Essays

Killing Me Softly

In high school, I used to look forward to study hall because the girl who sat in front of me would spend the whole time gossiping and laughing with me. She was smart and funny and, while I was dreaming of college and traveling and dozens of dramatic relationships, she actually had a fiancé. I was astounded when she told me that he was in his thirties, and just a little controlling.  “But I’m sure it’s all going to work out,” she said. The year we graduated, I lost track of her, busy with college and drugs, and falling in and out of love. But then I ran into old friends and I heard the news. My high school friend had decided that she wanted to go to college. She wanted to be free, so she broke up with her fiancé. She told him all that, on Valentine’s Day, and he quietly left, then came back an hour later and stabbed her 45 times. When I heard that, I was haunted. I needed to make sense of it; I thought I could write her story, but every time I tried, I got stuck. Why didn’t she know that he could be violent? And if she did know, why did she stay? Why didn’t she tell someone? I couldn’t figure it out. And then, ten years later, my fiancé died very suddenly of a heart attack, two weeks before our wedding. My life cracked open. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t read or write, and I once cried so hard in my apartment that a neighbor called the police to make sure I was all right. I wasn’t. I got it in my head that the only thing that might save me was to throw myself into another relationship, to be really busy. “Worst idea in the world,” my friends told me. But I did it anyway. My new boyfriend lived in the future. He was filled with plans of what we would do together, how we’d travel, how we’d someday have a baby -- all things I didn’t really want then because my heart was hollow. But I loved the idea of having a destination, of crowding my life with things that might push away my grief. He moved me into his apartment and began waking me in the middle of the night, whispering, “I love you. Marry me,” and he wouldn’t let me sleep until I said yes, my heart pounding because I knew I never would. He began monitoring what I ate because he thought I wasn’t skinny enough. He got rid of almost all of my black clothing without telling me. “You’d look gorgeous in pastels and ruffles,” he told me, “You’d be much more feminine.” He didn’t want me to see my friends and when I was overly friendly with his he accused me of wanting to sleep with them. Why did I stay? Because I knew if I left, the grief would come flooding back, and that seemed far worse. And my boyfriend never hit or yelled. If there was an insect in the house, he’d take it outside. His voice was always soft and gentle, his demands always prefaced with the words, “Honey, I’m telling you this because I love you.” I worried it over and over in my mind. He had no reason to be mean to me -- he loved me, he said -- so maybe he was right. I saw myself in the mirror and I did look a little fat, so I began to exercise more, to eat less. I fussed with a skirt and thought, maybe it wasn't short enough. Maybe he was right, too, about my wearing ruffles and pastels. So I stayed. One year, and then two. My mother came up and, stunned at how skinny I was, begged me to leave. My friend Marlise made a point of bringing me Cinnabons when we were working together; I ate every crumb and then felt guilty and wondered if he could tell I had stuffed myself when he saw me. And then I started to remember my high school friend, and suddenly, I began to be afraid. One day I went to work on my novel and, to my surprise, a part of it had been rewritten. My boyfriend, seeing my unease, told me that he had done it, that he thought I needed to be funnier. “But it’s mine,” I told him. “My work.” He looked at me, hurt. “Aren’t we the same person?” he said. “Isn’t what I want what you want?” I couldn’t answer because I no longer knew who I was. The thing that finally made me leave was my friend Jo, who lived in Santa Fe and wrote me almost every other day. He had been reading her emails, and he wasn’t happy with what she was saying about our relationship. I called her to ask her not to say anything personal in an email because he read them. “We can talk on the phone,” I said. I thought she’d support me, because she always did, but instead, she yelled at me. “Our friendship is based on the truth and I’m not censoring myself. What are you doing? Why are you with him? You have to get out.” I started to cry. When I got off the phone, I was trembling and terrified, but I went to find my boyfriend. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I don’t want to marry you. I want to be on my own.” And then, in that soft quiet voice, he said, “Honey, you can go, I don’t want to be with you, either.” That’s when I knew how lucky I was. It took me a while to come back to myself. The grief came back harder than ever. But I worked through it with the help of a therapist. My friends took me out to eat. Have bread, they insisted. Order cake. My friend Jane made me come shopping with her but I didn’t know anymore what to choose. “Don’t think, just feel it,” Jane told me and when I drifted towards a short black dress, she told me I’d look great. My friend Linda let me stay at her place nights when I was most lonely. I began to write again. And I began to understand how and why my high school friend had been in that relationship so long. I began to feel sorry that I hadn’t known, that no one had been able to protect her. It took me a few years, but I fell in love and married a smart, creative man who makes me laugh, who told me I was beautiful, who nursed me through an illness. We talk about everything, and sometimes we raise our voices. But that sound, that truth, is so much better than than a hypnotic, quiet voice -- a voice tightening like a garrote. Image: The Return of Persephone, Wikipedia
Essays

Setting a Rant to Music: On Adapting Thomas Bernhard’s ‘The Loser’ for the Opera

In 1998, I wrote music for a production of Friedrich Schiller's play Mary Stuart at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  The director was my friend Carey Perloff, the music was sung by the spectacular men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and the translation of the text was by the writer and Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold.  There can be a lot of down time for a composer and a translator during theater rehearsals so Michael and I passed the time telling each other stories about books we should be reading, and Michael suggested I read Thomas Bernhard's The Loser.  So I did.  As soon as I got back to New York I picked up a copy and I was immediately hooked by the power of the novel, especially the psycho energy of the narrator.  Written in the first person as a continuous stream of jumbled information -- one giant paragraph -- and changing its focus and time and location and perspective and subject matter with almost every other sentence, it really felt like a rant to me -- a condescending, angry, smart, rich, witty, not very nice man ranting about his life.  I couldn't read it silently.  I ended up yelling the entire book to my reflection in the mirror in my bathroom, from start to finish, which was very exciting.  And that day I started imagining what it would be like to add music to it. I was drawn to the tightness of the language, the intensity of the character and to the self consciously indirect way the story is told, but most of all I was drawn by the subject matter.  The novel tells the story of a man, never named in the book, who wanted to be a concert pianist when he was young.  He was good enough to participate in a master class with Vladimir Horowitz, but in the same class was a young Glenn Gould, and the knowledge that Gould would always be a better pianist than he could ever be destroyed his life, and the life of his best friend, Wertheimer, who was also in the master class. There is not much plot.  The narrator’s friend Wertheimer has just killed himself, causing the narrator to reflect on their relationship together, their relationship to Glenn Gould, to the people and places and history of their native Austria, to their wealth and class, and to the odd philosophical thoughts they explored over the years to keep their various Glenn Gould fetishes alive.  And Wertheimer has a sick relationship with his sister, which is discussed in great detail.  Eventually there is a little bit of action -- the narrator goes on a trip to Wertheimer’s hunting lodge to see if he can find Wertheimer’s notebooks, which may contain writings about the narrator, or about Glenn.  That is pretty much it. One way to read the book is as a painful meditation on disappointment.  This is certainly a theme that runs through many of Bernhard’s novels.  The Loser has its own special type of disappointment for musicians, however, which is guaranteed to hit us where we are most vulnerable.  To become a musician is to throw yourself into years of study and practice and hard work, all of which you must pursue wholeheartedly and without compromise, before you can even begin to ask yourself if it might pay off.  It is an immense struggle just to get yourself to a high enough level of sophistication and proficiency that you can see and understand just how much higher you will need to go.  The close connection in The Loser between the erudition of the narrator and his disappointment feels all too real to us. This feeling was also very real to Thomas Bernhard.  Like his narrator, Bernhard trained to be a musician, before a health crisis forced him to give it up.  Many parts of the novel are autobiographical, with odd fake details about Gould that in real life were facts about Bernhard himself.  Most of these details are tiny -- about various diseases or locations.  Bernhard’s sense of musical disappointment, however, is fundamental to the novel.  Not only does it feel authentic throughout, but it also plays into a musician’s deepest fear, that he or she will never be good enough. I had a very personal connection to reading the book and I wanted to preserve that, to make sure that my own reading remained the center of the piece.  And my opera really is in the service of the reading of the book.  I made the libretto entirely out of the (excellent) translation into English, I didn't change a single word or the order in which any of the text occurs, just trimming it all for length -- I wanted to preserve its odd and compelling flow.  And I had an idea of how to stage it that would keep our attention on how the character of the narrator is revealed, and not on the actions described or the physicality of the performers.  I wanted to keep everything as true to a reading of the book as I could make it. I began with cutting the text into a workable libretto.  There is only so much one singer can sing, so there was a lot of amazing, significant material I had to cut out.  I omitted almost all the nasty things the narrator has to say about Austria and Switzerland, which is a huge part of the book.  I ended up having to take out many things that are quite important -- I left out that the narrator is a failed writer, I left out Wertheimer’s funeral and burial, that Wertheimer was Jewish, etc.  What I tried to keep were the things that allow us to see better into the persona of the narrator.  Our perception of him changes across the novel, as Bernhard shows us more of his inner life. It is this aspect of Bernhard’s storytelling that ended up exciting me the most as I went about adapting it.  It seemed to me that managing our perceptions of a character could be a new way to focus action in an opera. Opera traditionally includes love and death and revenge and coincidence and mistaken identity and elephants -- usually a lot goes on.  I loved the idea that the dramatic shape of an opera could be made only out of the changes in how we perceive the motivations of a character, and how the music reveals him to us. I have also been the stage director for this opera.  For the staging I wanted to make physical the separation that the narrator feels from Glenn Gould, and from the life that he did not lead.  I had the idea to seat the audience only in the mezzanine of the Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and build a platform right in front of us, on which the narrator stands.  It seems like he is floating in space, telling us his story, within the giant void of the empty hall.  Two thirds of the way through the piece, the stage behind him begins to glow, revealing a piano floating in the air.  A pianist begins to play, a very delicate and simple music.  We can’t hear it very well, because in front of us a man is singing, very intensely and directed right at us, about his miserable life.  What I hoped we would feel in this staging is that there is something blocking our path to the beauty of the piano on stage, just as the narrator’s path to the piano became blocked.  We become frustrated at not being able to hear the music.  Frustration is a big part of the reading of The Loser as well. I am grateful to all the amazing musicians who have helped me make this piece -- the commanding Rod Gilfry as the narrator, the very sensitive piano virtuoso Conrad Tao, an ensemble of great musicians put together by Bang on a Can and conducted by Karina Canellakis.  Most of all I am grateful to the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and in particular the courageous Joe Melillo, for commissioning this work and for letting me make it.
Essays

