female accusers are liars or attention seekers. After all, that’s one of the things that kept me silent about my own sexually harassment. And we all know that’s one of the favorite defenses of predators: she’s making it up.

Yet, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to censor a story just because of the fear that someone might twist it and use it for his own misogynistic purposes. Clearly, writing about a girl making up an assault doesn’t mean that most girls make up assaults. Male authors such as Nabokov and Dostoevsky can write about pedophiles in Lolita, or murders in Crime and Punishment, yet no one would say that these novels portray most men as murderers and pedophiles.

And so, there I was, taking care of my baby girl, writing a story about a girl who makes up a sexual assault. Because I won’t let those men who falsely accuse women of lying to limit the variety of stories that a woman can write. Telling a woman what a feminist is allowed to write about is in itself a sort of repression. A Jewish author can portray Jews as complex characters, some of them doing bad deeds, without fearing that anti-Semites might use this in their propaganda.

And this, too, is something that I wish for my daughter when she grows up: to be able to say and write whatever she feels like, so that no one, ever, shuts down her voice.

Image credit: Mario Azzi.

A Game Like Heroin: On Escapism, TwitchCon, and Kicking the ‘Fortnite’ Habit

1.

I couldn’t tell you what time it was when I got the call from The Bosco—the San Francisco based photo service I freelanced for that mainly covered tech events scattered around the city—but I could tell you what I was doing. I was playing video games, specifically Fortnite on Playstation 4, a competitive, cross-platform battle royale game created by Epic Games with more than 250 million players and counting.

This is not an honorable story, merely a common one.

I don’t even know how I saw The Bosco’s call. Out of self-preservation, I’d left my phone face down to prevent me from instinctively doing math on how much sleep I wouldn’t be getting. I didn’t want that information, that guilt. I couldn’t do anything with it. It would only make me stop gaming. And that—late at night and lacking any desire to better myself spiritually, physically, or intellectually—was out of the question. Fortnite was all I had. What was I going to do? Read a book? No, I needed to kill. I needed to win. I needed Victory Royale.

The lights in my living room were dimmed to replicate the conditions of a cave, which heightened the sharpness and overall saturation of the digital desert, forest, and farms on which I was battling. As I worked the paddles of my PS4 controller, dodging, shooting, ducking, and weaving, I reveled in the movements of the miniature me on the 65-inch HDTV 4K TV. The character (or “skin”) I’d chosen was your typical caricature of an ancient Viking: gut juice smeared across his face; hatchet dangling from his side; braided golden yellow beard; tattoos of pagan idols; leather helmet with two giant horns jutting into the sky. I’m half Norwegian, so I figured why not connect my Fortnite addiction to my lineage?

As the phone rang and rang, 100 different players were dropping into the arena at once. As I fumbled to pick up the call, I felt a weird sense of pride as I watched my Viking avatar’s honeysuckle hair flutter behind him like a cape. Luckily, I was able to follow my team to a safe area, where I immediately hid in a bush. I picked up my phone. My boss’s name read big and white on the screen.

Tyler, I thought, Interesting…he never calls.

“What do you want?” I said, never taking my eyes from the game. “I’m in the middle of something.”

“I got some work for you next week,” he told me. “You ever heard of TwitchCon?”

“Of course,” I said. “The videogame streaming app where hordes of nerds watch godly nerds play video games for hours on end.”

I am one of these nerds. Obviously, I’m unable to address this truth. Que sera sera.

“We’re doing a booth there in one of their tents,” he said. “There’s going to be a green screen, something called a glider they are installing, guys coming up from L.A., and all that. It’s in the Fortnite tent. You ever heard of Fortnite?”

2.

Last year Fortnite—a game that grossed $3 billion in 2018 and boasts 200 million registered players—celebrated its first birthday. The CEO of Epic Games is now worth $7 billion. The company came out of nowhere, fusing the old paradigm of third-person shooters like Star Wars Battle Front and Grand Theft Auto with a brand-new mode of competitive gaming: battle royale. So how did Fortnite suddenly become so popular?

Well, it’s addicting. I remember how sweaty and shaky my hands were after my first win, after hours and hours of grinding. I could feel the dopamine and adrenaline surging through me like a swarm of bees. I was literally buzzing. I wanted nothing more than to feel that physiological spike of victory over and over, again and again.

My story isn’t unique. The dominant demographic of players registered with Fortnite is 18- to 24-year-olds (62.7 percent) followed by 25- to 34-year-olds (22.5 percent). It’s no surprise that people ripe for existential crises of one sort or another choose a game that gives them a specific task: kill anyone that gets in your or your team’s way.

That kind of freedom, just given away for free, can’t be found out in the real world

But in the world of Fortnite, it can.

With pop icons like Drake and sport stars like Richard Sherman selling copyrighted dance moves that Epic uses in the game, it’s no surprise that the masses follow suit. In March 2018, Ninja, the most popular streamer of Fortnite on Twitch—recently he moved to Mixer, a Seattle-based video game live-streaming platform owned by Microsoft; he makes roughly $3 million dollars per year in support of the game—played alongside Drake and Travis Scott for a crowd of millions. Like the Avengers and Harry Potter films, Fortnite draws huge crowds not only because of its content but also because of its culture. And, as with any successful online venture, there’s plenty of commercial opportunities: in-game micro transactions; battle passes, and targeted advertising pushing energy drinks, headphones, and specialty game controllers. All this (and much more) is ready to strike like some invisible eel from the coral.

So, what are the repercussions of all this innocent mayhem and electronic carnage? Lorrine Marer, a British behavioral specialist whose clients range from kids to adults, says, “This game is like heroin. Once you are hooked, it’s hard to get unhooked.” That may sound harsh, insensitive, or overly dramatic; nobody’s technically dying from playing Fortnite but some kids are logging 10 to 12 hours per day. There have been reports of Fortnite-obsessed kids disregarding school and homework, butting heads with parents who threaten to disconnect the Internet. And for what? Another level? A new skin? Another victory?

What Fortnite does—along with a slew of other games—is tap into and exploit the universal desire for legacy, fame, and recognition. Fortnite is really a metaphor for and microcosm of Capitalist America.

3.

Arriving at TwitchCon at the giant McEnery Convention Center in San Jose on a blindingly hot Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but assess the crowd as we walked in: the usual super fans with their hair dyed various shades of puke green, yellow, bubble-gum pink, and purple, their giant cell phones recording anything and everything. Then, there were the normal looking 20-somethings, most likely there to, somewhat ironically, view new games while simultaneously mocking their own (and everyone else’s) nerdiness. But as I scoped out the food tents, I noticed another breed of a gamer: more professional, almost athletic. Their backs were straighter, the muscles in their hands and forearms toned. Their eyes weren’t sluggish or glazed over; there was a kind of sharpness to them. Something told me something very serious was on the line for this group.

I would later learn that these gamers had been practicing for up to 16 hours a day for who knows how long with the hope of winning a cash prize of $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money for playing a video game. Some of these players had jerseys—some glittery aqua blue, others shiny obsidian—with team names like Disquiet, 100 Thieves, and Solary. As they sauntered into the Fortnite tent—many of them with an odd, awful royal bearing—they reminded me of the workers at the tech companies that litter the streets of San Francisco: dull, common, amoeba-like beings with oversized backpacks and Apple Watches, carrying themselves as if they owned the world. It was like The Revenge of the Nerds, but with an extra dose of hubris.

“Hey,” the captain of our crew shouted at me. “You’re laggin’. Let’s go.”

The fruity stink of vape pens and savory smell of overpriced food filled the air. We made our way through security—pat downs and metal detectors, because of a shooting last year at another video game convention, were common now—and then were let loose in the Fortnite tent.

4.

I remember gasping. The ceiling of the tent was at least 100 feet high. It felt like being in the belly of some freakishly giant blue whale, it’s ribs, muscles, and tendons all visible and aglow. On the thick canvas above, yellow, green, and red strobe lights danced. There was a muted beat of some indecipherable EDM in the distance. The setting was hectic and random, a Technicolor playground of cheap merchandise and desperate developers trying to push their wares.

“Quiet past the players area,” one of the guards told me in an annoyed whisper.

“The what?” I asked.

He jerked his head in the direction of a huge wall of translucent orange glass. Behind it, were hundreds of computers set up with gaming headsets, ergonomic chairs, and NASA-grade keyboards. This was where professionals played. I saw a few of these spectral, shadowy untouchables hunched over monitors practicing. Through the barrier, I could hear the furious tip-tap-tapping of their fingers.

The pro player closest to me must have been barely 16. He sat alone, save a pile of twisted Red Bull cans and his gaming set, his face six inches from the screen. His eyes, mirroring the rainbow of lights of the game, were tight and unblinking. And there in the pearly glow of the screen, he was talking himself. One eye would suddenly bulge; a burst of giggles would follow as he landed a shot or made a kill. And when something went wrong, he’d bark at the game. He looked as if he was trying to literally enter the world of Fortnite, tooth and nail, foot and fist.

Entering the main hall, I did a double take: there in the middle of the room was a real-life school bus. Just like the one at the beginning of the game. And just like the bus in Fortnite, this one had a giant balloon attached to the roof. All around the bus, children in oxygen masks were spray-painting its doors and body. No one seemed to mind. A few people clapped, smiling dead-eyed as the mist from the paint coated their cheeks. The energy of Fortnite—that feeling of gleeful chaos you get in the middle of a firefight—was ubiquitous. It was as if the digital world of my gaming addition had suddenly—and terrifyingly—come to life.

Next to the bus were barrels oozing some sort of neon-green goo and plastic palm trees, their leaves brittle and lime-green. At the base of the bus were various bottles: ceramic healing and shield potions. Near that was a bunch of kids—decked out in Fortnite shirts—waving colorful flags. And smack-dab in the middle of this strange excuse for a put-put course, was a giant Durr Burger. If you haven’t seen Fortnite’s Durr Burger, it’s a giant hamburger with googly eyes, a giant pink tongue, and an olive stabbed into the top of his head. I found myself staring directly into its dead eyes, transfixed by its wanton stupidity. All of it begged the simple question: Who the hell puts an olive on a hamburger?

The coup de gras was a vast lawn of fake grass littered with rainbow colored beanbags with a view of the giant IMAX screen. This is where the masses could view the digital Fortnite battles. And the area was already packed with hungry spectators lying about. For anyone unable to score a beanbag, there were rows of metal bleachers, all of them covered in peanuts and popcorn and surrounded by plastic fencing and security guards. I was trying to meditate on this terrible battleground when a short kid with electric blueberry hair tugged at my shirt.

“Hey,” he barked. “Are you excited for the competition?”

“The what?” I pulled his clammy hand off me.

“The Fortnite fight, stupid!” he said, spitting on my pants.

“Sure,” I lied. The game I’d been so addicted to, the game I’d lost countless hours to, was finally showing me its true colors. I was nothing but dejected. “Ecstatic.”

“I don’t know what that words means.” He stuck his tongue out at me, ruffled his blueberry hair, and sprinted into the crowd. I was about to shout something at him—something elderly sounding—but he was gone.

5.

Just as we were about to open the photo booth, a giant explosion echoed across the fake lawn.

“What the hell was that?” shrieked a man dressed as a Viking

I was about to answer when a seven-foot, silver-headed Donkey DJ emerged from a cloud of smoke. The creature had jutting ears, cavernous nostrils, and a massive head no doubt forged from some alien material. I had no words of comfort or explanation for the Viking—let alone for myself. As EDM roared louder, Donkey DJ galloped to a bank of turntables, slapped its hooves down on the records, and started spinning. The crowd was clearly still in shock. Everyone slowly rose from their beanbag chairs and awkwardly bopped their shoulders and indifferently swiveled their hips.

