Essays

Margaret Wise Brown and the Mystery of Mood

1. Unlike most people, with or without children of their own, I had not come to Margaret Wise Brown by the popular-to-the-point-of ubiquitous Goodnight Moon. Even if I had never read Goodnight Moon (but hasn’t everyone read Goodnight Moon?), it was impossible not to encounter it in every children’s bookstore and airport across the land where it not only existed in its original form but in endless imitation from Goodnight _____ (fill in the blank of the city or state to Good Night Farm, Zoo, North Pole, Ocean, World, Galaxy, and Baby Jesus, to say nothing of parodic spin-offs like Goodnight Goon, Goodnight iPad, and Goodnight Husband, Goodnight Wife. But Goodnight Moon wouldn’t prove to be the mood lure that would have me wanting to enter more deeply into the worlds created by Margaret Wise Brown. I found Brown lurking with a start in the pages of a 900–page book on noise by cultural historian Hillel Schwartz. I had invited the scholar and translator to the campus where I teach to discuss his book in a class in “literary acoustics” --a course in which we sought to transform words on pages and so much of what we took about our lives to be self-evident by turning our attention to sound, voice, noise, and silence. Schwartz introduced the students and me to one book in a series of books devoted to listening by Brown, the paradoxically titled The Quiet Noisy Book. It was interesting at the outset to think about the vast mood influence the magic of one of Brown’s books had cast into the nighttime wells of millions of children over a period of several decades and still to this day. Then, to pause to consider how little any reader, be they parent or child, knew about the particular geometry of her life, to say nothing of the scores of books she wrote that haven’t yet enjoyed the same ascendency as Goodnight Moon including her Noisy Book series, or those she wrote under a handful of pseudonyms. Could it matter to our experience of the book to know that Brown didn’t live to see Goodnight Moon thrive, that she died young, at 42 in 1952, exiting life with the kind of boisterous exuberance she was known for: cause of death was a cancan-type kick of her leg into the air following a minor surgery. She died instantly of an embolism. In an equally strange twist of fate, in her will, Brown had named the child of a friend the right to all monies earned by her books should he survive her, but the boy, who never completed high school and who gained a reputation for destroying public property and beating people up, grew up to squander the millions. At the center of the famous tale was a bunny, and Brown had grown up with bunnies and other animals. As an adult, she once took a bunny on a train with her en route to a date; but, could a reader imagine it? -- as a child, she had also skinned a bunny. The houses she lived in were like hutches -- in the middle of Manhattan, a cottage that she called Cobble Court; on a ruggedly beautiful island in Maine named Vinalhaven, a former quarryman’s house she dubbed “The Only House.” Brown’s biographer, Leonard Marcus, describes the house as an uncomfortable extravagance: it wasn’t wired for telephone service or electricity and lacked indoor plumbing, but Brown made sure the larder was stocked with “champagne, fresh cream, imported cheeses and other such necessities.” A well served as a fridge, as did the cool, running waters of a nearby brook, from which she might surprise a visitor with a bottle of wine. Rainwater was collected for bathing, and three outhouses were positioned “for the sake of the view”: “a mirror had been nailed to one of the apple trees in the yard, and a pitcher and basin were left out on a battered Victorian washstand. First-time visitors would be surprised on opening the drawers to find the freshly laid supply of scented soaps and toiletries of Margaret’s ‘Boudoir.’” One part of the house brought the outside in through a collection of small mirrors, “each differently framed and made flush with its neighbors.” The mirrors were hung across from a door that opened onto a “sheer fifty foot drop,” and positioned in such a way each to reflect a “different image of the sea” in succession. People finding themselves in the mirrors, would glimpse themselves as “plural.” I don’t recall which detail from Hillel Schwartz’s work on Brown and noise made me ask him about her romantic life. I only remember a feeling of a life lived differently and athwart, and a desire to draw closer to her, whatever the answer might be. I wasn’t looking to find myself in her, but learning that she’d spent most of her life in a relationship with a woman poet who called herself Michael Strange and who had been the ex-wife of John Barrymore filled me with a perverse delight. Picture this: when Michael was in the mood, she called Margaret “Bun;” when Margaret was in the mood, she called Michael “Rabbit” (those really were their pet names for one another). I loved how the idea of a “childless” lesbian having devised one of the most classic books for children gave the lie to maternity as the only or most natural route to knowing how to be with children. I wondered if hospitals that sent copies of the book home with newborns would discontinue the practice if they knew the book’s author had been queer. Would all those folks who lulled their children to sleep with Goodnight Moon rest easy if they knew the little prayer was birthed by a lesbian consciousness? Might they worry that Goodnight Moon could unconsciously shape a mood realm deep inside the child that might make him grow up gay? Come to think of it, all of the mood-room makers to have drawn my interest are by coincidence queer insofar as all three -- Florence Thomas, Thomas Hubbard, Margaret Wise Brown -- lived out of tune with the hum of a neatly domesticating hetero norm. Florence Thomas, I recently learned, and as I’d imagined, enjoyed her days in retirement alone with her cat, her garden, and a basement studio where she carved abstract art out of wood. “‘I’m a cat person,’ Florence Thomas told a local reporter in 1971, ‘So I am really fondest of ‘Puss and Boots.’” “You have to know how to be a scavenger,” she said, referring to the suite of materials used in her scenes. “It’s much easier now since we have plastic flowers and leaves. I used to bring live things from the garden.” Though retirement would give her time “to renew old friendships” -- she was planning a major trip to Australia and New Zealand with one friend -- she explained she wanted to work on her garden first. This wasn’t a garden-variety garden providing flowers for the table or tomatoes for a stew. Spanning one half-acre, it was a form of applied dedication by a specialist-eccentric: Thomas had cultivated one hundred varieties of rhododendrons. She continued to make 3-D constructions, but now by way of what was known as the Personal View-Master camera: a device that people could use to make View-Master reels with images they themselves took, based, that is to say, on their own lives. Hubbard wasn’t exactly a solitary soul, but he lived at an apparent distance from his wife, who has been described as emotionally unwell, devoting himself to his students, his art, and his summer travel in turn. Brown had experienced attachments to other women and a near marriage to a man before she met Michael Strange. Unfortunately, her relationship with Strange wasn’t, in the long term, a happy one. Strange comes off as abusive in the end, with Brown the ever-pining and unfulfilled lover. One of numerous painfully poignant junctures in Leonard Marcus’s account of their relationship has Brown hiring a lobsterman to build a special house just for Michael Strange near to Brown’s “Only House” on Vinalhaven. Since Strange rarely joined her there, perhaps Brown thought designing a “Picture Window” using an ornate picture frame she’d found in a Rockland antique shop trained on a spruce forest would do the trick. But she was wrong. Nevertheless, an unconventionally attuned Brown was involved in experiments in living and in writing all her short life -- having been the literal voice to prompt Gertrude Stein to compose a children’s book, with the result being Stein’s 1939 The World is Round illustrated by the same artist who pictured Goodnight Moon, Clement Hurd. Brown’s Noisy Book series, which came into print around the same time, grew directly out of her work with Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street School whose experiments in early childhood education in the early 20th century included encouraging children to be noisy rather than disciplining them into silence. Many of Brown’s books in progress were tried out, so to speak, on children at the school. The Noisy books, Brown explained, “‘came right from the children themselves -- from listening to them, watching them, and letting them into the story when they are much too young to sit without a word for the length of time it takes to read a full-length story to them. I mean three- and two-year olds.” At the center of the series is a little black dog named Muffin who stands in place of a child -- one imagines the child-reader identifying with him -- but who, on account of his being a dog, has a keener sense of hearing than a child. Or does he? The books are meant to meet children in that time before they’ve come to use language fully to mediate desire and their world, that period when looking hasn’t yet replaced listening as the form of reading, where letters aren’t yet yoked to sounds but float, one form among others on a page splashed with Leonard Weisgard’s bright colors and Brown’s colocation not just of words bound to meanings but of phonemes’ clattering in imitation of sound. If Gertrude Stein famously discovered the difference between sentences and paragraphs by listening to the rhythm with which her dog lapped the water in his bowl, Margaret Wise Brown understood the equation in reverse when she included dogs among her listener-readers. A dog can train a writer to make prose; and, a writer can write a book that a dog can understand. “Dogs,” Brown wrote, “will also be interested in ‘the Noisy Books’ the first time they hear them read with any convincing suddenness and variety of whistles, squeaks, hisses, thuds, and sudden silences following an unexpected BANG.” Here I am, a dogless adult, tethered to and transfixed by Brown’s protagonist dog. The play-space she creates for him and invites us to enter in her books isn’t exactly a-brim with frolic and jaunt, a run in the park, a pat or a pant, the tossing of a ball before being tucked in with a biscuit and warm milk for the night. These aren’t easy or straightforwardly narrated books. They are tantalizingly difficult; most have the riddle of sound at their center; all are marked by absence, for isn’t it the nature of sound to emanate from the object world but remain detached from it; to seem to reside within an object but not be traceable to it; to exist as a solid experience of sense but to remain ungraspable, sometimes unlocatable, at heart, ephemeral? Meaningful and meaningless sounds were the bases of our moods -- possibly the earliest molds for the form a mood could take -- and sound is mood’s analog. In The Quiet Noisy Book, Muffin is awakened by a “very quiet noise.” “What could it be?” the narrator asks, then provides a set of answers in the form of questions whose examples are beyond audition, or imaginary: “Was it butter melting?” “Was it an elephant tip-toeing down a stairs?” “Was it a skyscraper scraping the sky?” Teasing the limit of our senses to meet the reach of our imagination, gathering into a book-as-net all that coexists simultaneously with us and beyond us, offering a promise of presence -- the blank filled in -- if only we could be willing to listen hard enough, the book answers each possibility with the word “no,” without at the same time canceling its belief in the possibility that what Muffin could be hearing was “a fish breathing,” say. What do we wake to? What is the sound that’s waking Muffin up? It’s something very quiet, but there. It’s “quiet as a chair. Quiet as air.” It’s something Muffin knows, but do you know what it is, dear reader? By now you could be terrified or mesmerized or both, when, splash, it is the sun coming up. The sound of the sun coming up is accompanied by conventional harbingers of joy -- roosters crowing and such -- but Brown also leaves the child -- and the adult reader -- with puffs of cloud heavy with mystery, my favorites being, it was the sound “of a balloon about to pop,” and “it was a man about to think.” Here Brown had gifted me the finest definition of a mood, and one defying explanation. Mood: it was the sound of a person about to think. What qualities inhere in the sound of a person about to think? Does thought really admit of pause? What form of silence have we here, for doesn’t the “about to,” though yoked to sound, imply an absence of sound? A soundless sound? Philosophers of silence spoke of silence as its own active presence, not merely a negation of sound. Of brusque or smooth silences, of silences yoked to utterance, and requisite to language’s meaningmaking capacity, and silence as its own live phenomenon, with its own temporality, independent of sound. Of silence as predictive of the type of utterance to follow, of rhythmic silence, silence as the place of anticipatory alertness, and silence that serves as an end point or terminus, a concluding silence. Silence that casts a spell, and silence that lifts a spell. Certainly, there is no such thing as silence pure and simple, and if any of us were asked to generate types of silence, we could come up with enough examples in an instant to fill a page -- just now, radio silence; the silence enjoyed between intimates; awkward silence; and how about the silence that pervades the experience of reading? Does that bear any resemblance to the sound of a person about to think? Margaret Wise Brown is the person whose picture books ask these questions, not I, and when she translates the “new day” in The Quiet Noisy Book into the dawn of life’s unanswerables, she opens her reader to possibilities of heaviness or light, of greeting the unknown with a mood of curiosity or hiding under the covers depressed by the prospect of pondering. If we equate the sound of a person about to think with a form of soundlessness, that’s only because, as adult readers, we think of thought as word-bound, a kind of talking to oneself, and sound, therefore, as one sign in a system of language, like the space between words, say. But what if the sound of a person about to think were a tone or air, a vibration or an atmosphere that thought depended on, no matter the form thought took; what if it was understood to be a presence rather than an absence, albeit one we might not be able to translate into words? What I notice about the books in Margaret Wise Brown’s Noisy series is how, in each of them, she confides in absence, allows for it, enfolds a reader in it even: she makes absent presences a field of play. For, whether it is The Indoor Noisy Book, The Noisy Book, The Winter Noisy Book, The Seashore Noisy Book, The Summer Noisy Book, or The Country Noisy Book, to name a few, there is always something menacing, askew, uncanny, inexplicable, in excess, or ghosted to contend with or consort with. It’s that same quality that provides a mood for or to childhood but that is forgotten or covered over in adulthood, in which case, adult moods are a form of the comforting blanket that one had lain beneath when such stories had been read to one; they are the cover for a more mystifying cloudscape forgotten but ever-hovering. There is a kind of ultimate silence, of course, that, if we try to “think” it, fills the mind with existential dread -- the blotting of consciousness, the death-in-store that would jettison us into, well, I can’t think of a better figure for it than “outer space.” Celestial music or the music of the spheres must just be something humans have devised to console themselves with when confronted with the inconceivable absoluteness of the silence that is death. Mood is that silence momentarily animated. 