Literary Touchstones: On the Life and Death of Marcel Proust

I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him. Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me. By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature. Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read? The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room). There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane. In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man -- a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years -- the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.” The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new? One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many. However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist. There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: "...I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Essays

Freezing White Men for Posterity

When I heard that there was another book by Don DeLillo, I thought, here we go again, another book that is going to be praised by my peers and betters, another book I’ll find pretentious and hard to get into, another book about which I’ll have to reserve judgment. "Visionary," said one blurb. "Prophetic," said another. The reviews also revealed that DeLillo was covering ground I had been writing about for the past year, in its reincarnation in Michel Houellebecq’s novels: terrors of the ailing white male body, a resurrection cult, a clandestine headquarters, a narrator that feels at once pulled and repelled by the idea of preserving his body forever. This sounded so much like Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island that I felt compelled to read Zero K to see just how much DeLillo and Houellebecq’s respective obsessions with death and resurrection converged. On the fourth page of Zero K, the narrator’s father is taking his sick wife to an embalmment and rebirth facility so as to freeze her until a time that her illness might be cured. His son asks, "This is not a new idea. Am I right?" The line is a sly comment on the conception of the book. It is actually almost disconcerting how similar these novels are -- two sides of the same coin. In both books, death becomes yet another experience to be fully curated for the wealthy. Would you like your current body destroyed and and your DNA resurrected in some other human form (The Possibility of an Island), or would you like your organs taken apart and be embalmed in a pod? (Zero K). (You’re probably better off in Houellebecq’s world because he provides us with some news from the future: some of the book is narrated by the clones of the first Daniel to try this technology. We know it has worked.) The narrative switches between the experiences of the first Daniel, and his future clones’ commentary on the life he has lived. He is reincarnated up to the 25th Daniel, when that clone decides to sample the "wilding" way of life -- the life of the descendants of people who have continued to breed in the atavistic manner. We are gently warned that your skin color may determine how well you do in Houellebecq’s future: the wild humans who have resisted cloning and look for food just outside the protective fences are "of Spanish or North African origin." In these tales of the contemporary malaise of the global north, it is women whose bodies are the first to malfunction -- take this verb as broadly as possible -- and through them the central male narrators face their own mortality. In both novels, men continue to be desirable much longer than women do, and the female body suffers for the central male(s) in a sort of ersatz Passion, carrying the cross of aging. "Her body, despite the swimming, despite the classical dance was beginning to suffer the first blows of age […] I recognized the look she wore afterwards: it was that humble, sad look of the sick animal that steps away from the pack," Daniel says of his partner Isabelle, who decides to take her chances with the cloning cult before he does. In the DeLillo-Houellebecq universe, the women do the work of accepting the end of the white body (and hence, of history). In Zero K, not long after they go to the facility called Convergence, the father (Ross) of the narrator (Jeffrey) decides to join his wife in the freezer; he doesn’t want to live a life without her, and adds he can only be the man he is with her. I.e., an older man who can get the attention of a younger, attractive woman. In his obsession with his younger wife, Ross is very much like the original Daniel in The Possibility of an Island, who feels death’s shadow upon him not because his body is falling apart with hemorrhoids and the like, but because his young girlfriend (Is she the second or third woman he’s been with in the novel? Who’s counting? Definitely the youngest and the supplest.) decides to leave him. It is then that Daniel takes up the offer of the Elohimite cult, who are offering to preserve the DNA of their members, to be cloned for use in a better future. Right after he is abandoned by the young girlfriend, Daniel takes a plane, not to Central Asia, where DeLillo’s Convergence is headquartered, but to much nearer Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The headquarters of both these quasi-scientology cults seem to be "off stage," extra murs, outside the city limits. For Houellebecq, it’s enough that this non-space is outside the Mediterranean. For the American DeLillo, the stakes seem to be higher, and the non-place is somewhere beyond the Caucasus, beyond the habitat of whiteness: word play allows him to insert a definition of "Caucasian" in his explorations of geography. The Convergence is "somewhere" in the steppes of Central Asia, a place the coordinates of which Jeffrey gives by saying, if I may paraphrase, neither Kyrgyzstan nor Kazakhstan. Somewhere not far from where the Soviets tested their nuclear bombs, "beyond the limits of believability and law," the very realm of the homo sacer. Both novels are full of screens showing disasters and human ineptitude. Houellebecq’s narrative of teleology is mostly sustained with distaste for what Europeans have done to their culture. They have become too liberal (by allowing women to put careers before service to their husbands) and, oddly, at the same time they have let the occidental way of life be adulterated by the barbarians (letting Islam push Europeans towards "moral austerity"). This is expressed with that very French degout: "It’s sad, the shipwreck of a civilization, it’s sad to see its most beautiful minds sink without a trace -- one begins to feel slightly ill at ease in life, and one ends up wanting to establish an Islamic republic,"Daniel says to Isabelle after she has decided to commit suicide and leave her DNA with the Elohimites. Earlier, talking about his career as a comedian, Daniel explains: "I had built the whole of my career and fortune on the commercial exploitation of bad instincts, of the West’s absurd attraction to cynicism and evil," and gives an account of his offensive brand of humor that we know well from Charlie Hebdo -- bodies washed up on the Mediterranean coast, women reduced to their sex: "Do you know what they call the fat stuff around the vagina? A Woman." For all this, he says, he was called "a cutting observer of contemporary life," a term that Houellebecq might well have borrowed from either his own or DeLillo’s dust jackets. "I looked like an Arab, which helps," he says. "One had to wonder: had my mother always been scrupulously faithful? Or had I been engendered by some Mustapha? Or even -- another hypothesis -- by a Jew?" Daniel fears that not only the culture, but even his own European body has been adulterated by oriental elements. DeLillo’s narrative, on the other hand, seems to proceed with a more inward-facing melancholy, and a friendlier, more romantic form of Orientalizing. Jeffrey’s father’s new beard is heralded as a ritual of entering a new dimension of belief and there are several loaded signifiers that don’t quite add up. By the second page there’s a chador, and a woman’s headscarf is described as "her flag of independence."  In his exoticness scales, Slavic and Turkic languages vie with one another, and the Turkic ones come on top: "In bed I wanted to hear her speak to me in her language, Uzbek, Kazakh, whatever it was, but I understood that this was an intimacy not suited to the occasion." He feels trapped in his father’s language and looks for a way out. "I wanted a non-Roman alphabet," he says. Luckily, in the Convergence philologists are designing an advanced language pared down to its mathematical basics. They plan to get rid of metaphor and simile for the future when the bodies in the pods will be resuscitated. The book is filled with musings on what it means to be a son to a wealthy, famous father who has left him and his mother for a younger woman. Clearly very suggestible, Jeffrey feels absorbed and awed by the Convergence, while Houellebecq’s narrator Daniel maintains his ironic distance and detachment at the Elohimite headquarters for a long time. So whereas Houellebecq’s tone is sarcastic, in many places Zero K is sermonizing (in addition to its many Biblical allusions); it reads like one of those religious pamphlets that passed through my hands as a teenager, a genre I grew to recognize and stay well clear from. The eschatology becomes extremely familiar when Jeffrey wonders what age his father and stepmother will be when they are revived -- the number, certain Muslim esotericists (and Jesus) will tell you, is 33. The book asks too many metaphysical questions we are used to hearing from clerics lusty for new followers: what is the essence of time, is there an afterlife, where does your soul go, when does the person become the body? It’s difficult to tell whether DeLillo is asking these questions in earnest or whether he is trying to mimic the atmosphere of the Convergence in the voice of his narrator. On his first visit, Jeffrey looks at the naked mannequins lining the corridors of the Convergence: "I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me." We are not given a reason why particularly he should be expected to molest lifeless bodies, maybe because, as he keeps reminding us, "he is his father’s son." Jeffrey’s optimism that we will all live to be 100 makes him describe the bodies in the pods as "rendered dead" well before their time -- any dead white body is too young to die. As Jeffrey inspects these "patients" one question that comes to his mind is whether these pod peas get erections; he later later imagines his stepmother in "a state of virgin solitude." In The Possibility of an Island, the 24th clone of Daniel contemplates the bodily degradation of what to him are "primitive" humans and says of the male body: "Subject to aesthetic and functional degradations as much as, if not more than the female, he nevertheless managed to overcome them for as long as the erectile capacities…were maintained." In Houellebecq’s Submission, the protagonist obsesses about how the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign has caused women to give up wearing skirts, reducing his opportunities at leering ; in The Possibility of an Island, Daniel likewise seems to experience changes in the weather as a function of how they will affect the length of skirts. In DeLillo, it must be said, there is little leering, but it isn’t absent. Jeff’s last vision of the Convergence is again to do with the female body -- an impression of a woman’s skirt "lifting in the breeze, the way the wind tenses the skirt, giving shape to the legs, making the skirt dip between the legs, revealing knees and thighs. Were these my father’s thoughts or mine?" Having been seasoned by Houellebecq, I expected Jeffrey to give into the temptation and get into a pod on his second visit to the Convergence, but he desists. What does all this worrying about death and what waits for us afterwards amount to? A grotesque form of nostalgia, Jeffrey says. Nostalgia, possibly, for a time when there was more room for the dead and the dying in our worlds, when the business of death didn’t have to be done off stage, in the bowels of a volcanic island or a wasteland of radioactive fallout. The nostalgia for a more enlightened Occident that was full of purpose, that produced great works of art, that was able to keep itself young and relevant without having to, albeit begrudgingly, let in immigrants from the Orient to quicken itself. Like so many nostalgias working their way across the globe today, it is nostalgia for a perceived golden age, the benefits of which extended only to the chosen few. The rich seem to inhabit an ethereal form of reality in which the day of reckoning can be averted, in which they can transcend both their bodies and histories, whereas other classes seem more tied to their corporeality and finite lives. "In their prime" the men need women to reassure themselves of their libido; in death they need strangers who speak in "different alphabets" to prepare them for the ultimate alienation. Apres moi…not deluge, but -- in Houellbecq’s novel -- a drying up: just as the white body has shriveled up, so has the earth, and time has come for humans 2.0., sans hunger, sans passion, sans bodily fluids. Houellebecq seems convinced that by the time his own body stops there won’t be any proper human lifestyle left worth living. DeLillo, however, is more optimistic: the last image he leaves us is an alignment of the sunset and the New York City grid, the wonder of which is reflected on the face of a boy. Though the old guard may be paralyzed by a sense of narcissistic impending doom, DeLillo, at least, allows for a future that will still have moments of transcending beauty and meaning, reflected on the face of tomorrow’s man.
Essays