“For today’s main event,” Donkey DJ shouted, “We’ve got a Fortnite competition with a prize of $1.5 million.”

Jesus, I thought. This goddamn donkey can talk.

My awful musings were interrupted as the Fortnite tournament kicked off in earnest. The announcers were clean-cut, business casual, and they narrated every single play, every last shot. When a player’s avatar died, the crowd roared with delight, like Romans watching a gladiator being torn to ribbons. In the face of all that atavistic shouting and madness, I saw clearly how my own pleasure, my need for victory, my addiction to Fortnite was both a product of, and fuel for, the horrors of late-stage capitalism.

Just as I was trying to make sense of this realization, the crowd began to turn. Their malaise, as the matches grew more intense, morphed into violence. Donkey DJ pumped out song after song of trance music, switching the track every 30 seconds. Everywhere was a mass of churning bodies. Everyone was hopped up on sugar and caffeine. And they were starting to lose control.

Three or four spectators climbed onto the stage and interrupted the play-by-play broadcast. Some kid crawled on top of Donkey DJ. People surged closer to the screen, almost as if hypnotized, almost as if they were trying to enter the game. Security was called. It wasn’t enough. A 12 year old ripped one of the beanbags to shreds, sending tiny white balls flying in all directions. And then it dawned on me: This is what these people wanted, maybe even needed, all along—a true escape. They came to TwitchCon to get as close to Fortnite as they possibly could. To enter the game. But what would happen when they couldn’t? What then?

6.

Later, with Fortnite’s spell forever broken, I spotted the kid I’d seen before, the one with the luminescent blueberry hair. He was fussing at the exit, refusing to leave. His parents called to him. I watched him stomp his feet, grip the door, anger evolving into rage as his parents tried to drag him from the building. But he clung to the doorframe, and his parents eventually gave up and walked away in defeat. In that instant, the kid had to make a choice. His gaze shifted from the real world outside—one filled with family, friends, and actual sunlight— to the Fortnite tent.

I watched him as he shifted his little conflicted body around. He saw the beanbags piled up and packed away. He saw his favorite Fortnite players hanging their heads in defeat. He saw the chasm between the game world and the real world for perhaps the first time in his young life. And in the face of this harsh reality, his eyes grew wide with what I could only hope was some kind of epiphany. Then, he seemed to relax. His tensed muscles relaxed. His manic vibe calmed. Was the dreamer finally waking from his dream?

I don’t know. And I never will know. But, in that moment, I felt a ripple of hope as the blue-haired kid turned around, faced the door, and chose to step back into the world.

TwitchCon 2019 takes place at the San Diego Convention Center from Friday Sept. 27 to Sunday Sept. 29. The Fortnite Open kicks off Friday at 11 a.m. in the Twitch Rivals Arena.

Why We Need to Read the Literature of Incarceration

1.
At my university, I once attended a dinner to help support first-generation students. This was a varied, singular group of students, undergraduates and grad students, who had overcome all sorts of challenges in order to land, and thrive, at Columbia.

The next day, I attended a ceremony celebrating a graduating senior in the Directly Impacted Group, a university-wide organization comprised of students who have been incarcerated or who are impacted by incarceration via family members. Many of the bright, shiny, brilliant students I’d met the day before were in this group as well.

My own family has been affected by incarceration, and none of this actually should come as a surprise considering that fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, including China and Russia. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the U.S. holds five percent of the world’s population yet nearly 25 percent of incarcerated people.

Put another way, if the population of people in prison and jail were a city, it would be a city somewhere in size between Phoenix and Houston. If you added people on probation, the number rises to 7.3 million—somewhere in size between Los Angeles and New York City.

Tandem to the rise of “Supermax” prisons that are often for-profit and constructed solely of solitary confinement cells, is the rise of using local jails and private prisons to confine migrants and asylum seekers. New documents have revealed the widespread use of solitary confinement, often with no reason, in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. Given the numbers of people being incarcerated, the outward radiating effects in the community, and that our tax dollars are paying for it (including private prisons, which often merely take the state budgets and rejigger them for profit), the prison problem should be a concern of every American.

2.
Incarceration exists from the very beginning of America’s history. In 1675, just after the start of King Phillip’s war, 500 Native Americans were imprisoned on a barren strip of land off of Boston Harbor called Deer Island. Half died over the winter, the same Native Americans who welcomed the English to America’s shores in 1621. In the 1880s the site became a concentration camp for Irish fleeing the famine, then it became an actual prison, and is now a sewage treatment plant.

The early 19th century saw the rise of more codified systems, specifically the penitentiary system, also known as the Pennsylvania system, which was rooted in an optimistic idea of social rehabilitation (the “penitence” in penitentiary) versus the “Auburn” system that emphasized prisoners laboring together in silence and physical punishment. The Philadelphia penitentiary system in particular relied almost exclusively on solitary confinement, which resulted in catastrophic mental damage to inmates, causing the system to be abandoned.

The U.S. leads the world in its use of prolonged incarceration and solitary confinement despite bleak statistics that show the ineffectiveness of such a system: a Bureau of Justice study showed that five of six state prisoners were rearrested within nine years, a rate of 83 percent.

The 2019 memoir Solitary, by Albert Woodfox, addresses the prison industrial complex and dangerous overuse of solitary confinement—and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award. Woodfox was held in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine foot cell for more than 40 years—longer than any American. He’d entered the prison system as a teen accused of various crimes, culminating in his arrest for robbery. He escaped from jail, and fled to New York, where he became acquainted with the Black Panther Party and their ideas of organizing and education. He was arrested and extradited to the Orleans Parish Prison where he helped organize a strike that eventually forced the prison to improve its conditions. As punishment, he was sent to the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola, named after the slave plantation that formerly occupied its ground (the plantation itself was named for the African country that was the origin of many slaves brought to Louisiana).

In 1972, when a prison guard was found stabbed to death, Woodfox, despite no evidence linking him to the crime (the guard’s widow would eventually testify that she believed he was innocent), was framed for the murder. He was placed in solitary (also euphemistically rebranded as “closed cell restricted,” CCR) for 44 years and 10 months. In his book he describes it:
We were locked down 23 hours a day. There was no outside exercise yard for CCR prisoners. There were prisoners in CCR who hadn’t been outside in years. We couldn’t make or receive phone calls. We weren’t allowed books, magazines, newspapers, or radios. There were no fans on the tier; there was no access to ice, no hot water in the sinks in our cells. There was no hot plate to heat water on the tier. Needless to say, we were not allowed educational, social, vocational, or religious programs; we weren’t allowed to do hobby crafts (leatherwork, painting, woodwork). Rats came up the shower drain at the end of the hall and would run down the tier. We threw things at them to keep them from coming into our cells. Mice came out at night. When the red ants invaded they were everywhere all at once, in clothes, sheets, mail, toiletries, food.
His case (along with two other Black Panthers, collectively known as the Angola Three) attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other activists. Eventually the murder conviction was overturned and Woodfox was released on his birthday in 2016.

I spoke with Mr. Woodfox, now 72, about how he constructed his powerful memoir.

The Millions: Can you tell me how you started writing the book, and also how you got the physical writing materials at all?

Albert Woodfox: I always knew I would tell the story of what happened to me. But when I was in, I didn’t actually write. People smuggled in writing materials to me, just like we got books. There were ways. In my mental space, I had to stay optimistic and not think about what might happen if I stay in here for the rest of my life. In my mind that would be me wondering if I was ever go free. So I didn’t think about things that deeply. I just took notes. I took notes for 27 years and managed to get those notes out to my brother. But then they were stolen out of his car!

But that’s why I am very open that I wrote this book with [journalist] Leslie [George]. She helped me go through my memory and put the things together.

TM: What was the most difficult part of being in solitary?

AW: I couldn’t go to my mother’s funeral. They don’t let people in solitary out even for that. First thing I did when I got out was have my brother drive me to the cemetery, and because of a delay in my processing, it was closed. The next day, we went to a store and bought out all the flowers and I brought them to my mother’s grave.

Many countries have banned solitary confinement as torture, and the work of psychiatrist and former Harvard Medical School faculty member Stuart Grassian suggests that humans are such social beings that being deprived of contact in solitary confinement causes irreversible mental and emotional damage to set in almost immediately.

The Angola Three have filed a civil lawsuit on the grounds that being locked down 23 hours a day violates Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Their case is still pending.

3.

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander examines how the carceral system rose from the dregs of slavery to control and exploit labor from the black body: A person could be picked up not just for “loitering” but also for “suspected loitering,” and then taken into a prison and put to work via the convict lease system or “chain gang.” Angola prison is literally on a former plantation that named itself for the African country from which its slaves were stolen; one does not need a huge amount of imagination to draw the lines from slavery to the prison system. The “new” Jim Crow aspect of her book shows how the “War on Drugs” has concentrated on the black community, and how—in ways reminiscent of ICE—law enforcement has been able to operate outside the law, often trampling the Fourth Amendment that protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The myth of the missing black father is born out of this war. When politicians and cultural figures—not just right wing pundits but also former President Barack Obama and comedian Bill Cosby—lament missing black fathers, none of them note (nor does the media) that many of these father-child separations are due to arrests for minor infractions, for example, marijuana possession or selling loose cigarettes, as was the case with Eric Garner.

City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 by Kelly Lytle Hernández is a good complement to The New Jim Crow in its examination of the rise of incarceration in non-slave states. The book looks at how histories of native elimination, immigrant exclusion, and black disappearance are behind the rise of incarceration in Los Angeles, which built one of the largest systems of human caging in the world to remove marginalized groups ranging from itinerant white “tramps and “hobos” to Chinese immigrants, African Americans and Mexican immigrants.

In American Prison, journalist Shane Bauer, who himself was held in solitary confinement in Iran, went undercover as a prison guard at a private prison (also in Louisiana) and wrote a widely praised feature about it for Mother Jones. This book exposes not just the shocking conditions of the prison (for guards and inmates alike) but also charts the rise of the private prison system: At a Republican presidential fundraiser in 1983, an executive of the Magic Stove company daydreamed that privatizing prisons would be “a heck of a venture for a young man to solve the prison problem”—i.e., overcrowding from the flood of new, disproportionately nonwhite inmates via the war on drugs—“and make a lot of money at the same time.” Thus the Corrections Corporation of America was born; its first project: converting a motel into an immigrant detention center in Texas. CCA went public in 1986. Thomas Beasley, one of CCA’s founders, told Inc. “You just sell it like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”

American Prison takes an in-depth look at the roots of the idea of incarcerating people for profit: how in the 1990s CCA actually built prisons without state contracts, betting (rightly) on a massive increase in the prison population, and how private prisons make for a system deliberately opaque and shielded from public accountability—they are businesses, not government entities. It’s disturbing to think that early investors included Marriott-Sodexho and a venture capitalist who helped create the Hospital Corporation of America. The book’s historical view makes an important point: Using private prisons for immigrant detention is not something new to the Trump administration but dates back to the 1980s and Ronald Reagan.

4.
Another fundamental but surprising fact about incarceration in the U.S. is that 4 percent of the world’s female population lives in the U.S., but the U.S. accounts for more 30 percent of the world’s incarcerated women. “Total” prison statistics have often obscured the fact that on a state level, women have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population—even to the point where the growth of their populations is significant enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population, i.e., too often, states have an incomplete commitment to prison reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room—a novel for which the author went undercover with a group of criminology students—provides an immersive look at life in a women’s prison. The book’s fictional Stanville Prison is a composite of various women’s prisons, including Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the U.S., and the only one in California to house a death row. The novel follows several characters, including a white GED teacher and an incarcerated cop, but is mainly the story of Romy, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a john who was stalking her. She is very much representative of the female prison population, coming in with a history of trauma, abuse, and drug use, and, like the majority of the women in prison, the mother of a young child who will be deeply affected by her incarceration. Further, she spends significant time in and out of solitary confinement, here rebranded as “administrative segregation,” or “ad-seg.”