2. In several of the Noisy books, Muffin’s eyesight or some other aspect of his sensorium is compromised so that he has to rely more fully on his capacity to listen. In The Noisy Book, he’s gotten a cinder in his eye and is required to wear a blindfold. In The Indoor Noisy Book, he has caught a cold and is forced to stay inside making him more acutely aware of the noises in the house. In The Seashore Noisy Book, he is disoriented by the fact of his hearing, for the first time, the sounds of the ocean. As the book nears its end, he hears a splashing sound, and, as always, we are invited along with Muffin to try to attach the sound to its source: “Was it the sun falling out of the sky?” “Was it a sea horse galloping?” Earlier, we’re asked to listen for the light of moon and stars on water. The “answer” to the splashing is that Muffin has fallen out of the boat and it is his own flailing that he’s caught in the sound of. He began by falling into a mood -- the mood of the sea -- and ends by being rescued from his nearly drowning there. This particular meta-ending is just one instance of the mystery of sound -- and by affiliation, mood -- being answered by a scenario of oddly proportioned dimensions in which nothing is resolved but where we are asked in effect to squeeze the large round ball attached to a scary clown’s nose. The end of The Noisy Book might be the most delightfully perverse in this respect. Here, blindfolded Muffin hears a squeaking whose source he can’t identify. Neither a garbage can nor the house nor a mouse nor a policeman, the answer is “a baby doll / And they gave the baby doll to Muffin for his very own.” The problem, or pleasure, for a reader, though, is that the anthropomorphizing has Muffin playing with a facsimile of a human rather than with a doll in the form of a diminutive dog -- a puppy doll, and that the illustration shows the doll to be nearly twice Muffin’s size. He can barely hold the doll, but he’s propped himself, sans blindfold now, as if posing for a snapshot. Muffin and the reader in their collaborative investigations of sound and mood seem to have won the booby prize. The Winter Noisy Book might broach the most uncanny territory of all once we realize it’s Brown’s version of Muffin Had Two Daddies. Winter has come; night is cold, and still, beyond the windows; stark, black branches rattle against the windowpane. Muffin hears a thud thud thud scrunch scrunch scrunch -- what was that? Rather than provide her usual series of playful speculations, Brown works together with her illustrator -- this time an abstract painter other than Weisgard, Charles G. Shaw -- to produce a frighteningly stark page. The illustration shows an empty dog collar and leash, and a shade drawn against the darkness in a furniture-less room. One sentence is spelled across the white floor of the room. As answer to the question of the scrunching, it could describe the entry of a sci-fi menace: “The fathers were coming home.” Does the empty collar mean the dog has fled or that the dog has died? More benignly, could it mean the fathers are the ones who will take Muffin out for a walk? The ominous mood is dispelled -- the blank of the page filled in -- by the introduction of a perfectly normal-seeming domestic scene comprising two men. They produce sounds that Muffin listens to, like laughter and the dropping of a nickel, the turning on of a light, and the b-r-r-r-r of a shiver before they stretch their legs in front of the roaring fireplace where they sip cocktails and crunch on celery. Muffin is merrily spread on the rug before his bachelor fathers -- one clad in neatly striped pants, the other, solid blue.   Leonard Weisgard, who had been a dancer and a Macy’s window display designer before he turned to children’s book illustration, mastered the magic of minimalism in the Noisy books. The palette is simple, relying sometimes on no more than four colors in the course of a book, including the noncolors, black and white, especially in combination with primaries. A page could turn entirely yellow, daylight reduced to a trapezoid of blue against red. He arrives at images -- the shape of icicles, for example -- by subtracting rather than filling in, or by cutting out and pasting in. If I find myself wanting to roam around inside an illustration, is that the same as reading? The endpapers of The Indoor Noisy Book hold my attention the way the interior of a doll’s house once had. For a two-page spread, he’s cut one side of the walls out of Muffin’s four-story house so we can climb the small ladder in the basement through a hatch to arrive in the dining room whose table sits below a Victorian tub in the bathroom on the floor above it, which sits beneath the most interesting room of all: the attic. There’s a bed frame and an equally empty, though ornate, picture frame. There’s a dress frame with exaggerated curves. A bandbox and a dome-lidded trunk. A taxidermied moose head. There’s a piano. Is the power of the drawing -- see how it draws me even now, drawing my adult eye, compelling me to redraw it by way of words -- fueled by nothing more than reminiscence -- just one more instance of a version of 3-D paper cutout houses enjoyed in childhood? When a mood space is activated by a work like this, we are put in contact with something ever present but impalpable. It’s never so simple a thing as a reminder of or a return to something from our past; it’s more a how than a what. There was a sentence like a conundrum that appeared in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s work on mood that I also wished to understand and most definitely felt I was experiencing. Describing what happens when literature creates a mood, Gumbrecht made a distinction thus: “For what affects us in the act of reading involves the present of the past in substance -- not the sign of the past or its representation.” I’m not compelled by Weisgard’s illustrations because they bring my past back to me by pointing to it in replica but because something has been made possible in the readerly transaction of color, line, and consciousness that puts me literally in contact with a piece of a reconstituted atmosphere as if to say I once was in that dream but forgot I’d never left its precincts. Now I not only recognize its outline but also feel what it is to be buoyed inside its envelope. It’s not a forgotten place but a place where I always am -- part of my mood repertoire -- but which I fail to see. While Weisgard’s elaborated interior might seem like just one more iteration of a repetition of examples -- enter a return to an already-scripted View-Master -- there were other aspects of his illustrations for Brown’s books that turned a key to unlock a mood and that were much less legible. They were not at all “representational.” These were absorptive planes (pure blots of color, where the feeling of the paper as recipient of a hue was as important as the fact of color itself), and stencils. Numerous of the images in The Indoor Noisy Book are finely dotted or shaded as though they were applied through screens or with sponges onto the white page below rather than fully filled in, and bunches of tiny flecks of color mist around their edges like the scatter left by a spray-painted stencil. Maybe a child is meant to read such touches as a sign of its maker having fun: “These pictures are ones you too could make,” the speckled fringes say, “some afternoon of arts and crafts.” For this adult reader, it matters that I touch the page when turning it, and when I do, I’m suffused with a smell of sour milk and hay. White-colored goo had been applied to a piece of bright red particleboard, four by four inches square. Had we been given sprayers or had the adults sprayed our hands? You pressed into the board, painted the white goo on, and what remained as an absence but also as an imprint was your child hand. Overly warm milk in a small waxen carton probably was meted out to us after nap time in kindergarten like dribbles of white into the mouths of mewing kittens. But the “stuff” we used to “make our hands” that day was milky, too, and sour smelling. The hand left on a block of red detached from a body was meant as a gift to our mothers, but it wasn’t something I wanted to give to mine. The hand lay in a drawer as a shadow self. It was the hand from a body that could only be described as “bleating.” If this wasn’t the stuff of an originary mood, I don’t know what else could be. And it was immanent in the quiet noisy books of Margaret Wise Brown. Stencils could be a form for mood itself: there was always something missing from them; a stencil was a means, and its end. Would the stenciling in The Indoor Noisy Book create a mood no matter the particular reader’s relationship to stencils, then? Or in order for it to do its work, need it be tied to a remembrance of stencils past? To me, it seemed struck from the same granules as a mood that I harbored, one part quavering voice, one part shadow. 3. Stencils can be found in caves dating to 10,000 B.C. And guess what they depict? Hands. Entire walls with nothing but hands like paw prints as records of human yearning. Early man, delighted with a technique of missing and finding himself at the same time. Hands as outlines feeling for something in the rock. Not pushing it upward like Sisyphus but transmitting or receiving warmth from it. Then there were those uses of hands that magically—with no more than a set of stick legs here, a wattle there—transformed the outline of palm and fingers on a page into a turkey. I wonder if we effected such magical transformations in the same week that we spray-painted our hands or in the week following. No doubt we were also instructed to give our turkey-hands to our mothers. In even earlier childhood, when naming is the game but not yet reading, you might be placed before the sort of “puzzle” made of wooden figures that you are meant to fit into shapes cut out for them. The shapes -- either abstract or figural -- have knobs attached to them that make them seem like lids or doors. No doubt the point of such puzzles is to aid a child in the development of hand-eye coordination while at the same time teaching her words. Assuming that is a skill I’ve mastered, what kind of pleasure could such a puzzle hold out for me now? I bought one such puzzle at a flea market because I had a hunch it belonged with the View-Masters and picture books in a cupboard marked “the mystery of mood.” I also found it aesthetically pleasing: in its world, a duck could reside in the same row as a clock, a house was the size of a crow, and a cat that of a sailboat. Each thing was unstuck from any context and returned to its thingness: one purely red chair; a single boot without the need for a foot or mate. I felt it had something to teach me, but I also quite simply enjoyed it: placing the wooden tree snug in the slot suited only for it and it alone, doing the same with the dog, the hen, and the jug must work to quell the chaos in any adult life. The principle behind the puzzle was as riddled with absent presences as any book by Margaret Wise Brown and just as rife with a mood of earliest reading. Fitting each figure into its slot, you earn the prize of getting something right, case closed. But you also cover something over; each time you remove a form, something is revealed: hiding inside each home for a form is its word. It’s easy to get the words wrong -- one reason no doubt that the manufacturer called the puzzle Simplex, brother of complex: instead of “boat,” the slot yields “yacht.” Where I recognize a creamer, it tells me it’s a “jug.” Instead of a crow, it offers the word “bird.” An obvious Christmas tree is simply a tree. The figure meant for a slot whose inner wall reads “teddy” is missing from this puzzle. I think if I saw it, I’d call it a bear. Learning to call things by their right names; imagining words as entities, or answers, that hide inside things; trading in the feel, and the shape, of the thing for its word so that you can eventually advance from puzzles to reading: our moods lurk in the interstices, for our mood is the story no one asked us to devise when presented with the shape of the thing. It’s the missing link between the word and the thing, and it’s also the cloak that shrouds the word in mystery. It’s the shape left inside the toy box cut off from the hand that held it. It was the sound of a balloon about to pop. Reprinted with permission from Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2016 Mary Cappello. All rights reserved.
Essays