There Is No Such Thing as the Young Adult Novel

Here’s a proposition: there is no such thing as the young adult novel. There are, of course, novels written about teenagers and novels that focus on coming of age, novels that that skirt the subjects of sex and drugs and death or, alternatively, focus on our first experiences of them, what the world feels like when you’re just learning its brightest and darkest corners. But when you try to define the category, it remains slippery and elusive: difficult to delimit in terms of content, since YA now covers addiction and rape as readily as -- and sometimes alongside -- first crushes and homecoming dances. YA is impossible to pin down as a reading level when books like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted are getting double-shelved: you can find them in straight fantasy as well as the young adult section. Kate Axelrod has written about the difficulty of selling her first novel, which fell somewhere in the seam between literary fiction and what we understand as YA. And as for who’s reading it, well, recent Neilsen numbers suggest that some 80 percent of YA novels are being purchased by non-teens. The rise of adults reading young adult books has lead to a certain amount of moral panic among cultural commentators: Ruth Graham’s 2014 Slate essay "Against YA" is an often-cited example, but another version seems to pop up every six months or so, most recently Joe Nutt’s "Why Young-Adult Fiction Is a Dangerous Fantasy." (Because it’s gossip, apparently? These pieces often skew sexist, and Nutt’s insistence that a group of largely female authors has denied a generation of young men their own literacy by writing about romance certainly fits the bill.) Graham’s argument and those like it have been ably refuted: by The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other outlets.  Alyssa Rosenberg sums it up best in her Post piece: To simply give up on romance novels or young adult literature as hopeless categories of fiction, fit only for the weak-minded or young and incapable of improvement, is to embrace a kind of snobbery and rigidity about what is worthy and what is not. A hopeless belief in love and happy endings is not the only perspective that’s adolescent. But the moralizers aren’t the only ones panicking. Young adult novels are big business, and as their potential audience expands, a core community of YA authors, bloggers, librarians, and readers are concerned that publishers hungry for crossover hits will dilute the label with books aimed too old -- or even change its name all together, as was suggested at a 2015 panel which touched off a debate across the YA Internet. The concern was more than aesthetic: as librarian Molly Wetta wrote in a piece about the controversy, Young adult literature isn’t a market segmentation or an abstract category to me. YA is Willow by Julia Hoban, which I found with handwritten notes on the inside cover that declared the book had “saved my life” in a teen’s handwriting…To me, and many teen librarians, YA isn’t for anyone’s bottom line. It’s one of the ways we help support the intellectual, emotional, and recreational needs of teens. What had for years been a niche community inhabited largely by teenagers and the adults invested in their stories has, seemingly overnight, become a crowded market and a hip brand. So as adults who’d never heard of YA before Stephenie Meyer (and who haven’t read anything in the category that isn’t by John Green) worry themselves over what their interest in adolescence means, the stalwarts of the YA community are asking themselves a different question, namely: how do we reckon with the fact that, in almost all cases, adults are the ones writing books for teenagers to read? This is where it gets personal. My first novel is, yes, YA . It’s an easy thematic fit, a book about a teenage girl falling in love and discovering her family’s secret history. But the language is, apparently, literary, or that’s what I heard from editors and agents and now sometimes reviewers on Goodreads, who accuse me of having written a whole new category of novel, exactly what Wetta & co. were dreading: young adult for adults. It’s tempting to just go ahead and disagree with this, to say, I wrote my book for teenagers! I did! and leave it at that. It is true, by the way: that’s what I intended when I wrote it. But as anyone who’s written anything -- and especially anything as long and demanding as a novel -- can tell you, your intentions, lovely as they are, don’t always make it into the finished product.  It’s also true that while I wanted the book to appeal to teens, I also, inevitably, wrote the book I, at 26, wanted to write. Young adult books should aim to speak to teens, but they have to use an author’s voice to do it. The bind of writing a young adult novel as a grown up -- which, with very few exceptions, YA authors are -- is that you are necessarily writing towards a category of people that no longer includes you. It used to, of course; it’s not like we have no direct experience of our subject. But that experience is limited and particular and farther away every day; especially in a moment when technology often changes too rapidly to keep up with in real time, faithfully rendering a 16-year-old’s relationship to her cell phone becomes impossible in the often years-long book publishing cycle. Writing young adult novels requires empathy, but it is also somewhat a matter of guesswork. It asks authors to reach across a gap that cannot fully be bridged. Young adult for adults. The phrase rattles around my head all the time now. Regardless of how it was intended, it feels like an insult: like I was showing off for my friends instead of reaching out to readers. I’m an adult who reads YA voraciously and sees no shame in it; in fact, I think most grown ups could use to spend a little more time in touch with their teenage selves, examining and interrogating the stories they absorbed as adolescents. Because before I was a woman who read YA, I was a girl who read everything. Some of what I read was beautiful, was helpful, was funny and wise and tender. That was what I worked to remember. Some of what I read was ugly, or thoughtless, and those were the things that hung around quietly, insinuating themselves into me so seamlessly that it’s taken me all of these years to see them, even just to realize that they are there. I wanted to write a book that helped girls ask themselves the questions it had taken me so long to come to. And I wanted to suggest that the answers might be broader than any book, or genre, or category, could encompass. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I know how my novel will be read or received; I’m a first-time author, and it’s more than possible that I’ve missed the mark. But I hope so much that my adolescent heart and adult perspective will speak to at least a teen or two -- that regardless of whether it fits into anyone’s perceptions of category or genre, my book will find a home on someone’s shelf, and if I’m very lucky, in her life, too. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