To be sure, many people are incarcerated because they have committed horrific crimes. But as a shocking video of a woman giving birth in her cell, scared and alone shows, incarcerated persons are some of the most voiceless and forgotten people in our society. Incarcerated or not, they are still human, they have families, and some will return to society, and as our tax dollars pay for their care (one year in prison costs the same as a year in law school), it is our business to understand how they are being treated—and if they should be incarcerated in the first place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Carles Rabada.

Judging God: Rereading Job for the First Time

“And can you then impute a sinful deed/To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” —Voltaire, “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster” (1755)

“God is a concept/By which we measure our pain.” —John Lennon, “God” (1970)

The monks of the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel would have shortly finished their Terce morning prayers of the Canonical hours, when an earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day in 1755. A fantastic library was housed at the convent, more than 5,000 volumes of St. Augustin and St. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Albertus Magnus, all destroyed as the red-tiled roof of the building collapsed. From those authors there had been endless words produced addressing theodicy, the question of evil, and specifically how and why an omniscient and omnibenevolent God would allow such malevolent things to flourish. Both Augustin and Aquinas affirmed that evil had no positive existence in its own right, that it was merely the absence of good in the way that darkness is the absence of light. The ancient Church Father Irenaeus posited that evil is the result of human free will, and so even natural disaster was due to the affairs of women and men. By the 18th century, a philosopher like Gottfried Leibnitz (too Lutheran and too secular for the monks of Carmo) would optimistically claim that evil is an illusion, for everything that happens is in furtherance of a divine plan whereby ours is the “best of all possible worlds,” even in Lisbon on November 1, 1755. On that autumn day in the Portuguese capital, the supposedly pious of the Carmo Convent were faced with visceral manifestations of that question of theodicy in a city destroyed by tremor, water, and flame.

No more an issue of scholastic abstraction, of syllogistic aridness, for in Lisbon perhaps 100,000 of the monks’ fellow subjects would die in what was one of the most violent earthquakes ever recorded. Death marked the initial collapse of the houses, palaces, basilicas, and cathedrals, in the tsunami that pushed in from the Atlantic and up the Tagus River, in the fires that ironically resulted from the preponderance of votive candles lit to honor the holy day, and in the pestilence that broke out among the debris and filth of the once proud capital. Lisbon was the seat of a mighty Catholic empire, which had spread the faith as far as Goa, India, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; its inhabitants were adherents to stern Iberian Catholicism, and the clergy broached no heresy in the kingdom. Yet all of that faith and piety appeared to make no difference to the Lord; for the monks of the Carmo Convent who survived their home’s destruction, their plaintive cry might as well have been that of Christ’s final words upon the cross in the Book of Matthew: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Christ may have been the Son of God, but with his dying words he was also a master of intertextual allusion, for his concluding remarks are a quotation of another man, the righteous gentile from the land of Uz named Job. If theodicy is the one insoluble problem of monotheism, the viscerally felt and empirically verifiable reality of pain and suffering in a universe supposedly divine, then Job remains the great brief for those of us who feel like God has some explaining to do. Along with other biblical wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs, Job is one of those scriptural books that can sometimes appear as if some divine renegade snuck it into the canon. What Job takes as its central concern is the reality described by journalist Peter Trachtenberg in his devastating The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering, when he writes that “Everybody suffers: War, sickness, poverty, hunger, oppression, prison, exile, bigotry, loss, madness, rape, addiction, age, loneliness.” Job is what happens when we ask about why those things are our lot with an honest but broken heart.

I’ve taught Job to undergraduates before, and I’ve sometimes been surprised by their lack of shock when it comes to what’s disturbing about the narrative. By way of synopsis, the book tells the story of a man whom the poem makes clear is unassailably righteous, and how Satan, in his first biblical appearance (and counted as a son of God to boot), challenges the Creator, maintaining that Job’s piety is only a result of his material and familiar well-being. The deity answers the devil’s charge by letting the latter physically and psychologically torture blameless Job, so as to demonstrate that the Lord’s human servant would never abjure Him. In Bar-Ilan University bible professor Edward Greenstein’s masterful Job: A New Translation, the central character is soberly informed that “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in/the house of their brother, the firstborn,/When here: a great wind came from across the desert;/it affected the four corners of the house;/it fell on the young people and they died.”—and the final eight words of the last line convey in their simplicity the defeated and personal nature of the tragedy. Despite the decimation of Job’s livestock, the death of his children, the rejection of his wife, and finally the contraction of an unsightly and painful skin ailment (perhaps boils), “Job did not commit-a-sin – /he did not speak insult” against God.

Job didn’t hesitate to speak against his own life, however. He bemoans his own birth, wishing the very circumstances that his life could be erased, declaring “Let the day disappear, the day I was born, /And the night that announced: A man’s been conceived!” Sublimely rendered in both their hypocrisy and idiocy are three “friends” (a later interpolation that is the basis of the canonical book adds a fourth) who come to console Job, but in the process they demonstrate the inadequacy of any traditional theodicy in confronting the nature of why awful things frequently happen to good people. Eliphaz informs Job that everything, even the seemingly evil, takes part in God’s greater and fully good plan, that the Lord “performs great things too deep to probe, /wondrous things, beyond number.” The sufferer’s interlocutor argues, as Job picks at his itchy boils with a bit of pottery, perhaps remembering the faces of his dead children when they were still infants, that God places “the lowly up high, /So the stooped attain relief.” Eliphaz, of whom we know nothing other than that he speaks like a man who has never experienced loss, is the friend whom counsels us that everything works out in the end even when we’re at our child’s funeral.

Bildad, on the other hand, takes a different tact, arguing that if Job’s sons “committed a sin against him, /He has dispatched them for their offense,” the victim-blaming logic that from time immemorial has preferred to ask what the raped was wearing rather than why the rapist rapes. Zophar angrily supports the other two, and the latecomer Elihu emphasizes God’s mystery and Job’s impudence to question it. To all of these defenses of the Lord, Job responds that even “were I in the right, his mouth would condemn me. /(Even) were I innocent, he would wrong me… It is all the same. /And so, I declare:/The innocent and the guilty he brings to (the same) end.” In an ancient world where it’s taken as a matter of simple retributive ethics that God will punish the wicked and reward the just, Job’s realism is both more world-weary and more humane than the clichés offered by his fair-weather friends. “Why do the wicked live on and live well,/Grow old and gain in power and wealth?” asks Job, and from 500 BCE unto 2019 that remains the central question of ethical theology. As concerns any legitimate, helpful, or moving answer from his supposed comforters, Greenstein informs us that “They have nothing to say.”

Finally, in the most dramatic and figuratively adept portion of the book, God Himself arrives from a whirlwind to answer the charges of Job’s “lawsuit” (as Greenstein renders the disputation). The Lord never answers Job’s demand to know why he has been forced to suffer, rather answering in non-sequitur about his own awesomeness, preferring to rhetorically answer the pain of a father who has buried his children by asking “Where were you when I laid earth’s foundations?/Tell me – if you truly know wisdom!/Who set its dimensions? Do you know? /Who stretched the measuring line?… Have you ever reached the sources of Sea, /And walked on the bottom of Ocean?” God communicates in the rhetoric of sarcastic grandeur, mocking Job by saying “You must know… Your number of days is so many!” Of course, Job had never done any of those things, but an unempathetic God also can’t imagine what it would be like to have a Son die—at least not yet. That gets ahead of ourselves, and a reader can’t help but notice that for all of His poetry from the whirlwind, and all of His frustration at the intransigent questioning of Job, the Lord never actually answers why such misfortune has befallen this man. Rather God continually emphasizes His greatness to Job’s insignificance, His power to Job’s feebleness, His eternity to Job’s transience.

The anonymous author’s brilliance is deployed in its dramatic irony, for even if Job doesn’t know why he suffers, we know. Greenstein explains that readers “know from the prologue that Job’s afflictions derive from the deity’s pride, not from some moral calculus.” Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu can pontificate about the unknowability of God’s reasons while Job is uncertain as to if he’s done anything wrong that merits such treatment, but the two omniscient figures in the tale—God and the reader—know why the former did what He did. Because the Devil told him to. Finally, as if acknowledging His own culpability, God “added double to what Job had had,” which means double the livestock, and double the children. A cruelty in that, the grieving father expected to have simply replaced his dead family with a newer, shinier, fresher, and most of all alive brood. And so, both Job and God remain silent for the rest of the book. In the ordering of the Hebrew scriptures, God remains silent for the rest of the Bible, so that when “Job died old and sated with days” we might not wonder if it isn’t the deity Himself who has expired, perhaps from shame. The wisdom offered in the book of Job is the knowledge that justice is sacred, but not divine; so that justice must ours, meaning that our responsibility to each other is all the more important.

Admittedly an idiosyncratic take on the work, and one that I don’t wish to project onto Greenstein. But the scholar does argue that a careful philological engagement with the original Hebrew renders the story far more radical than has normally been presented. Readers of Job have normally been on the side of his sanctimonious friends, and especially the Defendant who arrives out of His gassy whirlwind, but the author of Job is firmly on the side of the plaintiff. If everyone from medieval monks to the authors of Midrash, from Sunday school teachers to televangelists, have interpreted Job as being about the inscrutability of God’s plans and the requirement that we passively take our undeserved pain as part of providence, than Greenstein writes that “there is a very weak foundation in biblical parlance for the common rendering.” He argues that “much of what has passed as translation of Job is facile and fudged,” having been built upon the accumulated exegetical detritus of centuries rather than returning to the Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel of Job itself.

Readers of a more independent bent have perhaps detected sarcasm in Job’s response, or a dark irony in God’s restitution of new and better replacement children for the ones that He let Satan murder. For my fellow jaundiced and cynical heretics who long maintained that Job still has some fight in him even after God emerges from the whirlwind to chastise Him for daring to question the divine plan, Greenstein has good news. Greenstein writes that the “work is not mainly about what you thought it was; it is more subversive than you imagined; and it ends in a manner that glorifies the best in human values.” He compares a modern translation of Job 42:6, where Job speaks as a penitent before the Lord, exclaiming “Therefore I despise myself/and repent in dust and ashes.” Could be clearer–>Such a message seems straightforward—because he questions the divine plan, Job hates himself, and is appropriately humbled. Yet Greenstein contrasts the modern English with a more accurate version based in an Aramaic text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where the man of Uz more ambiguously says “Therefore I am poured out and boiled up, and I will become dust.” This isn’t a declaration of surrender; this is an acknowledgement of loss. Greenstein explains that while both the rabbis and the Church wished to see Job repentant and in surrender, that’s not what the original presupposes. Rather, “Job is parodying God, not showing him respect. If God is all about power and not morality and justice, Job will not condone it through acceptance.” Thus, when we write that the book’s subject is judging God, we should read the noun as the object and not the subject of that sentence.

As a work, the moral universe of Job is complex; when compared to other ancient near Eastern works that are older, even exemplary ones like Gilgamesh, its ambiguities mark it as a work of poetic sophistication. Traditionally dated from the period about a half-millennium before the Common Era, Job is identified with the literature of the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews had been conquered and forcibly extricated to the land of the Euphrates. Such historical context is crucial in understanding Job’s significance, for the story of a righteous man who suffered for no understandable reason mirrored the experience of the Jews themselves, while Job’s status as a gentile underscored a dawning understanding that God was not merely a deity for the Israelites, but that indeed his status was singular and universal. When the other gods are completely banished from heaven, however, and the problem of evil rears its horned head, for when the Lord is One, who then must be responsible for our unearned pain?