How to Be Harrowing

I came of age as a writer under the tutelage of the Internet. As a result, I believed -- for a while, at least -- that to write successful creative nonfiction, I had to have harrowing personal stories. First-person writing is the Internet’s voice, and narratives that shock are the Internet’s currency. With a surprising or scandalous personal story, writers get “shares,” build digital platforms, and find book deals. As Laura Bennett wrote for Slate last year, “For writers looking to break in, offering up grim, personal dispatches may be the surest ways to get your pitches read.” Bennett offers examples of successful pieces, the titles of which range from “I Was Cheating on My Boyfriend When He Died” to “My Gynecologist Found a Ball of Cat Hair in My Vagina.” When I started finding my footing as a writer, I believed that I had a chance for publication largely because I had a story to tell which was -- well -- harrowing. At the age of 21, I had flown to Southeast Asia to teach English in a university as a covert missionary in a small town surrounded by rice fields. Less than a year later, several of my students and closest friends were interrogated by the police because of their affiliation with me; my teaching contract was cancelled and my visa was revoked. Rumors swirled around the university that I’d been an undercover CIA agent. Add to this a romantic subplot (I met my future husband there) and I had a tale to tell of love, heartbreak, and adventure. But once I’d finished that book, I wondered if I had anything worthwhile left to say. Would I have to wait for another extreme experience before I could write again? I observed the careers of other writers who had moved from blog to book. Some began to depend on oversharing intimate details to retain a strong connection with their audience. Some, stuck in the “brand” they’d created, told the same story over and over again. Swiftly I realized that I would have to work to avoid getting caught in the solipsism of the modern memoirist, turning only and quickly to my life’s experiences for source material. Writing beyond the “I” would require a jump toward craft, a willingness to wait for long-form thoughts to coalesce, and a careful attention to the world outside myself. In fact, it would be work that was harrowing in another sense of the word, which originally referred to preparing fields for planting by breaking up the soil. A true harrowing essay would dig deeper, ultimately performing a generative function. To find material in the mundanities of everyday life requires a “reeducation,” Philip Gerard says in “Taking Yourself Out of the Story: Narrative Stance and the Upright Pronoun,” so that writers become attentive to just those moments in the day, in their loves and friendships, in their family dynamics, in their historical moments, in their interactions with the natural world, that remain genuinely perplexing, vexing, luminous, unresolved. In short, they must be nudged to recognize that life remains a mystery -- even one’s so-called boring life. For me, one of the surest ways to celebrate the world as luminous and full of mystery is by cultivating a constant curiosity, an incurable interest -- a kind of attention that is the same as -- or that leads to -- research. Research is a habit, “an attitude of open-minded alertness,” writes Gerard, that “frees you for a time from paralyzing self-absorption.” Attention leads to exploration. This is precisely the habit I needed to develop in order to mature as a writer. But is it possible to integrate research into the personal essay in a way that allows the research to take primacy? This was what I wondered, in my quest to avoid getting caught up in my own stories or my “personal brand.” I have told my story, you can find it in my book. Now I want to tell some other stories. I want to look at the world around me with attentiveness, to write slowly, to build up patience as I build up folders of research before jumping to an argument, a conclusion, a moral to the story. How do I write a personal essay without too much “I”? How do I make readers care about a fact? How do I make nonfiction truly creative? How do I give a narrative drive to facts about garden plants or dramatic tension to a historical story that was resolved 200 years ago? Perhaps most of all, how do I come to understand my own life better through understanding the world around me, and how do I share that kind of insight with readers? I have found some helpful directions in the work of creative nonfiction writers like Amy Leach and Rebecca Solnit. These writers combine memoir/personal essay with history, natural sciences, art criticism, and philosophical meditations, but they successfully make the leap from “nonfiction” to “creative nonfiction.” One way they accomplish this is by being present in the essay through tone. Solnit’s tone is authoritative, serious, and philosophical. In “The Blue of Distance,” an 18-page essay in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2006), the first person pronoun does not appear until the 15th page. This works in part because previous essays in the collection have introduced readers to Solnit -- her religious heritage, family photographs, travels, and classes taught. Readers already understand the stakes of lostness and exploration in Solnit’s personal life. But even apart from that, Solnit is able to make the essay personal rather than simply historical by her use of tone, which is interpretive as well as informational. For the first 15 pages, Solnit tells stories from American history about explorers and settlers who got lost, were transformed, and then returned in some capacity to their homes. She wins readers’ trust by weaving meticulously researched stories together with quotes from original accounts, and is careful to note when her interpretation of the events is entering the narrative, using signaling words like “perhaps.” Amy Leach has an even more distinctive personal tone, filled with delight and attentive to the poetic within the factual as she studies things of earth (fainting goats, existential pandas, sensitive sea cucumbers) and things of heaven (supernova imposters, constellations, God) in her collection Things That Are (2014). Rather than routing the natural world through her own experience, Leach seeks to explain and reorder it. Leach inserts herself into the narrative rarely, but the joy she finds in her subjects is self-revelatory: we know something about the author simply by the way she loves her subjects. When she does show up in the narrative, she is invitational (“Come and miss the boat with me.”) and droll (“wooly bears have one of the least advanced defense mechanisms among insects, although theirs is the reaction with which I most strongly identify: when distressed, the wooly bear rolls up into a ball.”). One wants to keep reading just to remain present to the joy she finds in the world. Another way these writers turn nonfiction into creative nonfiction is by use of innovative and beautiful language. Rather than saying “Young pea plants form two leaves every four and a half days,” Leach says: The young pea plant lives by diligent routine, forming two tiny equal leaves every four and a half days. If leaf-leaf on a Tuesday morning, then leaf-leaf on a Saturday evening, and leaf-leaf on Thursday morning. Someone who helps peas -- a friar or a bee -- may look in on them, but young peas are as autonomous as mushrooms and as responsible as clocks... By the use of innovative language (like “leaf-leaf”), imaginative scenarios (the friar or the bee checking in on the pea), and unexpected metaphors (peas autonomous as mushrooms), Leach adds emotional resonance to scientific fact, putting the pea’s existence on a level with human existence, filled with drama and diligence, humor and passion. Solnit, too, can make facts sing. Rather than saying “Coho salmon travel upstream in winter,” Solnit says “I had seen them, too, golden female and ruby male thrashing their way up shallow water in the early dusk of drizzly midwinter.” Details make facts visible, and evocative words like golden and ruby (as opposed to yellow and red) add regal tones to the scene. But regardless of how beautifully written accounts of history or inquiries into natural science are, I find that as a reader I am looking for a turn in creative nonfiction: a point in an essay where the writer nods toward a more transcendent meaning, a metaphorical resonance that allows history or science or bald fact of any kind to speak directly to my life. Many authors do this right away, using fact as an illustration in the first paragraph or two, and then turning to direct the majority of their attention to a larger thesis. But Solnit points to metaphorical resonances and larger points only in oblique ways, expecting her reader to connect the dots for herself. In her essay “Two Arrowheads,” for instance, she moves from a story of a relationship that has ended to an in-depth discussion of the film Vertigo to the biological makeup of hermit crabs to analysis of Oedipus Rex without directly connecting the subjects. It was only upon rereading that I began to understand how each subject connected to the larger themes of sight and home. Leach makes such rhetorical turns -- pointing from her subject to a transcendent or metaphorical meaning -- late in her essays. In “In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters,” for example, Leach spends four pages describing beavers, three pages on salmon and their parallels with beavers, and then only in the last two pages does she turn to humans, how our experience being moved by unseen forces is similar to that of the beaver and the salmon. When asked about this, about whether anyone has asked her to use a more “traditional” structure, Leach replied that she wanted “for the beavers to be beavers, for salmon to mean salmon, rather than being proof of a point.” If we aren’t truly paying attention to the world, we are in danger of using it for our own purposes or intellectual agendas. “This is how I often think,” she says, “-- in a thesis-driven way -- but it’s not how I want to think, and I love how in writing you can work out the way you want to think.” When she did get there, at the end of that essay, I scribbled a note to myself in awe: “what a pay-off.” When I see the world more clearly, I see myself more clearly too, and in new ways. Writers like Leach and Solnit help me believe that the harrowing essay will not rule the day, and that writing that pays careful attention to the world and to language, tone, and metaphorical resonance can be equally powerful as and far more enduring than the personal essay with the most online shares. To love the world, to pay attention to it, to practice patience, to cultivate the habit of curiosity that is research -- these can be key to developing a writerly voice that will last and that will matter.
Essays, From the Newsstand