Chance Operations at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin

I (like to) believe that in the year 2002, when I started to write my first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, I approached English, my second language, as a system that, through minor detonations of syntax, could be restructured to accommodate my preoccupations. Constraining the use of conjunctions to contort sentences? Worked. Blanking parentheticals after writing them (no seas curiosa Jessica) and then trying to write about their potential content to dramatize blanks in memory? Did not. Relying on chance to retrofit associations into a mostly blank memory of my time at the Hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Perhaps. At my Jesuit high school in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I belonged to a volunteer group known as the apostolic group. Every Saturday we visited the old and the infirm at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. I don’t remember much about my time there besides a long hallway, benches, baskets with bread. Why the impulse to write about what’s mostly a blank? A cynic (like me) might contend that, since the hospice experience fits into the coming of age narrative (boy visits the old and the infirm, hands them bread and milk, realizes the world contains unspeakable suffering, etc.), I am, in retrospect, assigning great significance to my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The contention of the cynic (still me) faces complications. Since back then I’d wanted to become a Jesuit priest, those visits to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin were obvious manifestations of that impulse to become a Jesuit priest, an impulse that to this day provides a dangerous type of solace, incidentally, because if you persist in seeing yourself as the Jesuit priest boy who cared for the old and the infirm, you are prone to overlook the almost nothing you are doing for others now. How to write about mostly blanks? Of course I could have retrofitted so-called telling details, scents, quirks of character, sequences out of the Conflict-Action-Resolution machine, but because the rest of my life already contained so much machine crap (dayjobs, ads, diaper dialogues), and because I believed literature’s sole purpose was to not be machine crap, I attempted alternatives. How about if I open three books at random, I thought, jot down whatever I find compelling in those pages, and see if what I jot down yields any associations that I can outstretch along the long hallway of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? Not everything in chance is chance, John Cage said. One must learn to ask the right question: what are the three books that come to mind when I think of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin? The answer came quickly: The Book of Psalms, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The End of Story by Lydia Davis. The first two came to mind because of their religious associations (the cover of my edition of The Book of Disquiet contains a man in agony, though later someone pointed out the man is just a goalie failing to catch a soccer ball). The End of The Story came to mind because to me it’s a performance of how forgetting the contours of the loved one does not diminish the intensity one feels for the loved one. According to my notes, on March 3rd, 2012, I completed the first cycle of opening each of these three books at random. The next day I completed three more. Only the first two cycles yielded immediate reactions. The reactions to the passages below are from 2012, the reactions to my reactions from 2016. (1) From The Book of Psalms: Do not be mute and do not be quiet, god. Reaction: What did the elderly think of us? Were they really waiting for us on that long hallway? Or were they always there in the afternoons? Where else would they go? None of them had their own room. Reaction to reaction:  The muteness of god many of us members of the apostolic group would experience years later, the muteness of the elderly over the years since I couldn’t remember anything they’d said to me, the white noise of the train in The Silence by Ingmar Bergman -- all of these might have played a role in wondering what the elderly thought of us. I remembered an immense room we weren’t supposed to enter or didn’t want to enter but did, an empty room with tall ceilings and rows of beds where those who were too sick to walk to the long hallway remained. (2) From The Book of Disquiet: Most people are other people. Reaction: Did I wonder who the elderly were as I am doing now? Who were they when they were young? Did they also spend their lives in pursuit of something they didn’t want? Reaction to reaction: We were probably too enamored with our role as saviors of the old and the infirm to wonder who they were, although it isn’t farfetched to imagine many of us did ask them who they used to be, or perhaps they told us without us having to ask them, given we did spend hours sitting next to them on the benches along the long hallway. (3) From End of the Story: When I returned he said very little to me and kept turning away from me, and because he kept turning away from me, I was frightened and couldn’t sleep. Reaction: Perhaps there’s an elderly man along the long hallway who, because he kept turning away from us, frightened us? Reaction to reaction: I can see now why I might have found this passage about turning away compelling. It’s easier to invent someone who’s turning away from you because you don’t have to imagine a face. I also associated this turning away with the men in "The Subway" by George Tooker, although in that painting the men are not turning away but staring in hiding. To imagine the old and the infirm turning away from me felt like the correct representation of them. No matter how often I’ve tried to dismiss the almost blank memory of the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, the feeling that every Saturday we abandoned the old and the infirm has not subsided. This pious retrospective, the cynic (you know who) might add, is useless. Except perhaps to create the illusion you’re a good person. I don’t disagree. Fiction isn’t meant to be useful though. These are just my attempts at remembering my time at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin. The rest of the cycles did not yield enough variations in the material. Seek his presence always, The Book of Psalms said, for instance, but I already knew the answer to the reaction I’d jotted down (and yet was god’s presence to be found in that long hallway?). Asleep, I was even more helpless against them, Lydia Davis wrote, and yes, I was helpless against the memory of old and the infirm, whether I was asleep or awake, but how to represent this helplessness without overdramatizing the minute impact of this helplessness? Perhaps I did not ask the right question. By focusing on books that linked too closely to the hospice Luis Plaza Dañin, I wasn’t likely to unearth new material. For other sections of The Revolutionaries Try Again, I had already tried to focus on books that had no relationship to my content in the hopes that this juxtaposition (the streets of Guayaquil + interviews with John Cage, for instance) would inject new language into content I was too familiar with. But I wasn’t after new material. I was after an atmosphere in which to think about the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Since I had already decided not to invent what I couldn’t remember, the exercise of chance might have created an atmosphere in which to obsess about what I could remember, and it was this narrowing of obsession that (I like to believe) yielded the first series of sentences I would later call “performance of an impulse,” a type of sentence that eschews narration (for the most part) but creates dramatic tension by obsessing on the impulse behind the sentence. Here, then, is the performance of the impulse to remember the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín, which appears in chapter XIII of The Revolutionaries Try Again: The long hallway where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group, Leopoldo thinks, the long hallway like a passageway inside cloisters or convents where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group every Saturday from 3:00 to 6:00, the long hallway with its hollowed benches alongside its walls where the old and the infirm waited for the apostolic group to hand them sugar bread and milk, where the apostolic group performed cheerfulness and chattiness for the old and the infirm, the long hallway that’s probably empty at night just as it is empty for Leopoldo tonight despite all those Saturdays he’d spent there when he was fifteen or sixteen years old, all those Saturdays he spent in that long hallway at the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín trying to cheer up the old and the infirm who’d been forsaken by their families or who had no families or who had nowhere else to go, who had toiled in menial jobs the entirety of their lives just like the masses of people Leopoldo will encounter inside the bus on his way to Julio’s party tonight -- did you even ask the old and the infirm about their jobs, Leopoldo? what could you have possibly said to them to cheer them up? did you actually cheer them up or were you simply a reminder to them that god’s blessings were elsewhere like they’ve always been? -- whose last days were spent along a sunless hallway that smelled like the eucalyptus and menthol ointments they rubbed on their chests, which must have reminded them of the Merthiolate their mothers would swab on their scraped elbows and knees, whose last evenings were spent on donated hospital beds inside rooms with unreasonably high ceilings (why did the Jesuits build those rooms with such high ceilings? so that when the time came for the old and the infirm to die the priests could direct them to the vast pointlessness of the lord above?), inside rooms where Leopoldo and Antonio would stroll among the donated hospital beds with their bread baskets just in case they missed someone on the hallway, just in case someone couldn’t get out of bed but still wanted a sugar bun (what did the Jesuits think this exposure to the suffering of the old and the infirm would do to a band of scrawny fifteen year olds? did the Jesuits think that it would change their lives? that they would grow up to be stalwarts against suffering and injustice instead of growing up to be just like everyone else except every now and then they feel guilty about the suffering of the old and the infirm yet at the same time feel superior to everyone else because they were such good Samaritans then?), the long hallway where the faces and names of the old and the infirm continue to slip from him, year after year one more conversation or gesture or emotion vanishing from that long hallway like a punishment, although if you ask him about it Leopoldo will tell you that he’s not fifteen anymore and does not believe in punishments handed down from a god who’s in any case too busy not existing just as Leopoldo’s too busy not existing or barely existing in that long hallway in the hospice Luis Plaza Dañín. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Essays

An Invitation to Hesitate: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ at 70

Seventy years ago, The New Yorker devoted its entire contents to a single article for the first and only time in its history. With no prior announcement or warning, the August 31st, 1946 issue eschewed the magazine’s trademark cartoons and "Talk of the Town" section in favor of something less frivolous: a 30,000-word article on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The article appeared just over a year after the bombing, and became a surprise sensation: the issue sold out almost as soon as it hit the stands, was reprinted as a special edition giveaway for U.S. Book of the Month Club subscribers, and went on to sell more than three million copies in book form. The piece’s title -- Hiroshima -- represented the intentions of its author, John Hersey; that it is to say, it suggested an air of neutrality. Hersey’s article was not to be a clear-cut damnation of the bombing quoting facts and figures about casualties and the decimation of infrastructure. Rather it would be a simple declaration of the human aspect, somehow so often ignored in the nuclear debate, deferring judgment to the reader. In a style that would later be recognised as a highly influential precursor to the New Journalism movement, Hersey’s article combines the narrative conventions of fiction with intensive research, creating a nonfiction account of the aftermath of the bombing following the intertwined stories of six survivors, all of them ordinary civilians. There is Miss Sasaki, a 20-year-old clerk whose leg is broken when the building she is in collapses. She is rescued, but, unable to walk, she is forced to spend three days under a makeshift corrugated iron shack with no food and water. Her companions are “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn.” None of them speak once for the duration of the three days. There is also Father Kleinsorge, a German priest who seems to come away from the blast relatively unscathed, but suffers for months afterwards from a terrible undiagnosed sickness and finds the cuts he sustains never seem to heal, continually opening up again. Likewise, Mrs. Nakamura and her children suffer from a lingering illness, with her hair falling out in clumps until she is completely bald. Like so many other survivors she also finds herself destitute -- everything she has ever owned is destroyed in the blast. And yet, Hersey reminds us that these are “among the luckiest in Hiroshima” -- the survivors -- and in doing so, he highlights the absurd nature of this kind of indiscriminate weaponry. He tells us that Dr. Sasaki, one of the six protagonists, “calculated that if he had taken his customary train that morning, and if he had had to wait a few minutes for the streetcar, as often happened, he would have been close to the center at the time of the explosion and would surely have perished.” With this realization, every moment of Dr Sasaki’s life gains a sudden significance, because every small factor -- every pause, every moment of chance -- becomes an element leading him to the pure luck of his survival. And what did he do to make him any more worthy of living than anyone else? Hersey suggests all of these themes in a voice of absolute detachment and neutrality. His voice is clearly not aligned to “the Americans,” nor is it to the Japanese. In a way this voice of calm seems almost to emanate from the bomb itself: describing the horrors wrought in a neutral tone that knows nothing can be done to change the reality of what has happened. Although Hersey’s voice is characterized by its impartiality, it is important to emphasize that part of the popular success of Hiroshima stemmed from its ability to truly put American readers into the perspective of the victims for the very first time. When people speak of the atomic bombings as a justified preventative action, or, indeed, when anyone speaks of nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, it is always from the perspective of the aggressor. Hersey’s narrative put readers on the ground, amid the confusion and the fear and the suffering, reminding us that the 100,000 lives sacrificed to potentially save 1,000,000 others included hospital patients, schoolchildren, doctors, mothers, priests, and all manner of ordinary people. Hersey showed the readers of The New Yorker that the victims were people just like them, and it was his gifts as a storyteller (just the year before he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) combined with his journalistic skills that gave the piece its resonance and humane power. Hiroshima ends with the voice of the child -- Hersey quotes from a school essay written by one of Mrs. Nakamura’s children. The child recalls the bombing and aftermath with a sense of excitement, and even fondness. Perhaps the child is still too young to understand the full impact of everything he has seen, but by ending with this voice, Hersey suggests a sense of dread for the next generation; a generation normalized to violence and mass destruction. The structure of Hiroshima reinforces this, with each of the four parts covering a longer period of time: the first narrates the moment of impact, the second the next few hours, the third the next few days, and the final part the following months. This expansion of time moves the reader exponentially further and further from the moment of destruction, highlighting the speed with which a tragedy of this magnitude can become ordinary to us and be forgotten. Indeed, one of the most horrifying things about Hiroshima is the speed with which the survivors, and the city, return to a state of routine and normality. In our current age, in which every refresh of the Web browser brings a new story of tragedy, to be forgotten as quickly as it appeared, it seems that Hiroshima is as relevant as ever. Drone warfare is now a simple fact of life, and the nuclear threat still very much exists. Indeed, just a few weeks ago the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was asked whether she would be “prepared to authorize the nuclear strike that could kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children,” to which she answered, without hesitation or preceding clarification: “Yes.” Perhaps such a sense of assurance is considered a necessary component of leadership, and perhaps any sign of hesitation would be construed as a weakness and a political shot in the foot. However, if Hersey’s Hiroshima teaches us anything it is that there is no such thing as assurance when it comes to nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it suggests that we need leaders who will hesitate; who will consider the woman who puts out her arm for help, only for her skin to slip “off in huge, glove-like pieces.” We need leaders who will stop for a moment to think about the men with empty eye sockets, “the fluid from their melted eyes” pouring down their faces, and remember that the world cannot be so easily divided into "friend" and "enemy." Hesitation is, in fact, what gives us our humanity, and blind assurance is what robs us of it. So consider this anniversary an invitation to hesitate. As is only proper, The New Yorker has made an exception to its subscribers-only policy for access to their archives. You can read John Hersey’s timeless article here. You can read it now, and imagine the many lives that might have been.
Essays