Either the most subversive or the most truthful of scriptural books (maybe both), Job has had the power to move atheist and faithful alike, evidence for those who hate God and anxious warning for those that love Him. Former Jesuit Jack Miles enthuses in God: A Biography, that “exegetes have often seen the Book of Job as the self-refutation of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.” Nothing in the canon of Western literature, be it Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex or William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, quite achieves the dramatic pathos of Job. Consider its terrors, its ambiguities, its sense of injustice, and its impartation that “our days on earth are a shadow.” Nothing written has ever achieved such a sense of universal tragedy. After all, the radicalism of the narrative announces itself, for Job concerns itself with the time that God proverbially sold his soul to Satan in the service of torturing not just an innocent man, but a righteous one. And that when questioned on His justification for doing such a thing, the Lord was only able to respond by reiterating His own power in admittedly sublime but ultimately empty poetry. For God’s answer of theodicy to Job is not an explanation of how, but not an explanation of why—and when you’re left to scrape boils off your self with a pottery shard after your 10 children have died in a collapsing house, that’s no explanation at all.

With Greenstein’s translation, we’re able to hear Job’s cry not in his native Babylonian, or the Hebrew of the anonymous poet who wrote his tale, or the Aramaic of Christ crucified on Golgotha, or even the stately if antiquated early modern English of the King James Version, but rather in a fresh, contemporary, immediate vernacular that makes the tile character’s tribulations our own. Our Job is one who can declare “I am fed up,” and something about the immediacy of that declaration makes him our contemporary in ways that underscore the fact that billions are his proverbial sisters and brothers. Greenstein’s accomplishment makes clear a contention that is literary, philosophical, and religious: that the Book of Job is the most sublime masterpiece of monotheistic faith, because what its author says is so exquisitely rendered and so painfully true. Central to Greenstein’s mission is a sense of restoration. This line needs to be clearer: Job is often taught and preached as simply being about humanity’s required humility before the divine, and the need to prostrate ourselves before a magnificent God whose reasons are inscrutable.

By restoring Job its status as a subversive classic, Greenstein does service to the worshiper and not the worshiped, to humanity and not our oppressors. Any work of translation exists in an uneasy stasis between the original and the
adaptation, a one-sided negotiation across millennia where the original author has no say. My knowledge of biblical Hebrew is middling at best, so I’m not suited to speak towards the transgressive power of whomever the anonymous poet of Job was, but regardless of what those words chosen by her or him were, I can speak to Greenstein’s exemplary poetic sense. At its core, part of what makes this version of Job so powerful is how it exists in contrast to those English versions we’ve encountered before, from the sublime plain style of King James to the bubblegum of the Good News Bible. Unlike those traditional translations, the words “God” and “Lord,” with their associations of goodness, appear nowhere in this translation. Rather Greenstein keeps the original “Elohim” (which I should point out is plural), or the unpronounceable,
vowelless tetragrammaton, rendered as “YHWH.” Job is made new through the deft use of the literary technique known as defamiliarization, making that which is familiar once again strange (and thus all the more radical and powerful).

Resurrecting the lightning bolt that is Job’s poetry does due service to the original. Job’s subject is not just theodicy, but the failures of poetry itself. When Job defends himself against the castigation of Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu, it’s not just a theological issue, but a literary critical one as well. The suffering man condemns their comforts and callousness, but also their clichés. That so much of what his supposed comforters draw from are biblical books like Psalms and Proverbs testifies to Job’s transgressive knack for scriptural self-reflection. As a poet, the author is able to carefully display exactly what she or he wishes to depict, an interplay between the presented and hidden that has an uncanny magic. When the poet writes that despite all of Job’s tribulations, “Job did not commit-a-sin with his lips,” it forces us to ask if he committed sin in his heart and his head, if his soul understandably screamed out at God’s injustice while his countenance remained pious. This conflict between inner and outer appearance is the logic of the novelist, a type of interiority that we associate more with Gustave Flaubert or Henry James than we do with the Bible.

When it comes to physical detail, the book is characteristically minimalist. Like most biblical writing, the author doesn’t present much of a description of either God or Satan, though that makes their presentation all the more eerie and disturbing. When God asks Satan where he has been, the arch-adversary responds “From roving the earth and going all about it.” Satan’s first introduction in all of Western literature, for never before was that word used for the singular character, thus brings with it those connotations of ranging, stalking, and creeping that have so often accrued about the reptilian creature who is always barely visible out of the corner of our eyes. Had we been given more serpentine exposition on the character, cloven hooves and forked tales, it would lack the unsettling nature of what’s actually presented. But when the author wants to be visceral, she or he certainly can be. Few images are as enduring in their immediacy than how Job “took a potsherd with which to scratch himself as he sits in/the ash-heap.” His degradation, his tribulation, his shame still resonates 2,500 years later.

The trio (and later the quartet) of Job’s judgmental colleagues render theodicy as a poetry of triteness, while Job’s poetics of misery is commensurate with the enormity of his fate. “So why did you take me out of the womb?” he demands of God, “Would I had died, with no eye seeing me!/Would I had been as though I had been;/Would I had been carried from womb to tomb”—here Greenstein borrowing a favored rhyming congruence from the arsenal of English’s Renaissance metaphysical poets. Eliphaz and Elihu offer maudlin bromides, but Job can describe those final things with a proficiency that shows how superficial his friends are. Job fantasizes about death as a place “I go and do not return, /To a land of darkness and deep-shade;/A land whose brightness is like pitch-black, /Deep-shade and disorder;/That shines like pitch-black.” That contradictory image, of something shining in pitch-black, is an apt definition of God Himself, who while He may be master of an ordered, fair, and just universe in most of the Bible, in Job He is creator of a “fundamentally amoral world,” as Greenstein writes.

If God from the whirlwind provides better poetry than his defenders could, His theology is just as empty and callous. Greenstein writes that “God barely touches on anything connected to justice or the providential care of humanity,” and it’s precisely the case that for all of His literary power, the Lord dodges the main question. God offers description of the universe’s creation, and the maintenance of all things that order reality, he conjures the enormities of size and time, and even provides strangely loving description of his personal pets, the fearsome hippopotamus Behemoth and the terrifying whale/alligator Leviathan. Yet for all of that detail, exquisitely rendered, God never actually answers Job. Bildad or Elihu would say that God has no duty to explain himself to a mere mortal like Job, that the man of Uz deserves no justification for his punishment in a life that none of us ever chose to begin. That, however, obscures the reality that even if Job doesn’t know the reasons behind what happened, we certainly know.

Greenstein’s greatest contribution is making clear that not only does God not answer Job’s pained query, but that the victim knows that fact. And he rejects it. Job answers God with “I have spoken once and I will not repeat…I will (speak) no more.” If God answers with hot air from the whirlwind, the soon-to-be-restored Job understands that silent witness is a more capable defense against injustice, that quiet is the answer to the whims of a capricious and cruel Creator. God justifies Himself by bragging about His powers, but Job tells him “I have known you are able to do all;/That you cannot be blocked from any scheme.” Job has never doubted that God has it within his power to do the things that have been done, rather he wishes to understand why they’ve been done, and all of the beautiful poetry marshaled from that whirlwind can’t do that. The Creator spins lines and stanzas as completely as He once separated the night from the day, but Job covered in his boils could care less. “As a hearing by ear I have heard you,” the angry penitent says, “And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up.”

Traditional translations render the last bit so as to imply that a repentant Job has taken up dust and ashes in a pose of contrition, but the language isn’t true to the original. More correct, Greenstein writes, to see Job as saying “I take pity on ‘dust and ashes,’” that Job’s sympathy lay with humanity, that Job stands not with God but with us. Job hated not God, but rather His injustice. Such a position is the love of everybody else. Miles puts great significance in the fact that the last time the deity speaks (at least according to the ordering of books in the Hebrew Scriptures) is from the whirlwind.  According to Miles, when the reality of Job’s suffering is confronted by the empty beauty of the Lord’s poetry, a conclusion can be drawn: “Job has won. The Lord has lost.” That God never speaks to man again (at least in the ordering of the Hebrew Scriptures) is a type of embarrassed silence, and for Miles the entirety of the Bible is the story of how humanity was able to overcome God, to overcome our need of God. Job is, in part, about the failure of beautiful poetry when confronted with loss, with pain, with horror, with terror, with evil. After Job there can be no poetry. But if Job implies that there can be no poetry, it paradoxically still allows for prayer. Job in his defiance of God teaches us a potent form of power, that dissent is the highest form of prayer, for what could possibly take the deity more seriously? In challenging, castigating, and criticizing the Creator, Job fulfills the highest form of reverence that there possibly can be.

Image credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden.

Writing the Present for the Future: ‘The Mezzanine’ vs. ‘White Noise’

As we careen toward the 2020s (!), and I personally careen toward my fifties (!), I have been increasingly experiencing what is probably a universal, and not entirely pleasant shock of aging, i.e., how fucking long ago in history the decade of my childhood exists. Specifically, the 1980s. I was born in 1975, but the ’80s marked the true memorable—in both senses—extent of those verdant years (not so verdant, actually, as most of them were spent in Saudi Arabia, but anyway). The 1980s long ago crossed that invisible cultural line into the realm of nostalgic camp: Pac-Man, early MTV, Arnold Schwarzenegger—even grainy TV footage of Ronald Reagan has long carried with it a kind of hideous sentimental aura. But enough time has passed and sociopolitical changes have occurred that it now exists as wholly in its own time as the ’40s and WWII did when I was a child.

When this amount of time has passed, we can truly evaluate literature from an era, both in terms of how well it captures its own time, and how well it, however obliquely, anticipates or fails to anticipate ours. This seems a particularly pressing question during our current political and cultural insanity: Which books and authors are identifying something true about our moment, and in doing so, perhaps predicting something true about the next? Assuming the existence of readers 40 years from now, they will be able to judge our literature at more or less the vantage we can now judge that of the ’80s. Recently, I happened to reread two of the most-’80s of ’80s novels: Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It struck me what a contrast they provide—two ways of looking at what is now a startlingly previous age.

In The Mezzanine, Baker examines an 1980s office park under a scientist’s microscope. Nothing is too small to escape his notice, nothing too trivial to be beneath consideration: the superiority of paper towels to hand dryers; the overflowing multitudinousness of office supplies in cabinets; different vending machine mechanisms for dropping candy; the subtle kabuki of polite office conversations; the layout of a nearby CVS; an intricate, fantastic meditation on the similarities between office staplers, locomotives, and turntables. Applying a peeled eyeball to the overlooked mundana of office life, is, in fact, the aesthetic mission and basic point of the book. As it undertakes a seeming irrelevancy like tracing the evolution of stapler design from the early 20th century to the present, it invites a reader—unaccustomed to this level of granular detail applied to the banal—to ask what is relevant. Absent the large plot movements and rich character detail we’re accustomed to in fiction, what is left? Well, as it turns out, life, more or less. These tiny objects and customs constitute our lives—in the case of The Mezzanine, our lives as we lived them in the 1980s.

The narrator, Howie, is transfixed by the tiny ingenuities that populate the modern world, and by their evolutionary processes—both technical and cultural. Objects—and ways of using objects—have a lifespan as organic as the lifespans of the invisible humans who invent, market, and use them. The culture or character of any particular age is constituted by the stuff of that age and the way society agrees, by unconscious, collective fiat, to keep it or change it or discard it for something else, sometimes better and often worse. Throughout The Mezzanine, Howie’s little ecstasies about this type of staple remover, or that method of polishing an escalator railing, are tempered by a subtle awareness and anxiety about the loss of these inventions and learned behaviors to an ever-coarsening culture of pure productivity that doesn’t prize them (or anything much besides profit and cost-cutting). 