Flying Blind: Truth, Journalism, and the Digital Age

1. In 1798, a decade after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, President John Adams signed the infamous Sedition Act. The controversial law, passed alongside a slate of Alien Acts aimed at cracking down on immigrants deemed dangerous to the state, made it illegal to produce any “false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States…with intent to defame the said government…or to stir up sedition within the United States.” The brief history of the Sedition Act, which expired in 1800 after Thomas Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, had its comic moments. One day, an elderly New Jerseyan, Luther Baldwin, stopped to watch President Adams and his wife parade down Newark’s Broad Street accompanied by a 16-gun salute. According to James MacGregor Burns’s judicial history, Packing the Court, someone in the crowd shouted, “There goes the President and they’re firing at his a – !” Baldwin, who had been drinking, retorted that he “did not care if they fired thro’ his a – !” and was promptly clapped into jail. But the Sedition Act was also used to silence press criticism. Scottish-born polemicist James Callender spent nine months in jail and paid a $200 fine for calling President Adams, among other things, a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor.” More famously, Benjamin Bache, editor of the virulently anti-Federalist paper the Aurora, was arrested under the Sedition Act after printing stories attacking Adams and accusing George Washington of secretly collaborating with the British during the Revolutionary War. I was reminded of the Alien and Sedition Acts in the opening days of the Administration of Donald Trump when, in rapid succession, the president halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his chief policy adviser, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the media “should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Like a lot of people who read Bannon’s interview during that first tumultuous week when the president was signing one new wildly controversial executive order after another and millions of Americans were flooding the streets and airports in protest, I heard only the line about the nation’s media needing to sit down and shut up. When I reread the Times piece some days later I realized that Bannon wasn’t simply trying to muzzle the American media. He was also delivering a blistering critique of a media culture so lost in its bubble of urbane liberal comfort that it missed what may one day prove to be the story of the century. “The media got it dead wrong, 100 percent dead wrong,” he said of the 2016 election, calling it “a humiliating defeat that they will never wash away, that will always be there.” This, the blown coverage of the 2016 campaign, is the context for his headline-making denunciations. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” he told Times reporter Michael Grynbaum, adding: “You’re the opposition party. Not the Democratic Party. You’re the opposition party. The media’s the opposition party.” Now, obviously, mainstream media outlets weren’t the only ones who misread the Trump election. Everybody missed that story, including some members of Trump’s own campaign staff. It is also absurd to suggest that “the media,” en masse, are out to get Trump and his administration. There is, after all, a well-financed network of right-leaning news sites, one of which, Breitbart.com, Bannon himself has run, offering full-throated support to Trump’s presidency and even more full-throated condemnation of his enemies. But if you look past the bombast and exaggeration, you can detect in Bannon’s comments the outlines of a chillingly accurate analysis of an American news media crippled by half a century of technological disruption. The national media did miss the white-working-class rage that propelled Trump into office last fall, and even now large swatches of the mainstream press seems perplexed by -- and in some cases, openly opposed to -- the president that populist anger helped elect. Meanwhile, the news sites that saw Trump coming, the Breitbarts of the world, seem dangerously uninterested in facts and instead relentlessly push a hard-right political agenda. This, then, is the predicament facing the American news consumer today. It’s not just that we live in a polarized media universe. It’s that we are, journalistically speaking, flying blind. One segment of the population, the one that just elected a president, is in thrall to a fact-challenged ideological fringe while the rest of the population relies on a badly weakened legacy media whose reporters are highly educated and professionally concerned with facts and evidence, but so deeply ensconced in their elite, urban echo chamber that they’re not always capable of making sense of the facts they find. Thus, as we stand in the still-smoking ruins of the 20th-century American media machine, we risk returning to a media environment not unlike the one before the rise of the mass-circulated print newspapers when a hyper-partisan press free-for-all pushed an American president to sign a law allowing the government to lock up journalists it didn’t like. 2. I care about news because I read and watch a lot of it and because I rely on it as a voter, but in another way, this is personal for me. Thirty years ago, as a 22-year-old straight out of college, I lucked into a job at my hometown weekly, the Mill Valley Record. I had no journalism training, and I hadn’t written a news story since high school. I just showed up one day in the newsroom looking for work and the editor handed me a press release for an upcoming public meeting. “Why don’t you go to this?” he said. “If there’s any news in it, we’ll print it.” Three months later, I had a full-time job covering local politics. Like many young reporters in those days, what little I knew about journalism before I began practicing it myself came from two books, All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and The Powers That Be by David Halberstam. The Halberstam book is a massive doorstop history of 20th-century journalism while the Woodward and Bernstein book is a tick-tock thriller about a single major news investigation, but both books offer riveting accounts of American print journalism’s finest hour, the Washington Post’s reporting of the Watergate Scandal, which ultimately caused the resignation of President Richard Nixon. At the Record, I may have been covering planning and zoning meetings and writing puff pieces about local businesses, but in my mind I was a junior Bob Woodward nailing down that last fact, making that extra phone call, so that one day I would be able to speak truth to power on the front pages of a major metro daily. What I didn’t know -- what no one of that era understood -- was that in a little more than a decade the Internet would strangle the small-town weeklies that had trained generations of cub reporters like me and put the major metro dailies that I aspired to join on life support. Three decades on, I understand that the media landscape that I knew as a small-town reporter in the late-1980s and early-1990s was just one iteration in the ever-shifting continuum of American journalism. In the early days of the Republic, the era that brought us John Adams’s Sedition Act, newspapers were a luxury item sold by subscription to a relatively narrow, educated elite. Often, these journals were owned and operated by political parties with the express purpose of advocating for their candidates and embarrassing their rivals. That changed with the advent of the steam-powered press, which so radically reduced the cost and sped up the process of printing a newspaper that editors could slash the cover price from six cents to a penny and market it to a working-class audience. Over the next century, print newspapers grew from a handful of blog-like broadsheets into a complex network of newspapers ranging from tiny, one-man-band local weeklies to national publishing chains run by tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In 1950, before TV began stealing eyeballs and ad dollars, there were 25 percent more newspapers sold each day in America than there were American households. The midcentury American newspaper, written for a local readership and dependent on local advertising dollars, naturally reflected the political outlook of its audience A newspaper in a segregated Southern town had to toe the segregationist line or go out of business, just as a newspaper in a well-to-to liberal suburb faced disaster if its news columns contradicted the views of its readers. But in both cases, editors had a strong incentive to avoid extreme rhetoric or wildly inaccurate reporting because they depended on local advertisers, who would pull ads from a publication whose reputation besmirched their own. The system was far from perfect, but it built the journalistic world I stumbled into the day I took that press release from my editor at the Mill Valley Record. The reporters and editors I worked with were not especially serious people, but they took their jobs seriously. When a reader buttonholed one of us on the street to complain about an issue of local import, we asked questions and followed up. We called both sides in any dispute, always. We knew the people we covered well, but we routinely rotated beats so we wouldn’t get too cozy with our sources. We called back to double-check facts, and when we screwed up, we wrote a correction for the next day’s paper. More than anything, we prided ourselves on being able to cut through the bullshit and explain in clear, direct prose what had happened. Thirty years later, that world is fast vanishing into the digital ether. No footloose 22-year-old without journalism training could expect to fall backward into a full-time newspaper job today, unless, of course, he or she was of the social class that could afford to take a nonpaying internship and follow that up with two years of journalism school. That, more than any nefarious liberal cabal, explains the leftward tilt of what remains of the mainstream media. As local newspapers in smaller cities and towns die off, we’re increasingly left with national publications and TV and cable networks based in liberal urban centers. Meanwhile, digital disruption has changed how reporters are trained, which is changing who enters the profession. A generation before me, news reporting was still a union job only a small step up from the guys who ran the Linotype machines. Today, thanks to the same forces of technological disruption that have hollowed out so many middle-class professions, journalism is the province of a highly educated and urban elite -- precisely the class of person most likely to look askance at a man like Donald Trump. 3. This, I think, is what Stephen Bannon means when he calls the media the opposition party. Bannon sees himself as leading a white working-class revolt against the multicultural liberal elite, which is neatly personified by the latte-sipping chattering classes of Washington DC. Of course, by declaring war on the media and by prodding his boss to make ever more alarming moves in office, Bannon is himself pushing an already liberal-leaning press corps in an ever more shrilly leftward direction. But really, this fact is less frightening than the fact that he can do it so effortlessly. Without that truth-seeking ecosystem of healthy small- and mid-size daily newspapers to explain national news in terms local readers can understand, Americans are left stewing in separate echo chambers, one urban, educated, and liberal, the other working-class, rural, and spoiling for a fight. Not only do the inhabitants of these echo chambers not talk to each other; they barely speak the same language. It’s heartening to hear that digital subscriptions to legacy media sites like The New York Times and The Atlantic are on the rise, just as it’s refreshing to see ordinary Americans using social media to organize and keep themselves informed. Maybe over time, as we grow more sophisticated about our digital tools, we’ll get better at using Snopes.com-like sites to knock down fake news stories and start crowd-funding citizen-journalists to cover small cities and towns the way I once did. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about the Internet. It’s a tool like any other. We just have to learn how to use it. For now, though, we would be crazy not to acknowledge the danger we face as a nation flying blind without a media we fully trust. No one in government has discussed reviving John Adams’s Sedition Act, but every day that Trump sends his press secretary into the White House briefing room to dress down the media or uses Twitter to gaslight Americans into disbelieving the facts they hear on the nightly news is a day we inch a step closer to that reality. Image Credit: Flickr/Ahmad Hammoud.
Essays, The Millions Interview