What I Learned on My Debut Book Tour From the Books I Read Along the Way

In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realised they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.” I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come! I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop. Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. “This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.” This was how I wanted to spend my life, too -- as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized. Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published. Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience. I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.” On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay. Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door. Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books. On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was -- or should have been -- the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto. But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women -- but do you do that by again objectifying a woman? But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand. I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later. The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights. By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement. A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read. As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down -- I don’t ask her to sit -- and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour -- but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person -- who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three. Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people. Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash. The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts. Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.” Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great. I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself." And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved. I understand that -- while it is no panacea or cure-all -- vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research. Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs. Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. “It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.” “Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally. I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act -- not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore? So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning -- dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai.  It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world.  That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)? Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss. Village Books, Bellingham, Wash. Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books. I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his '60s puts up his hand. “So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?” I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales. It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand. I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing -- and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people. I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it. “So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?” Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself? I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face -- climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species -- calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo. Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up. “You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.” Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start? Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?” Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question. Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End There are two more stops on the tour -- Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour? two people and a dog is okay, too -- and sometimes, better invitation is better than confrontation rely on social media only so far don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily. What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD). “The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.” We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them. And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

In Order to Live: Story Structure in the Horoscopic Style

In the late 12th century, the father of teenage Leonardo Fibonacci takes him off the North African streets and sets him at the feet of gruff Arab tutors. They can’t help it -- they like the kid, who they can tell is going to be a nightmare until they agree to teach him the Art of Nine Symbols. Back in Pisa, Fibonacci discovers an axiomatic sequence in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). The corresponding ratio describes the pleasing spiral he’s been staring at all day -- it just looks right. Eight hundred years later, a creative-writing student drafting a story is told it might help to draw its plot. And there it is. (See figure A.) Structure Here come the metaphors. John McPhee compares writing a story to prepping a meal, and to the gathering -- crystallizing -- of salt underground. His essay, “Structure,” traces the Continental Divide, pulls on “chronological drawstrings,” and knits the presumed narrative scarf from the “threads” everyone keeps talking about. McPhee encourages students to diagram a story as “a horizontal line with loops above and below it to represent the tangents along the storyline, a circle with lines shooting out of it that denote narrative pathways” (See Figure B.) The rhetorical free-for-all disguises the wide influence of the gist -- the anatomy of storytelling. Speaking of stories, “the shape of the curve is what matters,” says Kurt Vonnegut. Whereas Gustav Freytag’s muse was, sadly, a triangle, the sign and symbol of Fibonacci-McPhee is more like a map. But they’re manifestations of the same idea: of stories seeking, building, bending like a river, or anyways conceived of less as an appeal to a reader than as science-ish fieldwork. This definition of structure -- indeed any definition of it -- begs the question: What if structure is not that geometric or quite so cosmic or even, according to an au courant diagnosis, “televisual?” What if structure consists of questions themselves and not strictly the objects of those questions with which plotting is synonymous: A dead body. An excess of suitors. “A fully armed and operational battle station.” Stories posit a teller in the service of the told, who are now able to, if they must, rate that service with a fractional number of stars. But the novel especially is a kind of hopeless democracy of two. An author and a reader staring at the same machine -- the same story -- not sure if and when it worked. Two privileged children -- serialized TV and narrative nonfiction -- have done so well for themselves that they should have laid the framework bare. But an erudite incoherence about structure is the rule. One thing for sure is that structure’s an anxiety, about a better way to tell a story, and surer proof of our discernment -- that we get it. And so the idea of order in nature settles the nerves. The golden spiral is in the leaves, in shells -- in stories? The Fibonacci-McPhee Sequence Early on in Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire there’s a transition in point of view, from William -- scion, dilettante, and ex-singer in a punk band -- to a blank-slate teen, Charlie, as he removes from its sleeve “the first Ex Post Facto LP from ’74.” This raised my hackles -- though perhaps I should admit to having the quick-trigger hackles of someone with too many bookmarks in too many novels, not to mention paused places in the middle of episode three of season two, etc. Along with the ambitious size of the book, the coincidences of City on Fire have been well scrutinized: “…overstuffed with characters, and the lines of action uniting them fray to the point of breaking;” “overuse of chance discoveries of buried evidence.” There’s a wariness about what exactly the novel’s up to, despite the fact that just a little later it more or less tells you. In what is either a cool nod to, or a hearty embrace of, genre convention, Charlie’s crush, Samantha Cicciaro, is mysteriously shot. But thereafter the book occupies itself less with whodunit than with the shots’ sound waves ringing out into the night, washing over 10 other characters and, in a quantum-mechanical whisper, telling them that no one is alone. City on Fire is a needle threaded between conventional plotting and ambitious “structure.” It finds itself among contemporary novels exhibiting an inflated sense of connection -- storytelling in a kind of horoscopic style. It’s always been an odd thing to chalk up to a matter of belief: that one reader’s definition of a story is to another not a story at all. In a twist you would have never seen coming, “narrative architecture” becomes our term for what’s not necessarily there. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. -- Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science” We have no idea what we’re talking about when we talk about structure. The following terms were used to describe the structure of narratives bearing the mark of horoscopic style (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, City on Fire, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s TV adaptation Game of Thrones): “stereoscopic,” “televisual,” “kaleidoscopic,” “unfilmable” -- at least before the film. These structures were “non-linear,” “multi-head,” “multi-thread,” “rhizomatic,” “fragmented” -- this last appearing so often that I had to wonder just what constitutes whole, homogeneous storytelling. What was it about these structures that was so “innovative” and “experimental?” Or, for that matter, “soap operatic” and “ruthless?” To wit, Cloud Atlas is defined by “mapping” and “maplessness.” Its structure is “cool.” Here’s what happens: The novel’s five story lines culminate palindromically in one central section before the stories pick up in reverse order in the second half of the book (A, B, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, A). But that’s not what’s happening. Circumstantially, the story lines are connected by a birthmark, and, thematically, by music. The Five Narratives are also connected by the fact that Mitchell wrote them impeccably and, in accordance with genre, faithfully. It is said that the author pulled it off by “immersing himself in the different narratives one at a time, even keeping them in different ‘folders.’” Here is structure conflated with something more like process -- the scout’s knot tying oneself to a chair. The story is a function of the author’s method of organizing for himself. McPhee describes his own use of Nabokovian note cards: “Then I move the cards around to see where I’m going to find a good structure, a legitimate structure.” It seems fair to ask: Who’s immersing whom here? Shall we perhaps hold each part of the story and think about whether or not it brings us joy? These are the perils of “world-building.” A Game of Thrones episode marks time by cutting to each of its story lines, from Winterfell to Meereen, ne’er betraying a particular imperative to move the story in any direction but between. There’s a similar call-sheet structure to A Visit from the Goon Squad (the aforementioned rhizome); in her review, Sarah Churchwell sums up horoscopic style quite nicely: Egan’s vision of history and time is also decidedly, and perhaps reassuringly, cyclical: the impacts these characters have upon each other are engineered not by coincidence but by connectedness itself, as the people we bump against and bang into become the story of our lives. Not coincidentally, here is how Hallberg describes his intrepid journalist character: “A receiver. A connector. A machine made exactly for this.” Let us remember our Borges: that absolutely accurate “Map of the Empire” is torn to faded shreds, except, perhaps, where it showed us those places we’d put down our novels. Granted, these books are in almost every way excellent; Egan, Mitchell, and Hallberg are genius naturalists. Capable of invoking anything -- any clipper ship or anxiety or rhododendron. But that kind of genius can be difficult to distinguish from a painterly need to get into the corners of the frame. Structure should be instrumental to a thing’s use; a handle for the writer’s talent. And yet the imperial cartographer’s exactitude somehow became a suitable answer for how to keep a reader in thrall. These novels have been praised for, among other things, ambition, inventiveness, and that they are, but what connects them more than anything else is that they’re romantic about structure. The least we could do is to stop insisting that we’re all referring to the same thing. Which is, generally, convention. Structure is nearly synonymous with aiming for the cheap seats of genre, where the detective and the wizard and the submissive sit together and watch the game. We’ve come to regard suspense as a market force -- an outline in chalk with which to take ingenious exception. And so we’re flush with cool hybrids. MacArthur fellows take on zombies; Ursula K. Le Guin gatekeeping Kazuo Ishiguro; a market for post-apocalypse in full bloom. But whenever much attention is paid to exceptions to the rule, one can only assume the rules are very clear. I’m speaking of genre, but also rent. Writing to market or furiously curating a social media platform are seen as considerations on the level of food on the table. A cottage industry in semi-pro writing has met popular -- and extremely earnest -- demand. In this sense, horoscopic style is both product and allergy to the “tools” of the craft industry; links to a “weak verb converter;” intensive three-day seminars for the low, low price of $995 for tuition and Final Draft software. If our entertainments were piles of San Andrean rubble, wouldn’t we know? Perhaps, but structure has a way of passing itself off as an answer to the very question it presents -- it’s what works. “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages,” McPhee writes. And the other way? “Listeners, we are currently fielding numerous reports that books have stopped working.” -- Welcome to Night Vale, “Station Management” “Fiction is the posing of narrative questions,” is actually something the writer David Lipsky has said aloud on multiple occasions. Lipsky teaches a class of singular usefulness, from which I basically repeat back lessons in a dazed monotone. Men call him Lipsky, and women call him David. We were of one mind to get a good seat, and another to duck and scribble. In class, Lipsky calls on people, a barbaric pedagogic practice literally frowned upon by most of us, and what’s more, there was a preponderance of correct answers -- never a drawing. The idea was that story -- or, synonymously -- structure, is no more and no less than to ask the reader leading questions in the hopes of interesting them. Of a given character -- will she or won’t she be fired, loved, caught, absolved? In the end, the class was approximately half Immunes, with the other half wearing white smocks sporting one of David’s terms of art printed in bold: withheld data. No one likes to be asked what the story’s about. But Lipsky was never referring to the about of the abstract painting or the period of the historical novel. Nothing was an allegory of post-whatsit America. He meant: a girl is trying to fit in at a private school. Or: those letters were forged. And once the story’s little knife is stowed, and a quorum had nodded or squinted or furrowed, he would say ask us to make an annotation in the margin: If a particular story, once begun, should find itself resolved, another story has to take the baton. Now and then I’ll read a novel by a writer who seems to have bought in. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel in two -- the technical term here would be “parts.” Groff sets up the reader for any number of things -- matriarchs withholding approval; a million-dollar bet on the marriage of an implausibly successful playwright to an “Ice queen from nowhere.” Readers will note the use of brackets. Nowhere-ian royalty Mathilde is “pretending to be faithful. [perhaps not].” Groff has referred to these bracketed asides as a “Greek chorus,” but what they are really is an efficient method of opening up dramatic-ironic gaps -- questions. “She couldn’t know, he thought. [She did!]” Ironically it’s the alternatives to “narrative architecture” that can seem a little bloodless and technical. Structure, to George Saunders, consists of “tools with which to make your audience feel more deeply.” These being tools at anyone’s disposal, no matter how inconveniently literary. After all, there are high stakes in life as it is ordinarily lived, which is to say, pitched anxiously between desire and embarrassment. A story that works makes room for the possibility that it won’t. “It wouldn’t have to be good,” says the imperious, soon-wedded older sister in Rebecca Curtis’s “The Toast.” It just “needs to be appropriate.” And yet there are some of us who wouldn’t be caught dead using a “tool.” We might keep it in the drawer by the bed, but what writer told to tell their story, find their own voice -- “in order to live” -- would want to feed it through “clunky machinery.” Who Cares? Case Studies About Star Wars: The Force Awakens, critics had 8, 10, 11, 18, 32, 43, and 77 “questions,” 6 of which were of the “big” variety, 11 of which were size “huge.” And 7, 15, 17, and 25 questions had gone exasperatingly “Unanswered.” Question in this context means “plot hole,” of which 5, 9, 40 (and “20 more” on top of that) were “unforgivable.” Admittedly, some of the enumerated are more like inconsistencies -- does one need a map to reach coordinates in space? -- but many of these questions are entirely intentional plot devices. Where is Luke Skywalker? gets you the movie. Rey’s parentage gets you all three. To be clear, the notable equivalence here is between functional storytelling and the galling lack thereof. It’s hard to say just how this happens, but there might be a clue on the white smock, a variation on the lover’s quarrel: What’s the difference between not telling and a lie? One more case study from the relevant world: Serial. When it became clear that a radio documentary had become a blockbuster, that people loved this murder, Sarah Koenig, it seems, felt herself painted into an ethical corner. Here she is, bristling at the notion of enacting “suspense,” with the NYT Magazine’s question in bold: But the podcast is a hybrid of journalism and entertainment. You have a lot of information, and it seems you’ve structured it for maximum suspense. I don’t think that’s fair…To us, it didn’t feel that different from a really long magazine story or -- you know, any story that you would take care in structuring. In the very first episode, Koenig describes Adnan Syed ’s mild manner -- he doesn’t seem like a vicious psychopath. “I know, I’m an idiot,” says Koenig, her tone pitched to effective self-deprecation. Koenig knows that 12 podcast episodes won’t decide whether in fact evil is human or inhuman. (Not even Janet Malcolm knows: “The concept of the psychopath is, in fact, an admission of failure to solve the mystery of evil -- it is merely a restatement of the mystery.”) If not “suspense,” Koenig admits to “structuring.” But this distinction doesn’t hold up to scrutiny -- not that I question whatsoever Koenig’s integrity. Actually, Serial is too good, and too intelligently structured for her to have a leg to stand on. “I’m an idiot” is a play for identification. (“Silly me.” -- Season Two.) This line -- about looking into Adnan’s big brown eyes -- is right there in the script where, perhaps, there could have been a breakdown of cell-phone tower data (and after a useful delay of an episode or two, a questioning of its accuracy). I have little doubt about which was the better choice. When David Remnick asks Koenig about her method, she says, “I think I’m trying to convey that you can trust me because I’ve done my homework.” And in this sentiment, she sounds a lot like David Lipsky (“Bond with your reader. Tell them honest things.”). This trust is also a kind of structuring -- I know, I’m an idiot. But there are a lot of stories out there, and we tend to pick the one that looks us in the eye and asks, maybe a little preposterously, Can I tell you a secret? Koenig is then asked about decisions she made with Serial’s decidedly unpatented voice. Co-producer Julie Snyder levels with her after an unsatisfying cut: Edit after edit after edit…“It’s not working…It’s not good. I need to know what you -- Sarah Koenig -- make of all this. Otherwise I don’t care. I don’t know why you’re telling me all this...You need to make me care.” I was quite uncomfortable with that initially, but then I realized…That’s the thing that’s going to make you listen to the stuff I think is important. If that sounds a lot like “Keep your eye on the ball,” you’re not wrong. But rest assured that our culture-making class hadn’t even thought of the ball much less kept an eye on it. (See: testaments to their confidence approximately everywhere you look.) Koenig’s discomforted by the idea that making someone else care is indistinguishable from selling it to them. To name just a few of the principled stands against Caring What Anyone Else Thinks: morning pages and the art-therapy discipline; The Compulsive’s Way -- simply not being able to stop; “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching,” or art as vocation (“I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free, where I feel active and present.” -- Elena Ferrante, not on Twitter). This has to do with one’s basic orientation as an author: Is art a means to cultivate or to reach? And if you must insist on writing, I have to ask -- just how acutely do you feel the need to be borne witness to? Because a singular question harries stories at every turn, echoing the unminced words at the Serial editing bay: What is any of this for? Inevitably, the answer occurs somewhat too late: Making someone else care is the highest commandment of structure. Which is why, after the remedial instruction, almost all of what David Lipsky does is prose tips. The theory being that thinking unapologetically in terms of setting things up and paying them off frees the writer to devote themselves otherwise to sentence-making. The syllabus, with few exceptions, is composed of those writers who can really launch ships prose-wise: David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith. In fact, the “system” -- would that it were my own batch of Kool-Aid -- kinda dead-ends at despairingly scintillating talent. But generally speaking that talent is not responsible for America’s mass-market mysteries on short flights; or that which manages to hit her dull and chipped funny bone; or sate her great appetite for vanilla S&M and truer detectives. A working fallacy results. Tent poles such as Game of Thrones, The Marvel Universe -- they have a kind of ideological monopoly on What happens next? But the more we accept the premise that what succeeds in the market works, the easier it is to convince ourselves that the market itself strives to give us the culture we need. [It doesn’t.] The challenge for lit is the same for our culture at large from here on: distinguishing the market’s products from actual voices. “Implausibility is part of the design.” -- Louis Menand, “The Time of Broken Windows” It’s not that Hallberg commits the ordinary fictional sin of superimposing a false meaning on his novel, which is ultimately just as believable as a line drawn to connect any one thing to another. City on Fire may be elaborately plotted, and a story richly told, but it is not given, not structured for us. Though, we can easily exaggerate the author’s sacrifice. It’s not quite walking in front of a tank; maybe more like picking up a shift. A sense of the uncanny, of a kind of empathic genius at work, is as essential an aspect of reading as structure, but most readers, I think, experience design as unforeseen plausibility. Some things do work every time. For example, I go to the physical bookstore and get the “ambitious” book over and over, like Charlie Brown when Lucy promises to hold the football but instead of a football it’s that thing when The Times runs a review by Michiko Kakutani in the daily and then another on Sunday. Tour de force in hand, I go home and read the first chapter with a sheepish sense of my own demography. Along those lines, I can imagine how refining the concept of narrative structure must seem a split-hair, just another narcissistically small difference. Dirty tomatoes and organic stories at $26/lb -- not those factory-farm stories wrapped in pink blood on a bed of Styrofoam. But in the bathwater of authenticity are plenty of real distinctions -- I’m looking at you, Texas barbecue, starting a band, and the notion of a high literature that tells “honest things.” Whenever I hear that triumphalism -- lines grayed, blurred away! -- I find myself fondly missing the clarity of differences. If you divide ten thousand by forty-one, you get two hundred and forty-three, which is Cascadia’s recurrence interval...That timespan is dangerous both because it is too long -- long enough for us to unwittingly build an entire civilization on top of our continent’s worst fault line -- and because it is not long enough. -- Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One” This is where it seems as if I should offer some kind of agnostic politesse. Endorse a descriptivism of storytelling -- all structures are “legitimate.” Any structure that makes you happy. “You don’t choose it so much as it chooses you,” says Carmine Cicciaro, Samantha’s father. It’s always tempting to side with anti-dogmatism. But I can’t do that. Because, what if there is a moral to this story? Structure abides. Ex Machina’s key cards and power-outs; Groff’s unreliable Rashomon-esque narrators of sex after marriage. An out-of-print novelist sees a picture of Britney Spears exiting a restaurant holding a pack of cigarettes, her phone, “and then she’s got my second book.” (“Case #2: Britney”– Mystery Show.) But it is literary reporting that has pretty much become structure’s standard bearer. In Rachel Aviv’s “Where Is your Mother?”, a healthy child cries in an empty apartment, and dust plumes off the bed. “I was born overseas,” the mother says, and nothing else. In “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield,” Daniel Engber asks “What if D.J. had a private chamber in his head, a place where grown-up thoughts were trapped behind his palsy?” Story writes itself, as they say. [Nope.] Then again, a sound almost like clockwork accompanies Kathryn Schulz writing of sixth-century tsunamis, barking dogs ahead of the wave, and a number: 243. In the first few paragraphs of these stories, it feels as if inspiration taken from McPhee’s looping squiggles was only ever as important as his old-hand assurance that the storytelling principle is ethically OK in “narrative nonfiction” or where’s-the-line journalism. I’m not so worried about some moralizing theory of declining attentions spans -- our “distraction.” In fact, nothing could distract me from another form of anxiety: I desperately want to pay relentless attention to only the few, mattering things. Structure, truly evident, directs that attention. If stories are a means to tell us what you “think is important,” then by all means. The policy of bracing honesty has these lesser known clauses: that you have to figure out what most needs to be said, and why anyone should want to hear you say it. If you happen to read pop physics, there’s what’s called the “observer effect.” Any observation affects the experiment (the “collapse of the wave function” -- what happens emerges from a prior limbo of possibilities). The observer effect also applies to the question of structure and the black box of process: none of it works, because it cannot be verifiably shown to have done what it intended to do. Writing is nothing until the precise moment the reader intuits a meaning. I want to tell you something. I can draw the map. Only you can tell me if it goes anywhere. Say the word.
Essays