The book is unostentatiously prescient on this point. At one
point Howie wonders how all of this makes money, how it can last. As he says:

We came into work every day and were treated like popes—a new manila folder for every task; expensive courier services; taxi vouchers; trips to three-day fifteen-hundred-dollar conferences to keep us up to date in our fields; even the dinkiest chart or memo typed, Xeroxed, distributed, and filed; overhead transparencies to elevate the most casual meeting into something important and official; every trash can in the whole corporation, over ten thousand trash cans, emptied an fitted with a fresh bag every night; restrooms with at least one more sink than ever conceivably would be in use at any one time, ornamented with slabs of marble that would have done credit to the restrooms of the Vatican! What were we participating in here?

His thoughts go in this large, abstract direction as a natural extension of his noticing the very small, concrete things around the office. The sheer fact of the material world around him, all of the things that have to be manufactured and bought and cleaned and serviced to maintain the surface of a functioning 1980s office building, is both a delight and a bit of an existential horror at certain points. It feels—and, in fact, will turn out to be—unsustainable. Howie’s apprehension of the coming changes in the economy, the layoffs and downsizing both financial and spiritual that will render this kind of lavish and stable workplace antique, is a kind of involuntary thesis that follows unavoidably from his close reading of his world’s text. Nicholson Baker, via Howie, goes humbly about his quiet work, gathering data and making reasonable inferences about the world, inferences that have largely been borne out by the intervening decades.

In White Noise, Don DeLillo—in almost perfect contrast to Baker—looks at his world with the telescopic eye of a priest or pop-cultural anthropologist, beginning with a couple of large-scale hypotheses about modern culture and gathering particulars from there. Anyone familiar with DeLillo could more or less guess what these general hypotheses are, as they run throughout his body of work in various guises: 1) modern consumer culture is similar to primitive culture, and, related, 2) people want to be in cults.

As is standard operating procedure for DeLillo, the book, via its narrator Jack Gladney, operates in the oracular intellectual mode. There is, for instance, lots of stuff like this (during one of the many scenes in which Gladney watches one of his many children sleep):

I sat there watching her. Moments later, she spoke again. Distinct syllables this time, not some dreamy murmur—but a language quite of this world. I struggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell of ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform…

Et cetera. If you’re not reading too closely, it sounds good, and the massed effect of paragraphs like this—of which there are many in White Noise—is to generate an impression of gnomic wisdom. But what is this actually saying? I suppose: brands infest our collective consciousness, more or less, though it sounds much more mystical than that. It’s never quite clear to me, reading DeLillo and especially White Noise, where the satire begins and ends. Is this supposed to be a parody of the pompous intellectual Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies and wearer of a toga and sunglasses around campus? It would probably be more convincing as satire if it didn’t also sound exactly like Don DeLillo. And if there was much of anything else going on the book besides these sorts of ruminations.

Over and again, we learn versions of the same thing: car names
are like magic words, shopping malls are like temples, the Airborne Toxic Event
is like an ancient Viking Death Ship (to be fair, this is actually one of the
more striking images in the book). This may or may not be true, but it isn’t
especially illuminating on any level beyond the claim itself. The book, one
feels—despite an established critical reputation for its prescience and
incisive cultural vision—is not looking very hard at the things it purports to
look hard at.  

The result is a novel that misses many present or future aspects of Late Capitalism—Trumpism, economic inequity and class struggle, the Internet—and superficially identifies other burgeoning issues—environmental disasters, anti-depressants—without saying anything very noteworthy about them. White Noise’s mode of intellectual engagement is perfectly metaphorized by the Airborne Toxic Event—a large, dark cloud that floats above the pages and across the events of the narrative without bearing down on the characters or reader in any appreciable way, other than conveying ominousness.

DeLillo’s best book, Libra, operates in a mode much closer to The Mezzanine. Though it invokes its share of non-specific quasi-mystical dread, it is a piece of work grounded in the mundane facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life: the abortive time in the military; his awkward marriage to a Russian woman, Marina; the little firings and failures that pushed him, and the country, toward catastrophe. Even the larger circles of intrigue—the CIA and KGB and Mafia and the Cubans—are laboriously researched and rendered, and although a plausible conspiracy is offered, it is a conspiracy of error and stupidity and inertia, and convincing for that reason. Libra notices: it builds its case from the ground up, rather than a big top-down idea that must be proved—that perhaps only can be proved—by exhaustive and unilluminating iteration.

The difference between these novels says something important, I think, about the most fruitful way of looking at our present moment. There is, on Twitter and elsewhere, the constant search for the Big Idea, The Grand Unified Theory of Trump and Late Capitalism. In a media environment that almost exclusively rewards brevity and pithiness, memorable pronouncement is the coin of the realm. In this sense, DeLillo really was prescient—if nothing else, the style of White Noise fully anticipates our era, the superannuation of truth by the impression of truth, or just by sheer impression.

Still, the most important work will always be done on the ground level, with attentiveness to the little particularities. We are always too close to the big thing to see the big thing, and so writers are at best like the blind men surrounding the elephant of their particular era—here, a tail; there, a baffling trunk. The Jack Gladneys and their Big Ideas will not often provide a definitive record of their time, or a projection of the one to come. It will be constructed by the Howies, all the careful and conscientious noticers of the world.

The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms

“A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.” —Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments (1798)

“I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.” —Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

From its first capital letter to the final period, an aphorism is not a string of words but rather a manifesto, a treatise, a monograph, a jeremiad, a sermon, a disputation, a symposium. An aphorism is not a sentence, but rather a microcosm unto itself; an entrance through which a reader may walk into a room the dimensions of which even the author may not know. Our most economic and poetic of prose forms, the aphorism does not feign argumentative completism like the philosophical tome, nor does it compel certainty as does the commandment—the form is cagey, playful, and mysterious. To either find an aphorism in the wild, or to peruse examples in a collection that mounts them like butterflies nimbly held in place with push-pin on Styrofoam, is to have a literary-naturalist’s eye for the remarkable, for the marvelous, for the wondrous. And yet there has been, at least until recently, a strange critical lacuna as concerns aphoristic significance. Scholar Gary Morson writes in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel that though they “constitute the shortest [of] literary genres, they rarely attract serious study. Universities give courses on the novel, epic, and lyric…But I know of no course on…proverbs, wise sayings, witticisms and maxims.”

An example of literary malpractice, for to consider an aphorism is to imbibe the purest distillation of a mind contemplating itself. In an aphorism every letter and word counts; every comma and semicolon is an invitation for the reader to discover the sacred contours of her own thought. Perhaps answering Morson’s observation, critic Andrew Hui writes in his new study A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter that the form is “Opposed to the babble of the foolish, the redundancy of bureaucrats, the silence of mystics, in the aphorism nothing is superfluous, every word bear weight.” An aphorism isn’t a sentence—it’s an earthquake captured in a bottle. It isn’t merely a proverb, a quotation, an epigraph, or an epitaph; it’s fire and lightning circumscribed by the rules of syntax and grammar, where rhetoric itself becomes the very stuff of thought. “An aphorism,” Friedrich Nietzsche aphoristically wrote, “is an audacity.”

If brevity and surprising disjunction are the elements of the aphorism, then in some ways we’re living in a veritable renaissance of the form, as all of the detritus of our fragmented digital existence from texting to Twitter compels us toward the ambiguous and laconic (even while obviously much of what’s produced is sheer detritus). Hui notes the strangely under-theorized nature of the aphorism, observing that at a “time when a presidency can be won and social revolutions ignited by 140-character posts…an analysis of the short saying seems to be crucial as ever” (not that we’d put “covfefe” in the same category as Blaise Pascal).

Despite the subtitle to Hui’s book, A Theory of the Aphorism thankfully offers neither plodding history nor compendium of famed maxims. Rather Hui presents a critical schema to understand what exactly the form does, with its author positing that the genre is defined by “a dialectical play between fragments and systems.” Such a perspective on aphorism sees it not as the abandoned step-child of literature, but rather the very thing itself, a discursive and transgressive form of critique that calls into question all received knowledge. Aphorism is thus both the substance of philosophy and the joker that calls the very idea of literature and metaphysics into question.  The adage, the maxim, and the aphorism mock completism. Jesus’s sayings denounce theology; Parmenides and Heraclitus deconstruct philosophy. Aphoristic thought is balm and succor against the rigors of systemization, the tyranny of logic. Hui writes that “aphorisms are before, against, and after philosophy.” Before, against, and after scripture too, I’ll add. And maybe everything else as well. An aphorism may feign certainty, but the very brevity of the form ensures it’s an introduction, even if its rhetoric wears the costume of conclusion.

Such is why the genre is so associated with gnomic philosophy, for any accounting of aphoristic origins must waylay itself in both the fragments of the pre-Socratic metaphysicians, the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, and the Confucian and Taoist scholars of China. All of this disparate phenomenon can loosely be placed during what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” a half-millennium before the Common Era when human thought began to move towards the universal and abstract. From that era (as very broadly constituted) we have Heraclitus’s “Nature loves to hide,” Lao-Tzu’s “The spoken Tao is not the real Tao,” and Jesus Christ’s “The kingdom of God is within you.” Perhaps the aphorism was an engine for that intellectual transformation, the sublimities of paradox breaking women and men out of the parochialism that marked earlier ages. Regardless of why the aphorism’s birth coincides with that pivotal moment in history, that era was the incubator for some of our earliest (and greatest) examples.

From the Greek philosophers who pre-date Socrates, and more importantly his systematic advocate Plato, metaphysics was best done in the form of cryptic utterance. It shouldn’t be discounted that the gnomic quality of thinkers like Parmenides, Heraclitus, Democritus, and Zeno might be due to the disappearance of their full corpus over the past 2,500 years. Perhaps erosion of stone and fraying of papyrus has generated such aphorisms. Entropy is, after all, our final and most important teacher. Nevertheless, aphorism is rife in the pre-Socratic philosophy that remains, from Heraclitus’s celebrated observation that “You can’t step into the same river twice” to Parmenides’s exactly opposite contention that “It is indifferent to me where I am to begin, for there shall I return again.” Thus is identified one of the most difficult qualities of the form—that it’s possible to say conflicting things and that by virtue of how you say them you’ll still sound wise. A dangerous form, the aphorism, for it can confuse rhetoric for knowledge. Yet perhaps that’s too limiting a perspective, and maybe its better to think of the chain of aphorisms as a great and confusing conversation; a game in which both truth and its opposite can still be true.

A similar phenomenon is found in wisdom literature, a mainstay of Jewish and Christian writing from the turn of the Common Era, as embodied in both canonical scripture such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, as well as in more exotic apocryphal books known for their sayings like The Gospel of Thomas. Wisdom literature was often manifested in the form of a listing of sayings or maxims, and since the 19th century, biblical scholars who advocated the so-called “two-source hypothesis,” have argued that the earliest form of the synoptic New Testament gospels was a (as yet undiscovered) document known simply as “Q,” which consisted of nothing but aphorisms spoken by Christ. This conjectured collection of aphorisms theoretically became the basis for Matthew and Luke whom (borrowing from Mark) constructed a narrative around the bare-bones sentences. Similarly, the eccentric, hermetic, and surreal Gospel of Thomas, which the book of John was possibly written in repost towards, is an example of wisdom literature at its purest, an assemblage of aphorisms somehow both opaque and enlightening. “Split a piece of wood; I am there,” cryptically says Christ in the hidden gospel only rediscovered at Nag Hamadi, Egypt, in 1945, “Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

From its Axial-Age origins, the aphorism has a venerable history. Examples were transcribed in the self-compiled Commonplace Books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which students were encouraged to record their favorite fortifying maxims for later consultation. The logic behind such exercises was, as anthologizer John Gross writes in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, that the form does “tease and prod the lazy assumptions lodged in the reader’s mind; they wars us how insidiously our vices can pass themselves off as virtues; they harp shamelessly on the imperfections and contradictions which we would rather ignore.” Though past generations were instructed on proverbs and maxims, today “Aphorisms are often derided as trivial,” as Aaron Haspel writes in the introduction to Everything: A Book of Aphorisms, despite the fact that “most people rule their lives with four or five of them.”