Borges, Burgin, and Infinity

1. The first thing you notice is the books. They line the walls of Richard Burgin’s house. His large foyer is uncluttered and, one gets the sense, rarely used. But just beyond that is a room with a large desk against one wall, a piano against the other. Stacks spill over from all sides of the bookshelves: a Japanese translation of one of Burgin’s books, a candid photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a poster in French for a reading Burgin gave in Paris in 2011. This is all evidence of an eclectic, accomplished life. The life is also an eccentric one. Burgin, who has authored nineteen books, does not use a computer. Every few weeks an assistant takes his spiral notebooks of prose and types them into word documents. He’s never learned to drive a car. He’s intrigued by technology but not adept at its use. He occasionally has to call his assistant and ask that she log into his NetZero account and read him his emails remotely. Back in his 20s in New York, he once invited his literary friends to an apartment party but on the day of the gathering a romantic entanglement in Boston caused him to miss his flight home. He called a neighbor who had a spare key to his apartment and asked him to leave the door open. Burgin later heard his party had been a hit. Ask Burgin when his life in letters began, and he’ll tell you that an early pivotal moment was as an undergraduate in a Spanish class at Brandeis University when he was assigned “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. This was 1967. Borges was read widely in Latin America and Europe, but much of what would make him famous in the United States was not yet widely available in English. “The Aleph” rearranged Burgin’s conscious the way a grenade could be said to rearrange a room. The story, like most of Borges’ work, is fantastical. Its protagonist seeks to write a poem that describes every square inch of the entire planet down to the minutest detail. To do this he utilizes an object called the Aleph, through which he can see everywhere at once. Even if one were able to experience the infinite, the story posits, it would be impossible to convey this experience to another human. Infinity is therefore linked to isolation, and it was this perspective on infinity that most fascinated Burgin. Within weeks he’d read everything else Borges had written that had been translated to English. He considered Borges a literary god. This reaction to Borges had everything to do with the fact that Burgin, only twenty, had already been contemplating the idea of infinity for several years. 2. Burgin’s parents were both child music prodigies. His mother, Ruth Posselt, was a violin soloist and his father (also Richard) served as concertmaster for 42 years for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burgin’s father used to tell his son that art is the last illusion. He said that artists who acted as if their work would be remembered after their death were fooling themselves. Maybe someone’s work would last a hundred years but not five hundred, not a millennium. It won’t last forever. Artists delude themselves about the impermanence and importance of their work. What artists make isn’t going to endure. It’s not the usual fodder of father-son chats, but Burgin’s father was nothing if not a serious man. And Burgin felt his father had a point. He’d always been a voracious reader and, even as a young man, it irked him that this fundamental truth of artistic mortality went unacknowledged in fiction. The avoidance of the topic seemed proof that art was, as his father said, all based on a lie. Burgin came to think of this as the conundrum of infinity. Then Borges appeared. Finally, Burgin thought, someone writing about the conundrum, rather than writing around it. Then, while Burgin was still an undergraduate, Borges accepted the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, which was only a twenty-minute drive from Brandeis. Upon hearing the news, Burgin was so ecstatic that he ran without stopping all the way from Harvard Square to his student housing in Central Square a mile away. It was a spring day, the warming weather lent itself well to optimism. He’d spend the summer preparing for Borges’ arrival. 3. “These were the days when people still listed their numbers,” Burgin says. “Writers, even famous ones, didn’t hide behind answering machines and caller ID.” As part of the Harvard fellowship, Borges would give six public lectures in Boston -- but Burgin wasn’t content to be only a spectator. He called Borges one afternoon and though Burgin’s memory of that initial conversation is clouded by the excitement he felt at the time, whatever introduction he made worked. He and Borges set a date for a drink. Burgin first laid eyes on the man through a window on the ground floor of the building where Borges was staying. The 67-year-old was being helped into an elevator. He walked with a cane. But despite his age and being nearly completely blind, Borges exuded an easy gravitas. His genius was palpable. He put those around him at ease. As a gift that first meeting Burgin brought a vinyl recording of Bach’s fourth and fifth Brandenburg concertos on which his father played violin. Burgin wrote about this first meeting: “[Borges] always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs.” What blossomed that first meeting wasn’t a friendship, per se, but Burgin was invited back. For the second meeting he brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, hoping to save some of Borges’s words and create an audio souvenir. The second meeting went as well as the first. The two men discussed Borges’s stories, of which Burgin had a near encyclopedic knowledge. Back at his apartment, listening to the tapes, Burgin realized that Borges’ words, even in casual conversation, were art. The realization led Burgin to subsequent meetings, which he again recorded. Burgin transcribed by hand the interviews and compiled them into a book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1969. The book runs 150 pages and covers Borges’ thoughts on a host of writers, from Henry James to Kafka to Sartre. He discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and the Nazis. He talks with Burgin about the problem of time and, of course, infinity. The timing of Conversations could not have been better. More of Borges’ works were becoming available in English. Literary Americans were becoming Borges fanatics and regarded Burgin’s book as an important contribution to the understanding of this new preeminent voice in world literature. Borges is accessible, but he is also an endless riddle. Reading Borges tends to begat reading more Borges which eventually leads to reading about him in hopes of finding something that will explain the mind from where it all comes. At the time of its publication, Burgin’s book was practically the only book in English about the Argentinian. It sold well for a book of its kind. It was reviewed positively in Harper’s and The New Yorker and many other outlets. The New York Times ran two pieces on it, one in the daily and the other in the Sunday book review. In 1969, Burgin was only 21, less than a year out of college. “I thought it would always be that easy,” Burgin says. His next book would take him fifteen years. 4. After Boston, Burgin lived in New York before moving to Philadelphia, where he taught at Drexel University. At Drexel he founded Boulevard, an internationally distributed literary magazine currently in its thirty-second year of publication. John Updike, John Ashberry and Singer were in early issues, Joyce Carol Oates in its most recent. Former U.S. Poet laureates Charles Simic and Billy Collins are frequent contributors. In 1996, the magazine moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis when Burgin took a teaching job at St. Louis University. Ranking literary magazines is a fickle business, but on most lists of journals Boulevard can typically be found somewhere in the top twenty. Fifteen years after Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Burgin published his second book, also a book of interviews. This time they were with Singer, who had won the Nobel Prize several years earlier. Burgin’s first book of short fiction, Man Without Memory, came out later in the eighties, and the nineties saw two more collections and a novel. He’s published steadily since. Several of his stories have won prizes. He composed music prolifically. His career is a success by any reasonable measure. Still, if you talk to him long enough he’ll mention that none of his books were ever picked up by a big New York publishing house, that innovations in individual stories were never recognized by the literary establishment. None of his books of fiction got the attention that the Borges book did. But, he says with a smile, “I’ve never met a writer who feels like he or she got as much as they deserved.” You get the sense that this lack of recognition gnaws on him, that ambition can turn in on itself and become something like bitterness. However, it needs to be said that this is an aspect of his personality that will only reveal itself if you talk to him over the course of several weeks for several hours at a time. If you talk to him for just a few minutes, he’s going to tell you about his son. 5. Burgin, like his father before, talks to his own son about how an artist should regard infinity and the impermanence of what they make. These conversations aren’t purely academic. Burgin’s son (who goes by Ricky) is a budding filmmaker. In the fall of 2016 the two of them adapted Richard’s story "Do You Like this Room?" into a short film titled All Ears. The story concerns a man and a woman after their second date, back at the man’s house. The woman is a therapist and the man could be easily categorized as someone in desperate need of therapy. He suggests they play “the god game,” in which one person plays the part of god and the other plays the fearful believer. The conversation quickly turns dark and then the action does too. Richard worked with his son in adapting the story into a script and at one point in the writing process the younger Burgin crossed out half the dialogue his father had written. Richard responded by telling his son, “I think you’re extremely talented and I have no doubt your talent will one day eclipse mine. But I’ve published nineteen books and you’re 19 years old. Do you really think you write better dialogue than me?” “Yes,” his son replied. “I do.” All Ears has been received favorably thus far. Ricky has submitted it to festivals and it’s currently viewable on YouTube. The 16-minute film is solid work for a filmmaker of any age, but it’s especially accomplished given the project was helmed by a college sophomore. Ricky recruited the entire cast and used his father’s house as a shooting location. He designed the sets and transformed his father’s unused foyer into a troubled man’s bachelor pad. He hung lights, storyboarded and blocked shots. The first day of filming came. The man and woman leads arrived along with the film’s small crew. Richard disappeared. He wanted to give his son space to direct, though he couldn’t resist eavesdropping. He listened through a wall as his son gave measured, astute feedback. The set was filled with actors and professionals who were all in their late twenties and early thirties, but it was the nineteen-year-old who owned the room for the ten hours of shooting that day. Burgin’s face glowed as he recounted this later. “He was so frighteningly good,” he said. “I could never have done that, had that confidence at his age. I was stunned.” And when he talks to his son about the conundrum of infinity? “He says it makes his head hurt. He asks me why anyone would waste their time with such an idea when there’s so much work to do.”
Essays