Screaming Notes the Human Soul Seldom Makes Audible: On Raul Brandão’s ‘The Poor’

1. Raul Brandão debuted in English a month ago without a murmur. We should welcome him with the joyful thrill of discovering a late, great Portuguese novelist heretofore unknown to the Anglo-American world. However the recent publication of The Poor also exemplifies one accidental way of hampering a foreign writer. Although the usual method involves a bad translation, Karen Sotelino gets an A from me for navigating syntactically and lexically close to the original. But what can you do with inaccurate translation of context? According to Dalkey Archive Press, this is “a powerful tribute to the underclasses” and an exposé of the “economic situation in Portugal.” How unexciting: Portugal’s first Modernist novelist downgraded to a turn-of-the-century social realist fiction pamphleteer. DAP could have found more suitable candidates among his contemporaries. Now, bad translations can’t be salvaged, only scraped and rewritten, but let’s see if we can correct Brandão’s haphazard labeling. In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator introduces several people living in a derelict tenement building: a group of prostitutes and thieves; Senhor José, a pallbearer; the unemployed Gebo, his wife and daughter, Sofia; and Gabiru, “a solitary philosopher, slender, as sad as a funeral, and armed with the most formidable and strangest of wisdom in God’s creation.” After this general introduction the plotless narrative dissolve into a series of vignettes about pain, abjection, futility, and hope. Beyond this it’s risky to make strong claims about the novel’s point since Brandão was a very undisciplined, contradictory thinker who wrote from intuition. When he published The Poor in 1906, Portugal had surrendered to Naturalism since José Maria de Eça de Queirós had introduced it in 1874 with The Crime of Father Amaro. In the 1890s, the nation experienced constant political turmoil due to a faltering economy and the rise of the Republican Party, which was hellbent on overthrowing the monarchy, through revolutionary means if necessary (as it happened in 1910). Novelists moved away from excoriating the bourgeois like Eça to depicting the squalid conditions the poor and working classes lived in. Animated by a pamphleteering militancy Eça had always wisely avoided, these propaganda-minded novelists, the majority safely forgotten nowadays, turned literature into a weapon against the crown. In Brandão’s novel we catch glimpses of this shift away from the bourgeoisie to the lumpens in the way he chronicles Gebo’s job-searching daily routine, his wife’s death, his debilitating disease, and Sofia prostituting herself as the household’s breadwinner. Even Brandão’s prominent and compassionate use of prostitutes, a topic Portuguese literature had barely addressed before him, sprang from these circumstances. This, however, is as far as Brandão goes in paying his dues to his time’s littérature engagée. As a journalist, Brandão certainly followed with interest “the economic situation in Portugal,” but this means little to his characters. Too busy taking beatings to read their Karl Marx, the prostitutes, with typical Portuguese passiveness, blame their condition on that blameless entity known as fate; as the morose prostitute Mouca declares, “It’s all over! We’ve all got to suffer!” Gebo is ideal material to join a union and start distributing leaflets, perhaps speak at rallies, but parties are as remote from him as he is from securing a decent pension, and he doesn’t have the leisure to form a political consciousness because he devotes every second to looking for work. Afraid that Sofia will starve, he is goaded by his wife who shouts at him, “Just go out and steal! Steal!”, while regretting to himself, “I’ve been so honest.” As for Gabiru, this “tragic figure, laughing daily along with thieves and soldiers,” is the only one with studies and time to reflect about his own condition, but he’s a useless, inconsistent Dostoyevskian intellectual devising a slipshod philosophical system not even he probably understands in full: He was born to dream. He sighs with relief as he locks himself away in the garret, crying out, “I’m going to think…!” He knows words and theories and has read huge old tomes, yet he’s never seen the rivers and mountains before his very eyes, nor the trees. He delves into profound ideas and has never known reality. Although Brandão, the son of poor fishermen, showed enormous tenderness in his fiction and non-fiction for the downtrodden, he goes beyond poverty as a socio-political cause and uses it to sketch a diffuse theory of suffering as a redemptive virtue and the engine of beauty, creativity, and meaning. “Why were these outcasts born? They wake up defeated, to scrounge, to cry out for scraps of bread, to rest again only in their graves. A dreamless road, that’s their bitter lot: fatigue, humiliation, and hunger,” says the narrator. Lines later he asks, “Why does God create them?” This question obsessed Brandão from 1906 until his death in 1930. Dialogues, allegories, and ruminations lead to a constant refinement of why pain exists and what justifies existence. His prostitutes may resign themselves to fatality, but Brandão saw certainty as an adversary. The novel whirls around the same questions repeatedly like a paleographer trying to decipher hieroglyphs in the hopes of finding valuable knowledge from beyond. Thus, instead of acting like a novelist who builds a plot organically, he carefully constructed his vignettes like a lab scientist devises experiments to validate a hypothesis. This runs the risk of making the narrative monotonous, but it’s also this monomaniac forcefulness that opens up new regions in humanness like an earthquake revealing priceless ruins. Instead of self-analyzing themselves, the characters live beholden to what in Brandão’s oeuvre is ambiguously called the “Dream,” an unsystematised idea that can be likened to the hope that keeps one going, a belief in improvement. “For dregs,” we’re told, “Dreams are the sole form of reality.” Only Gabiru, long considered the author’s alter ego, puts forth an explanation for the existence of pain. He lacks the restful mind conducive to the routine of acceptance the prostitutes and Gebo dull their doubts with. Gabiru thinks like a poet for whom the “splendor of nature” remains a daily novelty: “I cannot get used to it. Every morning it’s as if I were to find myself before monstrous nature for the first time -- gold, green, and blue like her rivers, forests, and roaring ocean.” In this pantheistic worldview, humans are one with the universe and their atoms spin in a cosmic dance of rearrangements. By retaining this gift to allow the world to surprise him, he seems to put up with the burden of existence better. But even if the works of nature resonate with “the words of Him who preaches into the infinite,” at times God also seems like a mere excuse, like the whores’ fatalism. As the narrator says of the poor: “Throughout infinity, it is on their pain that God thrives.” Furthermore, Gabiru’s sense of wonder at the universe comes with the price of constant anxiety; if everything amazes him, he can never convert reality into the ordinary sustenance that allows one to function in society. Even though he thinks he’s found answers, his inquisitiveness smacks of despair. Some chapters contain nothing but his writings’ loose scraps exalting pain: “In order for something radiant to burst forth from matter, what is needed? An ocean of tears.” For him only “suffering creatures are worthy of life, and in reality they are the only ones that live.” Brandão did not accept Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that suffering was useless but turned it into the catalyst that propels development, especially in the arts: To create, one must suffer. It has always been true and remains so, only pain gives life to inanimate things. With a chisel and an inert tree trunk, wondrous works are created, if the sculptor has suffered. Furthermore, with words and lost sounds, with immaterial objects another miracle is possible: to make laughter and dreams, to cause the shedding of tears among other creatures. With the simple, dry letters of the alphabet, some miserable person of genius, immersed in hidden water, builds something eternal, more beautiful and solid than if materials were wrenched from the heart of mountains. Unsurprisingly, love here is equated with self-abnegation and meek endurance: Gebo only ceases to seek a job, to feed his daughter, when his body breaks down; Sofia in turn prostitutes herself to support him through his ailment; Mouca, after slapping Sofia for envying her, asks her to slap her back “so I’ll know you’re my friend;” and Gabiru, in love with Mouca, who does not reciprocate, puts up with the other tenants’ just to be with her. Still, the narrator’s cynical asides always sully this picture of virtue. Of the tenants he says, with a subtle dark humor that runs through the book, “Stray dogs are happier, and trees, incomparably so.” 2. If the metaphysical aspects of the novel should captivate anyone looking for a serious meditation about the human condition, how about knowing that Brandão is also renowned in Portugal for opening up new novelistic possibilities? In the 20th century, he’s to the Portuguese novel what Fernando Pessoa is to its poetry. José Saramago counted him amongst his favorite writers. He’s been lauded as precursor of everything, from Existentialism to the nouveau roman. Although it sounds improbable that in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover, Brandão has the same importance Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have in their respective languages. Beginning with his first novel, he started imploding the Naturalist novel, inventing a personal form that, though largely ignored in his lifetime, would posthumously influence future generations. For instance, he had little regard for rounded characterization. Practically no character has a backstory or a full personality; they’re almost mere voices, or puppets moaning on stages in front of crowds.  “Nary a one talks about her past,” says the narrator about the prostitutes, “in fear of scorn, but they hold it inside, never forgetting.” But then again it’s “always the same story, eternal humus kneaded with tears. They know they were born to suffer and are resigned to it: dregs are necessary.” Childhood, in the novel’s logic, shows up only as a conduit of pain. The Poor also shattered the uniform perspective of the novels of its time. Using short chapters, Brandão shifts from third to first person, sometimes even within paragraphs. Some chapters don’t have clear narrators, demanding that the reader identify the speaker. Not to mention there’s a narrator who seems to simultaneously live inside and outside the narrative, sometimes a tenant, at other times omniscient. He also got rid of plot, and by extension of time. It’s not really a matter of time being fragmentary, like in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, but of time barely existing since the characters, like insects in amber, are immobile. The action does not progress in a straight arrow but grows, like a wall of bricks, by the accretion of identical layers of humiliation and anguish one upon the other, until it’s big and wide enough to block all sunshine. And even if Dalkey has linked the author’s time and place to the themes he dealt with, nothing in the novel really screams Portugal. Thirty years before him, Eça busied himself putting in his pages a Lisbon nowadays still intact for tourists to selfie it. But Brandão’s novel takes place in an opaque limbo of torment, in wherever people withstand futile martyrdom. References to a shared external reality are so rare as to be grating when come across: Baron Rothschild; François de La Rochefoucauld; Hamlet; Sir John Falstaff; the Portuguese currency at the time, the real; the poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage; the Republican Party; Don Quixote; and Brazil. By my count that’s all that identifies the book’s world as possibly ours. It’s a far cry from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin and John dos Passos’s New York. The only contemporary with a higher disregard for a sense of place was Kafka. Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist. He had no axes to grind with the past. Pessoa burst in 1915 with a loud magazine called Orpheu thundering his alignment with several avant-garde movements burning through Europe, basking in his own cosmopolitism, and judging his predecessors inferior. Brandão, 20 years older, stayed in his corner, minding himself, provincially averse to manifestos and doctrines. In 1921, his friend and poet Augusto Casimiro noted down his indifference to his contemporaries. Only “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the unpublished chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, discovered in November of that year, galvanized him. He shared with him the psychological intensity, the philosophical skirmishes, the reduction of characters into living ideas, the absurd, and the pity for the downtrodden. (Crime and Punishment had been serialized in Portugal in 1897.) But Brandão couldn’t abhor another writer’s language and structure, and so he gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions. In effect his novels became less dramatic and more monological, in order perhaps, as Gabiru writes, “To allow my whole universe to speak, allow all that is inside me preach in its hoarse voice.” Elsewhere our unhinged philosopher writes that there is no inanimate thing “that does not have a voice and that does not make its confession.” The sermon and the confession: one-way modes of speech, centered upon the self and, one presumes, more authentic. Brandão wanted his own system to externalize what existed only inside him. Since literariness, for him, obfuscated the self, his search for individualistic expression implied paring his language down to a slapdash style. This is most obvious in his use of repetition, in particular the repetition of a vocabulary consistent from novel to novel: tree, river, pain, cry, ludicrous, humus, root, water, scream, dream. The word “moonlight” shows up seven times on page 119. Before reading Sotelino’s translation, I worried about this; too often translators confuse repetition with sloppiness, and their urge is to prettify the prose. Milan Kundera once complained about the translators who had made Kafka’s prose more literary because they couldn’t accept simplicity in such a great writer. But repetition is one of Brandão’s trademarks, the consequence of his obsessively inhabiting one theme during a lifetime; and so Sotelino is to be commended for having kept the oftentimes tedious lexicon instead of succumbing to synonyms. You can tell she paid attention when you can find whole sentences repeated: “The sister would kiss and caress me…”, “He stirs the embers of his ideas and he’s never looked life in the face.” The Pallbearer’s “hoarse, raspy chest” shows up twice, as does Gebo’s daily search for some “measly spare change.” Not even chapter titles are spared (“Gebo’s Story” and “Gabiru’s Philosophy” appear each in four chapters). But the book’s most notorious repetition is in its use of natural imagery. For instance there’s a gigantic river metaphor that engulfs the novel from the opening paragraph on: Like a mysterious wave rolling in from some unknown ocean, it begins to rain. A sweet sound, that of the rain. Recalling so many things, lost and sad! At first the soaked earth swells, and when it bursts there’s a rush so torrential, the rocks are left glistening. It plows through the earth, exposing roots, dragging humus through the deluge along with dried leaves, dead animals, rocky dregs all swirling together, then dissolving, stirring into the foamy water, headed to the unknown. Such is life. A river of moaning, tears, and mystery. A murky wave exposes the deepest roots, as a torrential rush engulfs all disgrace and laughter, relentlessly dragging this human humus up to some shore, where the filthy hands of the suffering finally find another helping hand; where their exhausted, tearful eyes are amazed before an eternal dawn, and where dreams are made real… This metaphor then breaks up into tributaries that flow into the narrative. We see water as life, “Life for you was like clear running water through the hands of one of those statues you see in the fountains.” But its flux is also a symbol of death, mixing decayed matter, “Leaves from trees, things rotting in the shadows wanted to join the eternal flood.” Likewise, we read that this “question of death, although present since time immemorial, terrifies us like a huge river bringing ideas, explanations, and theories to the surface.” Water sates but it’s also the aforementioned “ocean of tears.” People drown in envy, “The others, sensing he was still happy, dragged him down, like the drowning do to those trying to save them.” Finally, the river is the duality of life itself that can’t be resolved: “All rivers, like all lives, eventually flow into the great ocean of beauty. The existence of humble, simple creatures is like a current -- of water or tears, but always clear. Anger, ambition, self-interest make life murky, like swirling dirt makes water dirty.” That this extended metaphor cascades so crystalline down the novel is a testament to Sotelino’s craftsmanship. Although he lacks the pyrotechnics of António Lobo Antunes, Brandão’s simple sentences, especially Gabiru’s aphorisms -- “If nature creates monsters, it is because they are necessary, like a cleansing abscess.” -- first startle me with their unexpected strangeness, then enthrall me with their conviction of truthfulness. Brandão’s demand for precision reflects itself in the characters’ struggle with language itself. Several remark upon how words hinder them. “Up in a garret, the Pallbearer wants to say, ‘I love you!’ but he has always been so crude he does not know how to say what he feels.” One character says of another, “She barely knows how to express herself. Their talk is like stones communicating, two beings rolling together along in the same huge wave of life, by chance.” And an unnamed voice blurts at one point: “I don’t know how to tell the story, what words can narrate an existence that is like a discarded rag, soaked in tears.” “All words seem worn and withered” to Gabiru, as incapable of connecting with others as of “coming up with a new language, a language like that of the springs, that of the trees at the onset of March, to tell you how I feel,” which in theory will let him attain a clearer order of closeness above ordinary speech. For him this language is nature itself and man was just “born so that everything may have a mouth.” The problem, of course, is that when men speak, the expression comes out muddled. Gabiru is no wiser than anyone else. A refrain in the novel denounces everybody’s ignorance. “Gebo did not understand life,” the narrator says; later he adds, “As it was, Sofia knew nothing about life.” According to Gabiru, Mouca, “who knows nothing, tumbling along like a rock in a deluge, will discover the extraordinary dream.” But then, “Gabiru does not understand existence” either. Even the unnamed narrator confesses in the first pages, “I’m poor and wary, and know nothing of life, but I’m a prince.” Not understanding life, real life, is akin to not living, which is why Gabiru wants to awake “the emotion inside, so that you can say, ‘I have lived!’” The greatest danger, to the characters, more than physical violence and penury, is the realization of a misused life. Meaninglessness is Gabiru’s and the author’s terror. Brandão’s repetition stemmed from his loyalty to disharmony. He never found an answer to his existentialist crisis that could satisfy him, so he kept asking the same question, hoping that in one of the many variations of his lifelong enquiry he’d find one explanation that soothed him. His reasoning never walked straight lines; instead it made detours through doubt and returned to the starting point. Having read nearly all his fiction, I can’t hide the suspicion that he wrote himself into a philosophical cul-de-sac. But watching him try to decipher the invisible is still a grand spectacle for the many moments when he pulls the words’ nerves with pliers to hear them scream notes the human soul seldom likes to make audible.