The last five centuries have seen no shortage of aphorists who are the originators of those four or five sayings that you might live your life by, gnomic authors who speak in the prophetic utterance of the form like Desiderius Erasmus, François de La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, William Blake, Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dorothy Parker, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Hui explains that “Aphorisms are transhistorical and transcultural, a resistant strain of thinking that has evolved and adapted to its environment for millennia. Across deep time, they are vessels that travel everywhere, laden with fraught yet buoyant.” In many ways, modernity has proven an even more prodigious environment for the digressive and incomplete form, standing both in opposition to the systemization of knowledge that has defined the last half-millennia, while also embodying the aesthetic of fragmented bricolage that sometimes seems as if it was our birthright. Contemporary master of the form Yahia Lababidi writes in Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By that “An aphorist is not one who writes in aphorisms but one who thinks in aphorisms.” In our fractured, fragmented, disjointed time, where we take wisdom where we find it, we’re perhaps all aphorists, because we can’t think in any other way.

Anthologizer James Lough writes in his introduction to Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit that “Our time is imperiled by tidal waves of trivia, hectored by a hundred emails a day, colored by this ad slogan or that list of things to do, each one sidetracking our steady, focused awareness.” What might seem to be one of the most worrying detriments of living in post-modernity—our digitally slackening attention spans and inattention to detail—is the exact same quality that allows contemporary aphorists the opportunity to dispense arguments, insight, enlightenment, and wisdom in a succinct package, what Lough describes as a “quickly-digested little word morsel, delightful and instructive, that condenses thought, insight, and wordplay.”

Our century has produced brilliant aphorists who have updated the form while making use of its enduring and universal quality of brevity, metaphor, arresting detail, and the mystery that can be implied by a few short words that seem to gesture towards something slightly beyond our field of sight, and who embody Gross’s description of the genre as one which exemplifies a “concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity.” Authors like Haspel, Lababidi, Don Paterson in The Fall at Home: New and Selected Aphorisms, and Sarah Manguso in 300 Arguments may take as their subject matter issues of current concern, from the Internet to climate change, but they do it in a form that wouldn’t seem out of place on a bit of frayed pre-Socratic papyrus.

Consider the power and poignancy of Manguso’s maxim “Inner beauty can fade, too.” In only five words, and one strategically placed comma that sounds almost like a reserved sigh, Manguso demonstrates one of the uncanniest powers of the form. That it can remind you of something that you’re already innately aware of, something that relies on the nature of the aphorism to illuminate that which we’d rather obscure. Reading 300 Arguments is like this. Manguso bottles epiphany, the strange acknowledgment of encountering that which you always knew but could never quite put into words yourself, like discovering that the gods share your face. Lababidi does something similar in Where Epics Fail, giving succinct voice to the genre’s self-definition, writing that “Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, but briefly.” Indeed, self-referentiality is partially at the core of modern aphorisms; many of Paterson’s attempts are of maxims considering themselves like an ouroboros biting its tail. In the poet’s not unfair estimation, an aphorism is “Hindsight with murderous purpose.”

Lest I be accused of uncomplicated enthusiasms in offering an encomium for the aphorism, let it be said that the form can be dangerous, that it can confuse brevity and wit with wisdom and knowledge, that rhetoric (as has been its nature for millennia) can pantomime understanding as much as express it. Philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point in Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover: 100 Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations, writing that aphorisms “can be too beguiling. They trick us into thinking we’ve grasped a deep thought by their wit and brevity. Poke them, however, and you find they ride roughshod over all sorts of complexities and subtleties.” The only literary form where rhetoric and content are as fully unified as the aphorism is arguably poetry proper, but ever fighting Plato’s battle against the versifiers, Baggini is correct that there’s no reason why an expression in anaphora or chiasmus is more correct simply because the prosody of its rhetoric pleases our ears.

Economic statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides ample representative examples in The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms of how a pleasing adage need not be an accurate statement. There’s an aesthetically harmonious tricolon in his contention that the “three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary,” and though of those I’ve only ever been addicted to bread, pizza, and pasta, I’ll say from previous addictions that I could add a few more harmful vices to the list made by Taleb. Or, when he opines that “Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered,” I have to object. I’d counter Taleb’s pithy aphorism by pointing out that both John Updike and Philip Roth are remembered for their most average writing, that an absurd preponderance of things in our country are named for Ronald Reagan whose entire political career was nothing but mistakes, and that contra the claim that businessmen are never remembered, I’ll venture that my entire Pittsburgh upbringing where everything is named after a Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, or Heinz demonstrates otherwise. The Bed of Procrustes is like this, lots of sentences that are as if they came from Delphi, but when you spend a second to contemplate Taleb’s claim that “If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends” you’ll come to the conclusion that far from experience-tested wise maxim, it’s simply inaccurate.

Critic Susan Sontag made one of the best arguments against aphoristic thinking in her private writings, as published in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, claiming that “An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.” She makes an important point—that the declarative confidence of the aphorism can serve to announce any number of inanities and inaccuracies as if they were true by simple fiat. Sontag writes that “Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details.” Providing a crucial counter-position to the uncomplicated celebration of all things aphoristic, Sontag rightly observes that “To write aphorisms is to assume a mask—a mask of scorn, of superiority,” which would certainly seem apropos when encountering the claim that if you can enumerate why you enjoy spending time with a friend they’re not really your friend. “We know at the end,” Sontag writes, that “the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

An irony in Sontag’s critique of aphorisms, for embedded within her prose like any number of shining stones found in a muddy creek are sentences that themselves would make great prophetic adages. Aphorisms are like that though; even with Sontag’s and Baggini’s legitimate criticism of the form’s excesses, we can’t help but approach, consider, think, and understand in that genre for which brevity is the essence of contemplation. In a pose of self-castigation, Paterson may have said that the “aphorism is already a shadow of itself,” but I can’t reject that microcosm, that inscribed reality within a few words, that small universe made cunningly. Even with all that I know about the risks of rhetoric, I can not pass sentence on the sentence. Because an aphorism is open-ended, it is disruptive; as such, it doesn’t preclude, but rather opens; the adage both establishes and abolishes its subject, simultaneously. Hui writes that the true subject of the best examples of the form is “The infinite,” for “either the aphorism’s meaning is inexhaustible or its subject of inquiry—be it God or nature of the self—is boundless.”

In The Aphorism and Other Short Forms, author Ben Grant writes that in the genre “our short human life and eternity come together, for the timelessness of the truth which the aphorism encapsulates can only be measured against our own ephemerality, of which the brevity of the aphorism serves as an apt expression.” I agree with Grant’s contention, but I would amend one thing—the word “truth.” Perhaps that’s what’s problematic about Baggini’s and Sontag’s criticism, for we commit a category mistake when we assume that aphorisms exist only to convey some timeless verity. Rather, I wonder if what Hui describes as the “most elemental of literary forms,” those “scattered lines of intuition…[moving by] arrhythmic leaps and bounds” underscored by “an atomic quality—compact yet explosive” aren’t defined by the truth, but rather by play.

Writing and reading aphorisms is the play of contemplation, the joy of improvisation; it’s the very nature of aphorism. We read such sayings not for the finality of truth, but for the possibilities of maybe. For a short investment of time and an economy of words we can explore the potential of ideas that even if inaccurate, would sink far longer and more self-serious works. That is the form’s contribution. An aphorism is all wheat and no chaff, all sweet and no gaffe.

Image credit: Unsplash/Prateek Katyal.

Goodnight World-Building

There’s no plot to Goodnight Moon, no characterization, no conflict. Every word written by Margaret Wise Brown and every detail illustrated by Clement Hurd is designed to build the illusion of comfort and stability—much in the same way that Star Wars presents a galaxy of infinite possibilities that includes one where your spaceship’s starter refuses to turn over, or the way that Harry Potter depicts a version of middle school where you are actually special.

In the case of Goodnight Moon, all the words and details—save one notable exception—work together to build Brown and Hurd’s fictional world. In the midst of the book’s mirrored repetition of household objects and animals, the goodnights to the clocks and socks, the kittens and mittens, is a white page with the words “Goodnight nobody” printed on it. It jolts the adult mind out of the trance the book’s murmured sibilants can produce. Goodnight nobody? What does that mean? Who’s nobody? Is children’s literature ur-cozy room haunted? This strange page feels like the point at which the book’s childhood materialism and chronic OCD list-making morph into existential despair (which makes Goodnight Moon the perfect bedtime story of grown-ups too).

But what the adult mind–especially one prone to the nagging-doubt-pre-sleep death spiral–reads as gloom is, in the context of Brown’s micro-fictional universe, just the introduction of the unknown. Worlds, even ones created for children’s bedtime stories, need a little mystery. In this case, not a mystery to solve, but one that remains unsolved; less whodunit and more who-or-what-is-it. For a fictional world to feel real, some part of the story has to reach outside the setting and break the seal of perfect self-containment. There are some characters we will never figure out. Some places we will never understand. Not everyone gets an arc. And sometimes loose ends work better when they are left untied. The least realistic fantasy is that in which everything is revealed, that in which everything adds up. No level of omniscience can answer every question that might occur to the reader. No author is the Laplace’s Demon of her own creation.

But today, many authors and filmmakers seem convinced they really do know the location of every atom in their fictional universes. Instead of expanding their worlds, creators—and the executives pressuring them—exploit them. Characters and settings become resources to tap. The best and most interesting worlds are strip-mined, their forests clear-cut, their mountaintops blown clean off. If you’re successful, you’ll never run out of space that needs to be filled or money that needs to be made. Maximalism has nothing on serialism, the way the infinite cannot compare to the merely big. In other words: Once the mystery of Nobody is solved in the sequel to Goodnight Moon, readers can finally learn what kind of complex and fully-realized life the quiet old lady has once that bunny finally goes to sleep.

This is how minor characters in superhero movies come to have whole worlds built upon them. And each time this happens—every time an unnecessary backstory is explained—some part of the mysterious fictional world dies. These minor characters become load-bearing gargoyles, and their inability to support the weight of the story weakens the entire structure. Perhaps the greater Goodnight Moon universe will support a prequel explaining the deep backstory and life path of the quiet old lady and the personal meeting “hush” has for her. Or maybe that will be where the money and the interest dry up. If they ever do.

In addition to the degradation of fictional universes, this hyper world-building means we spend so much time in familiar (and ever-expanding) worlds that we don’t invest in new ones. Too many choices; let’s just watch something with superheroes in it again. The rules are familiar, and that familiarity creates the illusion of comfort and stability. Goodnight lightsabers. Goodnight wands. Goodnight Godzilla. Goodnight James Bond.

The creation of fictional worlds and universes is an achievement to be celebrated (and rewarded), but so, now, is their stewardship: knowing when to push further and what to leave unspoiled. Not every old lady needs a complex backstory, not every Nobody has to go off in the third act or the third film. Sometimes the mysteries in our fictional worlds can simply be put to bed.

The Time I Opened for Bon Iver: On Allowing Failure to Flourish

Swinging wide the door to The Local Store in Eau Claire, Wisc., it was hard not to feel like a rock star. Not because I am one (What’s the opposite of a rock star?), but because, due to the store’s back-to-back scheduling of events, I was opening for Bon Iver.

All right, that’s not entirely true. Probably not even a little true. What I mean to say is that a song I’d written—the only song I’ve ever written—was being debuted alongside a few other first-time songwriters’ attempts directly before a pre-release listening party for Bon Iver’s latest album, i,i.