Write the Things That Burn: The Poems of Alejandra Pizarnik

“I speak the way I speak inside,” wrote the great Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik. “Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.” Pizarnik, whose ubiquity in 20th-century Latin-American literature is indicated by the fact that many critics refer to her simply as “Alejandra” or “A.P.,” has not, historically, been on a first-name basis with English-reading audiences; that may change following the publication of Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, an invaluable 2016 release from New Directions that compiles new translations of three full-length collections and numerous uncollected poems Pizarnik left behind. This volume charts the final decade of the poet’s life, a period of her career in which she turned her gaze away from the world, facing inward to focus on the dark voices she channeled. On the page she carves out spaces of solitude and silence in which language is reduced to its very essence, a limited collection of recurring images and symbols. “When the roof tiles blow away from the house of language, and words no longer keep—that is when I speak,” Pizarnik resolved. Drawing from the dream-languages and word games of the surrealists, Pizarnik turns notions of lyrical subjectivity inside out with her kaleidoscopic procession of masks and personae; the strange music of her poems invites the reader in, and her revelations -- cathartic and unsettling -- are very nearly overwhelming. Pizarnik’s friend Alberto Manguel described her small apartment as having “a small blackboard on which she worked out her poems, like a sculptor chipping away at a block that, she knows, contains a few essential, precious words.” The poems in the atmospheric Works and Nights (1965) bear out this effort with severely compressed forms, only a few stretching longer than eight brief lines. True to the collection’s title, these poems speak of the feverish, sleep-starved spaces of the night: Someone, sobbing, measures the lengths before dawn. Someone punches her pillow in search of an impossible place of rest. Masterfully evocative portraits in miniature, these poems summon the pregnant stillness of late evening, as well as an alluring darkness. Loneliness permeates these dark visions, but there are moments of sensual languor in this void: “Space. Blazing silence,” the poet intones, then breaks the line, a move that may evoke a lowered voice, a downward flick of the eyes: “What is it that shadows give each other?” By 1965 Pizarnik had already established many of the recurring symbols and images most frequently associated with her writing, many seemingly drawn from a world of dark fairy tales. Her shipwrecked girls, beggars, and orphans lend a haunting quality to the work, as in “Dispatches”: The wind had eaten away parts of my face and my hands. They called me ragged angel. I lay waiting. Much has been made of Pizarnik’s reliance on this particular set of tropes -- which, in a decade-spanning volume like this one, occasionally risks feeling a bit repetitive. Most critics connect Pizarnik’s unique language of symbols with a fascination with dreams and esoteric symbols drawn from her reading of surrealists like André Breton and Antonin Artaud. Pizarnik builds on these images in 1968’s Extracting the Stone of Madness (from which the omnibus derives its name), incorporating the visions of “tragic ladies in red” into more ambitious and expansive poems and prose works, some spanning multiple pages. She also toys with subjectivity, confiding, “I am alone and I write,” then correcting herself: “No, I am not alone. There is someone here who is trembling.” Just who this trembling other might be remains ambiguous; Pizarnik, in her diaries, diagnosed herself with manic depression, and spoke of her “fear of all the selves struggling inside me,” but the power of these lines invites us into a more complicated (and disorienting) relationship with this work and its creator: invited in by Pizarnik’s hazy confessions, the reader begins to suspect that perhaps this someone is us. Despite the presence of a few ladies in red, the poems in Extracting the Stone of Madness frequently dispense with the elaborate metaphors of Pizarnik’s early work in favor of a heightened sense of urgent candor, voices that speak frankly (if opaquely) of various sorts of deep alienation. It is as though the defamiliarizing exercises of the surrealists have been pushed to a further extreme, losing any sense of playfulness or winking absurdity. “If I’d had it close at hand, I would’ve traded in my soul to be invisible,” Pizarnik admits here, landing on a central theme. “Drunk on poems and on (why not just say it) the void of absence.” The terror and the allure of invisibility and silence—in short, the will to disappear—remain focal points in A Musical Hell (1971), wherein Pizarnik presents words themselves as a means of concealment or defense, announcing: i’m going to hide behind language and why is that i’m afraid The precise nature of this fear remains elusive. In an interview near the end of her life, Pizarnik ascribed an almost superstitious quality to her writing process: “Among other things, I write so that what I fear won’t befall me…To write a poem is to repair the fundamental wound, the break.” In Pizarnik’s work, this break exists between reality and the language we use to describe it, inhibiting, by extension, the ways we connect with the people around us. To repair this break, however, called the poet to plumb the darkest depths of her visions, parsing an existential dread no language could convey. “I can’t just speak and say nothing,” Pizarnik insists. “That’s how we lose ourselves, the poem and I, in the hopeless attempt to write the things that burn.” And where does her exploration lead her, once she admits the hopelessness of her endeavor? “To blackness, to the sterile and the fragmented,” she concludes. It is difficult to read Pizarnik’s work without shuddering at what can only be described as profound depression. The poet’s full-length collections, here, are followed by an assortment of uncollected work, including poems written in the days leading up to her suicide, and if some lines manifest a crippling existential paralysis, others presage an irrevocable departure. “The poem takes me to the limits,” she writes, “far from the houses of the living. And where will I wander when I leave and don’t come back?” Only in recent years have large parts of the Pizarnik oeuvre been accessible in English: besides the New Directions volume, readers can also enjoy the poet’s seminal 1962 collection Diana’s Tree, and can look forward, in 2017, to her 1955 debut, The Most Foreign Country -- these last two chapbooks put out by Ugly Duckling Presse, all three in crisply evocative translations by Yvette Siegert. Despite Siegert’s efforts, a clear understanding of the liminal spaces Pizarnik wanders is not, ultimately, what we are left with. This is, after all, a language of dreams, of the hinterlands of the mind; many poems grip us with the insistent logic of nightmares, so convincing in the moment of reading, so hard to explain afterward. Like the work of Artaud and Pizarnik’s other spiritual forebears, Extracting the Stone of Madness is perhaps more strongly felt than understood, best experienced when read aloud, which is not to say that these texts aren’t utterly successful in their dark invitations. “I want to go / nowhere if not / down into the depths,” Pizarnik wrote near the end of her life, and went. The reader who lets her guard down may feel dangerously inclined to follow.
Essays

Checking Out: Dispatches From the Sea-Cave Suite and Elsewhere

1. I awoke one morning inside of a giant oyster shell, dimly made out a treasure chest overflowing with precious jewels, then turned to see a pair of comely mermaids beckoning from the wall. I briefly thought I had dreamt myself into "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea...”), but soon realized that I was in a much stranger place: the Sea-Cave Suite in a Pocatello, Idaho, hotel. I suppose it could have been worse. Gay Talese’s necktie could have dangled through one of the heating -- er, hydrothermal vents -- indicating that he was on the case of yet another voyeuristic ethnologist-cum-motelier. Or one of the mermaids could have emerged from the wall and exacted her revenge for some past depredation of her ocean realm. As Colin Dickey puts it in Ghostland, his sharp, enjoyable study of the repressed past expressed in American ghost stories, “...all hotels are haunted. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t see this, if you don’t recognize that you sleep with ghosts.” If all hotels are haunted, they are also all strange, even if less outwardly so that the Sea-Cave Suite. Again, to quote Dickey: “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off.” After a nice long think in the grotto shower, I resolved, once back on dry land, to conduct a survey of recent, or recently reissued, novels that make their home, so to speak, in hotels. 2. “It’s an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving doors the same as when he came in,” writes Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel, the 1929 novel (and basis for the famous 1932 film) reissued last year by New York Review Books. This maxim may or may not hold true for guests of limited duration, but it certainly does for the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is sentenced to house (or rather hotel) arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Beginning in 1922, he stays there for over three decades, though this confinement is not as restrictive as it initially seems: “Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors.” Grand Hotel depicts the exhaustion, loneliness, and alienation of the luxury life. “The whole hotel is only a rotten pub,” scoffs its most cynical habitué. Even the guests’ footwear seem to be tortured souls: “Some wedded pair of boots and shoes that stand outside the doors at night wear a distinct impression of mutual hatred on their leather visages." Its most memorable character, the aging dancer Grusinksaya, wears “trodden-down slippers” covering “weary, unutterably weary” feet. Adventures galvanize the vigorless cast, but the enlivening enchantments, in an out of the “mass-produced” beds, are always fleeting. What remains once the revolving door turns once more is a nightmarish scene of soulless luxury: “an endless perspective of hotel bedrooms with double doors and running water and the indefinable odor of restlessness and homelessness.” A Gentleman in Moscow, by contrast, demonstrates indefatigable wonder at the variety and whimsy of the grand hotels. Towles’s novel, as if protesting of its own straitening conceit, resolves to be big. The six-foot-three-inch hero, Count Rostov, cannot stand up to his full height in the attic room to which he is assigned, though his spirit is not similarly cramped. In Soviet Russia size doesn’t necessarily matter: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then that which exists in secret can, regardless of its dimension, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.” The novel contains delightful touches worthy of inclusion in the feuilletons on interwar hotel life filed by Joseph Roth (collected in The Hotel Years). The barbershop is “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality...the Switzerland of the hotel.” The hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky, wages an epic struggle to maintain its standards, “a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.” And the bored international journalists congregating in the hotel bar devise ploys to attract summonses from the ever-vigilant Commissariat of Internal Affairs. One conspicuously drops a letter “that included descriptions of troop movements and artillery placements on the outskirts of Smolensk.” He is called in by the authorities, only to explain that he has copied out the description of the Battle of Borodino from War and Peace. Rostov conspires with the restaurant staff against a villainous hotel manager; becomes enamored of a silent film movie star; roams the hotel with an adorably precocious girl; scares off a young man sniffing around his adopted daughter in a typically mannered way (“So that’s your game, is it? Seducing young women with jitterbugs?”); is enlisted to school a Red Army Colonel in the cultural traditions of the West; and chuckles approvingly over the farcical scene of three geese scurrying about and terrorizing a Swiss diplomat, Uzbek fur traders, and a Vatican representative (“How I love this hotel”). It’s all very light -- even the Count’s momentary resolution to hurl himself off his balcony doesn’t dampen things terribly -- but after nearly 500 pages, the airiness becomes curiously stifling. I found myself in odd sympathy with the Soviet interrogator at the beginning of the novel, who is somewhat exasperated by the Count’s winning archness. “History,” the Bolshevik chides the nobleman, “has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.” 3. If A Gentleman in Moscow is a big novel that ultimately feels small, Yusuf Atilgan’s reissued Motherland Hotel is a small novel that feels big. Motherland Hotel, originally published in Turkey in 1973, is the story of a private space made public, then made private again when its clerk unravels and shut himself, and the hotel, off from the outside world. The sign directing passersby “points downwards giving the impression that the hotel lies underground,” thus inadvertently indicating the trajectory of the novel’s protagonist. “Son, when I’m dead and gone I don’t want you giving this room to just anyone who comes along. Every hotel needs a room like this.” Zeberjet, the phlegmatic clerk “of not quite average height” -- compare another taller, but still deficient hero, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, “an inch, or perhaps two, under six feet” -- follows this paternal advice. He reserves the special room for special guests, like the glamorous woman from Ankara, whose arrival wakes Zeberjet from his sleepy existence. We learn that the hotel was converted from a manor house, one of the few structures standing after the fleeing Greek army set fire to the town in 1922. Its name, The Motherland Hotel, is a relic of the “shamefaced patriotic zeal encountered, during the years just after Liberation, in those towns and cities where very little had been done about the enemy.” The gesture gives the modest establishment a slightly ridiculous air, and adds to the sense that for the unanchored Zeberjet, the town and nation are similarly full of bluster. The transformation from manor house to “true hotel” takes years, not until “that small-town-hotel odor seeped into walls and woodwork.” But to someone who was born in one of its rooms, that transformation can never completely take place, no matter how many travelers, businessmen, couples, or prostitutes find lodging there. The hotel is a domestic inheritance, having come down to Zeberjet from his well-to-do merchant ancestors. That family, with its Faulknerian history of madness and suicide, is a ghostly presence in the novel. The room in which Zeberjet’s lecherous, senile grandfather was locked up in is now the third-floor bathroom, and tales of the sexual escapades between and among masters and servants work their way into Zeberjet’s erotic imagination, as do tantalizing overheard snatches from the hotel’s guests. (Zeberjet is an auditory voyeur, as it were.) Motherland Hotel, which depicts the gradual disintegration of a mind, begins in a relatively orderly fashion. After a mildly disorienting opening passage, the narrative resets and proceeds with a series of labeled sections (“The Hotel,” “The Town,” etc.), as if to stave off the coming chaos. The principal actors are similarly introduced: Zeberjet, who carries out his duties in zombie-like fashion; the languorous maid whom he accosts each night in her sleep (“Sometimes he’ll be a nipple and she mumbles ‘Ow’ or ‘Scat’”; the glamorous woman from Ankara, who stays for one night and whose room Zeberjet keeps free in the hopes that she will return; and the mysterious “Retired Officer” who loiters for days on end in the lobby and seems as obsessed with the Ankaran woman as Zeberjet. Even the cat and a pair of bath towels -- one belonging to the hotel, one left by the woman from Ankara -- are included in this dramatis personae. In a novel full of somnolent characters, inanimate objects become charged. Zeberjet fetishizes the traces of the woman from Ankara, keeping her room as a shrine, one which he honors, or profanes, with masturbatory visits. But he seems to take a greater sensual pleasure in the commonplace words uttered in their brief interaction (“Never mind the change”) or in calculating the number of cups she poured from the tea kettle he brought to her room, how many lumps of sugar she used. When he breaks her teacup one night, the accident shatters the sanctified atmosphere and his hopes for her return: “The room had been violated. Now she would not come back.” No matter. The nameless woman (she claims to carry no ID) spawns nameless desires, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions in the affectless man for whom the hotel has become a kind of prison over the years. (Zeberjet hardly gets out more often than Count Rostov.) He shaves his moustache and buys new clothes; turns away new guests; thrillingly, but timidly, flirts with a young man; and roams aimlessly about the small town. Once out in the world again, he witnesses a world of action and contests starkly different from the purgatorial torpor of the Motherland Hotel. He watches a cockfight in which one of the birds (sporting the same color as the towel left behind by the woman) is killed in the ring, to the dismay of the onlookers: “Maybe they were afraid of going all the way. Of seeing the end.” He sees a movie, a typical Western in which a lone hero takes on corrupt town bosses. It rings false to him, though he grants that “it gave the illusion that something could be accomplished single-handed, and you went along.” Finally, he attends the murder trial of a young man who, for reasons he doesn’t divulge, strangled his wife on their wedding night. The hunger for a motive exasperates him: “Why a motive at all they need a story either insult or a slap silence or obedience something to fit a little box...” These scenes of violence -- ritualized, heroic, inexplicable -- foretell Zeberjet’s own surrender to his darker impulses, a necessary surrender, according to him: “He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime -- some kind of crime -- could keep you alive on earth.” Such half-baked Nietzschean sentiments are less indicative of his madness, though, than the cooly rational, and illogical, summation of his own crack-up: Basically the running of a hotel was no different from running an institution, managing a large business, or governing a country. Just when you began to know yourself and understand what the means at hand might be, that’s when you slipped and broke down. Luckily the managers of government didn’t realize this, or they could do much more harm than the manager of a small hotel. Here is the madman’s tendency to see his particular condition as universal. All the word’s mad, and the center cannot hold for the motherland’s statesmen and hoteliers alike. Image Credit: Pexels.
Essays

Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages

Within a month and a half, both Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri published essays on their efforts at learning a new language. Their reasons and methods couldn’t have been more different, yet underneath their distinct approaches runs a commonality that unites them in a common act. It’s the same commonality that links together every reader of literature, present and past. Lydia Davis’s essay, “On Learning Norwegian,” was included in the first volume of John Freeman’s biannual anthology. Davis had a rather bizarre compulsion to read Dag Solstad’s “Telemark novel.” There is almost no chance that it will ever be translated into English. It will be a miracle if more than five Norwegians even read it. To call the book a novel is to bend that word to the limit. There are fierce debates in Norway over Solstad’s use of this term to describe to his newest project. The “Telemark novel” is long -- 426 pages not counting the appendix. It is devoid of any action or drama. There is no unifying plot. It is a recitation of Solstad’s ancestors who lived in the town of Telemark from 1691 to 1896. Accounts of their births, deaths, marriages, and property transactions. And little else. Why Davis was moved to read this book, I’m not sure and neither is she. It has less to do with the novel itself and more with Davis’s desire for experiment. Davis did not know Norwegian. And she knew that it's almost inconceivable that the novel would ever be translated into a language she could access. So why not just learn Norwegian? Reading Solstad would be a rewarding challenge in itself. The act would not accomplish anything, per se. There is no joy to be had in following a great storyline or new knowledge to learn about the universe. The only delight Davis would receive from reading Solstad is being the only non-Norwegian to have done it. But how? That’s the part Davis wants to experiment with. Davis thought it would be even more challenging to read the “Telemark novel” without using a dictionary and without formal language training. This isn’t as ludicrous as it sounds. Davis already knew German and French so right off the bat she was able to discern certain things -- verb conjugation patterns, cognates, the alphabet and its sounds, and some prepositions. And there are advantages to not using a dictionary. Dictionaries can be detrimental crutches for those learning a new language. They are psychological hindrances to fully grasping vocabulary. If you know that a dictionary is only a keystroke away, you’ll likely not spend as much effort driving new words into your head as you would if you had no safety net. Furthermore, discovering words in context gives a deeper understanding than scanning an abstract definition. Davis created her own treatments of the Norwegian language. She worked from the inside out. Whenever Davis would divine a term’s import she would add it to a running list. Each time she’d crack open a syntactical feature she’d include it in her nascent grammar. She did cheat a few times. She had a handful of sessions with a language teacher and she read through a children’s book and a graphic novel to acquire a basic vocabulary. But other than she taught herself Norwegian by reading one of the most opaque “novels” to ever be published in any language. She is open about the fact there was much in the book she didn’t understand. But going through it slowly, reading it word by word, opened to her new ways of thinking. She learned almost as much about the English language as she did the Norwegian. Most of these discoveries were etymological but often they would lead to more philosophical observations. Davis learned that “neighbor” means to live near someone. She mused that this could be good or bad, depending upon the persons involved. She also noticed characteristics about Solstad’s writing that she might not have understood if she were reading fast. Solstad shifts his narrative mode to explain the same event in a different way and his writing changes pace to reflect the nature of the narrative. These insights are fairly minor but they were products of hard-fought work so to Davis they were grand accomplishments. Davis did not become fluent in Norwegian. She is not able to speak it nor can she readily compose Norwegian prose. She was able to understand a good bit of a tremendously challenging tome without recourse to learning aids. A herculean task if there ever was one. Jhumpa Lahiri did precisely the opposite of Lydia Davis. In “Teach Yourself Italian” published in The New Yorker, Lahiri describes how she availed herself of every tool imaginable to learn her language of choice. She bought textbooks, met with tutors for years on end, and finally moved her family to Rome. It took her years and years of frustrating toil but she finally reached the point where she was satisfied with her efforts. Most impressive to me was the fact that her essay was translated into English by Ann Goldstein. Lahiri wrote it in Italian. Lahiri explores more deeply than Davis her reasons for learning a new language. For here it wasn’t a merely a fun challenge. Lahiri’s mother was born in India and she raised Jhumpa speaking Bengali. But Lahiri admits that her command of Bengali is far from perfect. She can’t write in it. Nor can she speak it without an accent. She feels alienated from her mother tongue. But English, her default language, is actually her second language. She feels like a linguistic exile, an author without a home. Lahiri wanted to get away from English, to find rest and transformation in a language new and different. She reconstructed herself from the grammatical ground up. Lahiri wanted to connect with another way of viewing the world and fuse it with her own. Davis and Lahiri are similar in this. Why else would Davis spend an entire year reading a single book? She wanted to grow, to change, to metamorphose through the challenge. She also desired a connection with this very alien way of telling a story, to see the world through Solstad’s eyes. Davis and Lahiri’s narratives remind me of the first author that we know of in human history—a Mesopotamian princess who went by the name Enheduanna. We don’t know exactly how Enheduanna learned the language she wrote, but we can surmise that she probably did it through a hybrid of Davis’ and Lahiri’s approaches. Roughly 4,500 years ago, Enheduanna’s father united two cultural groups of Mesopotamia into a single empire. These two areas spoke different languages and thought of themselves as different peoples. Enheduanna grew up speaking Akkadian, but after her father conquered the southern lands and joined them to his kingdom, he sent his daughter to become the high priestess at one of this region’s most significant temples. While she was there, Enheduanna learned their dominant language, Sumerian. Likely, Enheduanna had teachers and, like Lahiri, she also made use of textbooks. Also like Lahiri, Enheduanna moved to the Rome of her day -- she traveled to a foreign place where people lived and spoke differently, a place with a reputation as a cultural and religious capital. But like Davis she probably relied on word lists to acquire vocabulary. Enheduanna did not use a dictionary as we understand them. Also like Davis she learned grammar inductively, through reading instead of by memorizing rules of syntax. Enheduanna also had a similar goal in learning this new language. She produced the first collection of poetry that is known to exist. She rounded up 42 temple hymns that celebrated various shrines across her father’s empire. She included religious sites from both the north and the south. These regions had an open and longstanding hostility toward one another. Enheduanna wanted the residents of the two parts of the new country to understand the commonalities they shared. They had different customs and they spoke different languages but by reading each other’s poems they could bridge these divides, they could meet a new people and come to know themselves in a fresh way. Lydia Davis came to a realization after she finished Solstad’s book: “It also occurred to me, as I bent over my thin pencil scratches on the handsome pages of the book, that we read selfishly -- and we read in whatever way we choose.” I think this is true for the way that most every human reads and has read. We like different types of books; some stories resonate with us while others do not. Davis’s observation is even true for the way we learn languages. People learn in different ways. But the why of reading? I think that, in large part, is something we all share. We’ve been searching texts for a connection to another person or community for more than 4,000 years. This is what Davis and Lahiri wanted. It’s what Enheduanna tried to create. It is likely the reason why you are reading this right now. And in this desire for connection, every reader, across time and place, is intimately linked. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