My elevation to opening-act status was not made at Bon Iver front man Justin Vernon’s request, but rather, what I imagine was his horror. Nothing like a tune from B.J. “What’s a Flugelhorn?” Hollars to get the party started.

I’d have never written the song in the first place were it not for a solicitation from a local middle school chorus teacher, who gathered together a few writers and promised to set our words to music. Initially, I’d demurred (“I have too much respect for music,” I’d said), but she insisted. And so, we writers momentarily set aside our novels and our essays and tried to determine what a song was supposed to sound like. I had some vague notion, of course, but given my own defection from music following a two-week stint of fifth-grade trumpet, I was feeling vulnerable in a new medium.

And that vulnerability felt glorious.

What a rare gift to be given permission to fail. Or rather, to spin it more optimistically, to “succeed to a lesser extent.” While writing the song, I’d set the bar so low that even I could limp over it. The product hardly mattered. What mattered was the process; specifically, my attempt at utilizing the fundamental skills I employed in other literary genres and applying them to lyrics.

The resulting song—thanks to the talented chorus teacher—wasn’t half-bad. In fact, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a fleeting hint of pride. Not for what I’d done, but for what we’d done together. We took a risk and the risk paid off.

In the hour or so leading up to Bon Iver’s listening party, 40 of us took our seats in The Local Store for a sing-along from our selection of newly-composed songs. As the program neared its end, I turned to spot a roomful of fans anxiously awaiting the Bon Iver listening party, fans that hadn’t intended to hear a B.J. Hollars’s original but may have heard one anyway. And lived to tell of it.

The idea that an amateur like me can share a “stage” alongside a Grammy-Award winning band like Bon Iver (even if only by way of a listening party) speaks to one of art’s greatest gifts: its potential for inclusion. From finger painting to a gallery exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, it’s possible to carve out space for us all. And sometimes, if the scheduling works in your favor, even the same space.

That night, while leaving The Local Store, I watched the Bon Iver fans descend upon the room we’d just vacated. Within minutes, they’d be encircled around a record player in that darkened room, heads bowed as they did that rarest of 21st-century things: sat silently together. The scene was repeated at 59 other locations worldwide, thousands gathering for a first listen of Bon Iver’s latest effort.

Within hours, reviews for i.i. began pouring in. Most were positive, with the exception of a scathing two out of five-star review from The Guardian’s Ben Beaumont-Thomas, who called the album a “misfire,” claiming Vernon’s melodies were “uninspired” and accusing the musician of, on a few occasions, “squat[ting] in his comfort zone.” As for Vernon’s lyrics, Beaumont-Thomas remarked that the songs “feature a few lucid pleas for understanding…amid acid-addled sermonizing.”

Thank goodness he wasn’t there for my opening act, I thought.

For me, Beaumont-Thomas’s final line left the deepest cut, the reviewer arguing that if Vernon is “trying to build Bon Iver into a mini-utopia of shared values,” then “he needs to be a stronger leader.”

To critique i.i on its artistic merit is one thing, but to critique Vernon’s well-known effort to create and support a robust community of artists and musicians—a community, I’ll add, in which even a guy like me can occasionally sneak in the back door—seems a rather low blow. If Beaumont-Thomas means—as I think he does—that Vernon’s so-called “burgeoning hippy paradise” has corrupted his musical vision, then I suppose we can agree to disagree. But for my part, I prefer to think of Vernon’s community of artists as something larger than any album, more vital than any song, and more empowering and inspiring than any review.

While it’s true that my songwriting “career” began and ended with a single song, that song wouldn’t have been written at all were it not for the chorus teacher’s willingness to populate her own “mini-utopia” with imperfect “songwriters” like me. In doing so, she reminded me that vulnerability can serve as rocket fuel for the muse. It doesn’t guarantee greatness, but it guarantees growth.

As all artists know, it’s easy to create the safe thing, but it’s courageous to take the risk. Which is why the art that I admire most invites failure at least as often as success. Leave it to the critics to tell us whether or not we pulled it off. “While they are deciding,” as Andy Warhol famously said, “we’ll make even more art.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniel J. Ordahl.

The Long, Winding Road to Publication

In 1999, I got the phone call every writer dreams of when my agent rang to tell me that William Morrow had made an offer on my first novel, In Open Spaces. The advance was very modest, but I didn’t care. I had been trying to get published for almost 10 years and hadn’t even managed to place a short story yet. Like many writers, I’d had my share of close calls, the most significant one being when I’d had an internship at the Atlantic Monthly and the fiction editor there, C. Michael Curtis, read the first few chapters of In Open Spaces and liked it enough to offer to help me find a publisher. The fact that someone of his stature couldn’t find someone to publish the book was one of many indicators of how challenging the publishing world can be. But eventually, I met the right person and my book found a home.

I’ve met enough writers in the 20 years hence to know that my story is not all that unusual, although I would challenge anyone to match my record of seven different editors for a first novel. About the time the novel was supposed to come out, Morrow was swallowed up by HarperCollins. My editor was laid off, and I was left in limbo for three and a half years, passed from one editor to another—one of whom called to tell me how much she loved memoirs—wondering whether it would ever see the light of day.

But it did, and it actually made a small splash, receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and several other goods reviews, including one in The New York Times. After all those many years of wondering, the reception made me feel vindicated, to the point that I developed a bit of an attitude. I often refer to this as my “Everything I Have to Say Is Absolutely Fascinating” phase. Harper paid for a book tour, and I was convinced this was going to be my life.

I had apparently learned nothing from the parade of editors that left the company while In Open Spaces hung in the balance. I sent my editor at Harper one of the other novels I had written, but he was less than enthused. It was a complete departure from the themes of In Open Spaces, which is historical fiction based on my homesteader grandparents in Eastern Montana. So he asked whether I had anything similar. I had just started working on a sequel, so I sent him the first few chapters.

He was thrilled, and made me a pretty good offer ($20,000) for the book that would eventually become The Watershed Years. I was happy, but decided to push for a couple of things. The first book came out as a quality paperback, and like most writers, I had hoped for a hardcover, so I asked whether he thought that was possible. I also asked if they could raise the advance a bit.

He told me that he thought he could get me those things once the book was finished, but that I would have to turn down this initial offer in the meantime. I talked it over with my agent, who recommended I take him up on it, so I turned down the offer. Of course that editor left the company before I finished the novel. They passed The Watershed Years along to an editor unfamiliar with my work, who turned it down.

I was naturally very disappointed, but I also just assumed that my track record for In Open Spaces would open doors to another publisher. What I didn’t realize is that once you’re dropped by a major publisher, it’s almost impossible to move up to that level again if you are not a Big Name. My first book had sold more than 10,000 copies, which was good for a first novel, but not enough to put me into the category of a sure thing.

So for the next 15 years, I had to scramble to find a publisher for each and every book I finished. I was fortunate enough to land some very good agents, including one at Writer’s House, and one at Brandt and Hochman. But none of them ever got me a book deal. One of the unusual things about my career is that I’ve now sold seven books and no agent ever found the publisher for any of them. It was always a friend—or it was me.

I ended up working with whoever would have me, in most cases regional publishers in Montana. And I have nothing negative to say about any of those people. For the most part, they were dedicated and attentive, much more so than anyone at Harper ever was. But the downside is that your books never get the kind of exposure and distribution that a major publisher provides. As much as I enjoyed working with these smaller houses, I would have gone back to Harper in a second, and I tried to get my foot back in their door many times.

Oddly enough, after one of my books started selling fairly well, the publisher that was distributing it asked if I could get in touch with Harper about obtaining the rights to In Open Spaces. I figured that would be easy since the book was only selling a few hundred copies a year. But to my surprise, Harper declined; the book was still doing well enough that they wanted to hang onto the rights.

Meanwhile, my books continued to get great reviews. Two of them were finalists for the High Plains Book Award for fiction. But that made very little difference when it came to finding someone to publish my next book. So in desperation, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to self-publish two novels for which I hadn’t been able to find a publisher. That campaign raised a healthy amount, and during the process, a Facebook friend, Steven Gillis, founder of Dzanc Books, asked me to send him the novel that would eventually become Cold Country. I thought little of it because I was accustomed to getting my heart broken. But to my surprise, Michelle Dotter, the editor for Dzanc, contacted me with an offer to publish Cold Country.

I have given a lot of thought to those 15 years, and what I learned from that huge mistake of turning down the offer from HarperCollins. I’ve wondered why I would have been so willing to subject myself to being treated like a commodity, as the major publishers tend to do, rather than working with people who value your work for what it is. And one thing became clear. It’s not the money, although that certainly helps. It’s more a matter of being taken seriously, of having your efforts validated. It’s about avoiding that feeling of meeting writers you admire and having them dismiss you because you’re an unknown author. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve experienced this, and it’s an awful feeling.

Eventually, as an artist, you have to listen to that small voice in your head—the one that reminds you about the starred review and the review in The New York Times. That you are still that same writer.

Michelle Dotter proved to be an amazing editor. She came up with a brilliant solution for a narrative problem that had plagued me for years on Cold Country. And just last week, the first review came in, from the notoriously tough journal, Kirkus Reviews. It was a very good review. And I am ecstatic. And it could mean nothing. This could be the only review I get. But it is the first national review I’ve had for any of my books since In Open Spaces, and that alone has meant the world to me.

I will always aspire to greater things. More exposure. Tours paid for by the publisher. All of that is seductive. But, in the end, I needed to figure out if I could live with being a regional, mid-list writer. Is it possible to be happy as someone who has a small, loyal following? As a matter of fact, yes it is.

Image credit: Unsplash/Jesse Bowser.

My Chernobyl

☢ ☢ ☢ a tv show

In an early scene of the recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl the local Pripyat town council is called to a meeting. By this point in Soviet history, these meetings of official Communist Party functionaries—like those portrayed in the scene—served no purpose beyond employing whatever means necessary to save the Party embarrassment from another ideological failure. The set-up is borderline comic, appropriately so, with a tableful of actors portraying crusty, back-slapping Soviet nomenklatura—honest to goodness bad guys—all too ready to swallow the demonic proposal offered by the crustiest Party hack in the room: Shut down the town. Nobody in or out. Cut the phone lines. We can’t allow a general panic. Particularly, the old man insists, since there’s nothing to panic about.

I wondered, though, whether Ukrainians and Belarussians watching Chernobyl wouldn’t guffaw their borscht out their noses at another “Hollywood” attempt to dramatize their aching history. More cultural hash, devoid of nuance, stuffed with comic book Soviet citizens. Had HBO screwed up, casting Anglophone actors who wouldn’t know a Ukrainian from a Taresian from the Delta Quadrant? The actors around that table were not the unflappable, taciturn eastern Slavs I’ve spent half my life among. Not even close.

I was pretty sure of myself: In giving life to Chernobyl, HBO, in a gloriously unintentional blast of irony, had birthed a mutant. A flop. It would sink like a pebble in a pond. Too windy. Far too nuanced for the 280-character generation. And anyway, ancient history. 1986? Pre-internet. People wouldn’t care. For proof, look to the five million Kyivites living within 80 miles of the Chernobyl dead zone, our city hyped by an endless string of millennial puff-pieces about “Kyiv: The New Berlin!”—how bad can the damage be, really? If nothing else, the series would fail because as an internet troll once scolded me: Ukraine is irrelevant. By writing about it I was just promoting American hegemony—a CIA acolyte, a baby boomer stooge pining for the Cold War and looking to disparage Marx.

An assertion that was, of course, as ignorant as it was beside the point. I love Marx. But the exchange did provide a delightfully ironic rendering of what happens when an ideologue bastardizes an otherwise worthy piece of technology—be it the internet or a nuclear reactor—to serve parochial interests.

Back on point: Admittedly, the Chernobyl series faced challenges. People would rather forget. Nuclear physics is hard, and conversely, easy to ignore. Ukraine’s new president, a comedian by trade (there is no joke in this sentence), is currently prodding the Ministry of Culture to turn the Exclusion Zone into a “Tourism Magnet,” and I wish I were kidding about the formulation he chose. Ukrainians who earn their bread and board in the cultural sector have largely adopted an exasperated pose toward the subject of Chernobyl—it’s boring. Insignificant. Ukraine has so much more to offer. A sentiment that oddly recalls Cousin Eddy in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation describing “the Yak Woman” at a local carnival: “She’s got these great big horns growing right out above her ears. Ugly as sin but a sweet gal, and a helluva good cook.” Chernobyl casts Ukraine as Europe’s Yak Woman. And if radioisotopes have anything to say—and they do—it will continue to serve in that role for the next 10 millennia, give or take.

☢ ☢ ☢ the history

Here’s the gist: In the early morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded—the worst nuclear disaster in European history. It came about because a young Ukrainian engineer, Sasha Akimov, did exactly what his boss told him to do and punched the malfunctioning reactor’s big red OFF button.

There’s more to the story—and the HBO series tells it well, with clarity that few physics professors could match—but that punched button would force the permanent evacuation of 350,000 people, kill tens of thousands more, embitter tens of millions, contaminate the greater part of Europe with random showers of radioactive fallout, poison sheep in Britain and Sami tribes in Norway, take a solid $225 billion bite out of an already flailing Soviet economy, and provide a fatal kick to the groin for the USSR.

In the 33 years since, the accident has also resulted in a shitstorm of mendacity, double dealing, and unprecedented opportunity for fiscal corruption in a state celebrated the world over for its genius-level capacity for graft fueled by disinformation. It has produced enough scientific and sociological studies to level a forest, grist for Ukraine’s competing hard-right political factions, and helped fashion at least two nation-states that suffer from chronic, somatically mutated socio-political cynicism.

☢ ☢ ☢ at home in Kyiv

By accident of history I am better positioned to spot the little flaws in the Chernobyl production—the rare anachronism, the even rarer info-dump passing itself off as dialogue and the very-non-Slavic staginess in some of the acting. An example of the latter: In one scene the male lead—in what is an otherwise knee-buckling performance by British actor Jared Harris—stands alone at a bar, knocking back jigger after jigger of vodka with nary a zakuska (munchies, hors d’oeuvre) in sight. Clueless that a true Soviet man, uncharacteristically deprived of zakusky, would take a deep snort of his own sweaty wrist after each gulp.

Yet, I kept watching long enough to confirm a thing or two, namely: goddamn HBO. They don’t make flops. My initial skepticism was wrongheaded. Chernobyl, the mini-series, is good. In places, great. A series to rewatch, if not by me. All it took was a single long crane shot filmed on a street I know well.

The scene in question shook me—wrong word—sent me into a sobbing fit that scared the hell out of my sons, three and five. It was filmed not three blocks from our flat. The Soviet penchant for cookie cutter architecture surely helped in the scouting for locations that resemble those in the ghost town of Pripyat and 1980s Kyiv. My neighborhood had provided one.

Military-drab personnel trucks with the word LIUDY (“people inside”) spray-painted in capital letters on the tailgate pull onto Kyiv’s Kostiantynivska Street. Soldiers fan out along the street to begin the work of conscripting some of the 700,000 volunteers it would take to restore the devastated area to something resembling order. Kostiantynivska is bisected by tram tracks and lined on either side by modernist apartment blocks. When it came on screen, I knew the place immediately—my sons’ kindergarten is in the left of the shot. And there, on the right side, hangs the mistake: a single plastic-aluminum balcony extension for a top-floor flat. If Google street view is dated correctly, that balcony went up during the past four years. It certainly wasn’t there in 1986.

An ugly anachronism, but one that reminds me that in life, as in art, the past, present, and future will meld any damn way they please and there’s nothing we can do about it. Nothing. Particularly when Chernobyl-related relevancies—strontium-90, caesium-137, and plutonium-239 and its 24,000-year half-life—come into play. The spectrum of radioisotopes produced by the 60-ish metric tons of uranium that spewed from the Chernobyl reactor core and were carried by prevailing winds that dropped nuclear fallout across the breadth of Europe before it could be controlled, well, those chunks of burning stardust have a different concept of time.

Yet, Kyiv is home. Safe as Chernobyl milk. My family stays in part because we lack viable options. Also, partly because, despite attempts by cynicism, that relentless bitch, to seduce me, I will show that I am tougher than her. Or at least tougher than I was before I started allowing her room in my heart.

Chernobyl made me mad—not at all what I expected when I sat down to watch in preparation for this essay. Full disclosure: Chernobyl—the accident, not the HBO series—and I have some shared history.

☢ ☢ ☢ an ancient history

I used to be a pastor, a priest, a performer of ancient Christian ritual. As such, I, like most clergy, kept a book called a Pastoral Agenda—a ledger of official sacerdotal function. You get baptized, married, anointed, or buried on my watch and the relevant names, dates, Scriptural text, and attending circumstances go in the book. An earthly spreadsheet with heavenly data.

One crisp autumn day in 2001, I entered a name and the attending circumstances in my leather-bound, gold-leaf embossed Agenda that ended up being the last entry I would ever make as a clergyman. Before I left the Church, taking off the cloth for good, more weddings, funerals, etc. would follow, though they’re mostly a blur. They’re definitely not in my Agenda. I have no conscious memory of it happening, but it’s clear that I stopped writing things down that day.

About two-and-a-half years after that final entry, I would finish my parish work in Ukraine and return to the United States. Six months later I would be released from a psychiatric hospital, now tagged as suicidal, with PTSD, and on full disability: an unholy trinity that puts a hellacious crimp in your job prospects in God’s green America. I did what any sane person would do: I went back to the country that had unmade me. The place that had confronted and continues to confront my demons with its own.

That last entry in the book records the day I spent with a mourning family in a small village in far western Ukraine—day three of a traditional Orthodox Christian funeral. I led the procession from the home to the church. Sang the liturgy. Led the procession from the church to the cemetery. Officiated at the internment. We had a bit of a scare at the church doors where pallbearers traditionally kneel three times, lowering the coffin to the ground before crossing the threshold. That day the pallbearer—only one was needed—nearly stumbled. In the end he managed not to fall, and the Igloo cooler-sized coffin he was carrying was delivered safely to the sanctuary.

The funeral was for a two-year-old boy dead of acute juvenile myeloid leukemia. The 39th funeral I had conducted in Ukraine for a cancer victim under the age of six.

The drive back from that Carpathian village was gorgeous, but I was in a rush because I’d been invited to a talk with a member of UNSCEAR—the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation—meeting with local pediatricians. I disliked her on sight. When she opened her mouth it only sealed the deal. She spoke with the dismissive assurance typical to the breed, telling the room: There is no credible evidence of widespread malign effect on public health from radiation released during the Chernobyl catastrophe. I worked with pediatricians who had, five years running, determined that 100 percent of the children they treated tested positive for hypothyroidism—thousands of children annually. Ukrainian children born a generation after Chernobyl. Their mothers had been girls when it blew up. Their results, these doctors were told, were anecdotal. It was intimated that their research would not be considered for UNSCEAR reporting “as is.”

The dreams can be rough. Dead-eyed parents standing by a grave as the shoebox that holds the desiccated corpse of their little one is lowered into the black soil. The child whose family was so poor that the only coffin they could afford was made of particle board covered in felt. The dead boy’s godfather served as pallbearer. It was raining hard as we walked from the church to the grave and the box began to split apart in his hands. He gripped it tighter before eventually dropping to his knees and weeping in a way that has me praying for senility. Perhaps one day I will unhear him. Or unsee the vision cauterized into my brain of a little girl, pinched and skeletal in her coffin, and the crisscrossing indentations made by the mortician’s stitches holding her tiny mouth shut.

☢ ☢ ☢ the half-life we’re living

In these latter days, Chernobyl adds little to my existence beyond the 1.5-percent pension tax I pay every quarter—certainly an upgrade from toddler funerals and the attendant demons that HBO refused to keep locked in their cage. And there are demons. There are more lurking in this story than the series could ever begin to tell: the State-enforced abortions and the pregnant women crossing borders to avoid them, the ungodly spike in juvenile cancers, the crushing infertility rates, the 31 years it took to finally put a stable cover over the reactor, and, God help us, even profiteering bankers, those nuggets of human toxin that surpass all understanding.

Perhaps the defining phenomenon I draw from Chernobyl is the understanding that there is no limit to the evil we will do to one another. Though perhaps I stand as proof that there is a limit to how much evil the average person can stand. Something the HBO series captured well by centering its story around Valery Legasov, the actual Soviet physicist and inorganic chemist who drove the creation of a team of 700,00—700,000!—first responders by sheer force of will. (You have to admire Soviet maximalism.) The same ragged crew of the unwashed whose daily micro-acts of defiance understood tyranny as a way of life and not just vocabulary for a hyperbolic political tweet. Legasov, though he possessed all knowledge of nuclear fission, and though he spoke the truth to Soviet power in the tongues of angels, could not find sufficient love in his heart and hanged himself in his flat.

Here, close to the core, we have it better than most. Chernobyl hunkers nearby, a daily reminder of the lessons we ignore to our peril. That governments lie. That their noble-sounding intentions will involve, without fail, practical human cost. There is no truth, no nobility, no heart in them. The lie is their native language and murder their craft. Embitterment their true policy. They call some men free while enslaving others. And they take this turn—some sooner, some later—because they are made up of us. We swallow the lie as we feed it. John Le Carré put it well: “Communism. Capitalism. It’s the innocents who get slaughtered.”

Don’t misunderstand, the broader lessons of Chernobyl—if that’s not too quaint—are as unimpeachable as they are immutable: Rogue technology is off its leash; we shit where we eat and the earth groans, indicating it’s had its fill; our institutions, our best ideas, are obsolete the day they are minted. And yet I can’t help but think that these concerns, though disturbing, are altogether predictable phenomena on the spectrum of evil produced by a benthic species with a penchant for deep hostility and murder in its genes.

Svetlana Alexievich, 2015 Nobel Laureate for Literature, told me a couple of years back during an interview for The Millions: “I cannot cover a war anymore. Cannot add to that storehouse of bad dreams. Instead I’m trying to talk to them…about love. But this is hard for us…every story about love inevitably turns into a story of pain. Ours is not a happy culture.” And despite the prevailing timbre of this story, I am not sure I completely agree with her. Chernobyl has given Ukrainians an advantage: the ability to recognize what James Joyce called “the radiance in all things.” They have seen the world as it is. The lie in all its bold potential. They have seen a generation of their children reduced to so much insignificant and unidentifiable particulate, seen those children dismissed as statistically insignificant, and yet they have endured. Who needs happiness when you have hope? Finally, when nothing is as it seems what else is there but hope?

☢ ☢ ☢

I’m sitting on a bench outside my church. Too crowded in there. Too many random nuclei bumping and jostling. Too much heat being generated. This little congregation has an unexpectedly outstanding choir and this Sunday they are singing the Rachmaninoff liturgy—a rare treat. A tram rattles down the block, the same model of tram that’s been traveling along this road for at least the last 33 years. A young woman exits the sanctuary. She is big pregnant and her belly makes it difficult for her to bow and cross herself three times before the church doors. Out and down through the narrow windows float the words of St. John Chrysostom from deep antiquity—let us now lay aside all earthly care—to my ear the spiritual cantus firmus that fueled Rachmaninoff as he labored to compose this otherworldly music precisely as the Russian Empire was beginning its meltdown. The pretty woman smiles at me as she passes.

Image Credit: Oleksandr Khomenko.