The Devils, Damsels, and Discipline of Jorge de Sena

Translated Portuguese literature lies mired in five names: postmodernist celebrities Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes; José Saramago, whose shiny Nobel Prize mesmerizes publishers crow-like; and the classic authors Eça de Queiroz and Luís de Camões. These are the ones that get translated and retranslated year in, year out, as if there weren’t room for more. For evidence you need look no further than the silence over Raul Brandão’s recent debut in English. Fortunately Dedalus Press, the leading publisher of diverse Portuguese literature, insists in changing things, and that’s how we got Jorge de Sena’s The Prodigious Physician, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. In principle, things should have worked out better for Jorge de Sena. After all, he made a wise career choice when he moved to the U.S. to teach first at the University of Wisconsin, then at UC Berkeley. His tenacious, if obscure, longevity in English sort of proves this: to date one novel, a short-story collection, and several volumes of his gorgeous poetry have come out. Alas, all have quickly faded in the face of general indifference. Why does he keep getting new chances? Writers don’t become famous only because of their literary merit; it helps when influential agents notice them: George Steiner’s infatuation with Pessoa did a lot for him; Saramago (who in the past was Sena’s editor) probably wasn’t badly served by Harold Bloom judging him “the greatest living novelist.” Even Lobo Antunes has acknowledged that his breakthrough stemmed from American literary agent Thomas Colchie championing him, lending support to the opinion that to be known worldwide is to be known in English first and foremost. No such paladin ever defended Sena; instead his translations have been living off dividends from his college career. It’s telling that he’s been previously translated by former colleagues and students, whose prefaces betray that most Portuguese of feelings, saudade, the painful longing for an absent friend, in this case a man remembered at campus as an erudite, generous, fascinating  figure. Born in 1919, Sena began publishing poems in the early 1940s in a magazine called Cadernos de Poesia, around which coalesced a band of young poets bent on revitalizing Portuguese poetry. By bringing to each verse an anger and brutality unusual in a country of mild-mannered lyricists, replacing Portuguese poetry’s propensity for sentimentality with philosophical reflection, and dialoging with Europe’s Modernism instead of burrowing in parochialism, he did just that. An engineer by education, he also pursued criticism and is rightfully considered one of Portugal’s greatest literary critics. In a country that turned to France alone for literary fashions, his knowledge of the English language and literature, so unusual at the time, allowed him to carve a niche for himself. He translated, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Eugene O'Neill, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, whom he adored. (English was such a mysterious entity to his peers that he had to endure accusations of plagiarizing foreign poets.) His anglophilia also allowed him to widen studies about Pessoa. He translated his English-language poems and studied the legacy of English culture on Pessoa, who had been raised in British South Africa. (Sena once had to confirm to a scholar that Aleister Crowley, whom Pessoa had personally met, was not a fabrication of the jesting poet.) Sena’s lifelong interest in Pessoa made him a suitable candidate to bring order to what is nowadays known as The Book of Disquiet, and he was one of the first editors to take a swing at it. He worked at it for five years before giving up. At the time he was living in exile in Brazil, a predicament that posed logistic problems about getting copies of the original manuscripts. Sena had fled there in 1959 after participating in a botched coup to overthrow the dictatorship ruling since 1926. In a move worthy of Pessoa, all that remains of this endeavor is his 60-page introduction for a nonexistent edition of Disquiet. Tragically, Brazil fell under a right-wing regime in 1964, too, and the following year he took up a teaching job in the U.S., remaining there until his death in 1978. Between his stay in Brazil and move to America, Sena published The Prodigious Physician, one of his most popular works. It originally belonged to a short story collection finished in 1964 and published two years later, Novas Andanças do Demónio (some stories were included in By the Rivers of Babylon). The novella didn’t ride solo until 1977; in the accompanying preface, Sena explained that at the time he didn’t have the conditions to publish it separately, so he let it “hitch a ride” with the other stories when an editor showed interest in them. The Prodigious Physician sounds like something in the vein of Angela Carter’s mixture of erotica and myth. It chronicles the carefree wanderings of a beautiful young physician whose soul has been sold to the devil; who has a magical hat that grants any wish, from raising the dead to traveling in time; and whose blood has healing properties. These elements, plus the idea of an infatuated devil who lifts his beloved’s legs when the Inquisition tries to hang him for heresy, come from the fusion and rearrangement of two medieval tales. Sena was no different from other writers at the time who were looking backwards to move away from realist fiction: Italo Calvino reusing the chivalric romance in The Nonexistent Knight or John Barth with the picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor. In Spain, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was doing something even stranger in Don Juan by unleashing the legendary lover on the 20th century. Even so, for Portuguese literature at the time, this was a pretty weird book. Of the three types of writers co-existing within the regime we can dispense with two: the right-wing official author and the left-wing socialist realist, rechristened neo-realista (new realist) to avoid censorship. Often clumsy hacks prized mostly for extra-literary reasons, their value inflated insofar as they stuck to and flattered the pinched ideologies that respectively underpinned them. Sena, a life-long communist but too autonomous to follow party lines, belonged to the third type that just wanted to get on with the usual business of making great literature. As such, his fury over factions informed his own fiction. If readers keep this in mind, they’ll appreciate this deceptively straightforward novella a lot better. The Prodigious Physician seems mathematically engineered to piss off fascists and neo-realists alike with democratic distribution. The collection it originally came in was particularly offensive because it was a rare incursion into a genre Portuguese authors seldom explored -- fantasy. To make matters worse, the preface put forth a deliberate attack on “the second-rate aesthetics of the oh-so-esteemed traditional realism.” (I don’t understand why Dedalus didn’t add value to this slim volume by appending the original prefaces.) If Sena had filled a previous collection with quotidian observations and autobiographical tinges, this one basked in what he called “the fantastic realism or the imaginative historicism,” modes he judged better suited to depict his time than realism, which to him was almost “a spurious way of immobilizing reality, which, by its nature, is a continuous process.” Instead of parading masses of peasants in fields and proletarians in factories, Sena invoked mythical and historical figures; instead of Capital, he pillaged 14th-century tomes for ideas. Even more perversely, Sena actually cared about style, even cared about difficulty. Jull Costa keeps intact his page-long paragraphs, interpolated with metrically rigorous poems, sometimes cascading down labyrinthine sentences with irregular punctuation. (If I had to quibble, I’d say she only missed the vocabulary’s archaic flavor.) All of this flew in the face of neo-realism’s doctrinal frugality; its motto was that books should be simple enough for the people to read them. Well, when you stop to think that around 1960 Portugal had a 30 percent illiteracy rate, you can estimate just how simple simple was. Even Sena’s use of double columns encompassed a challenge to ideologies that professed to hold the Truth. What better way of questioning the regime’s and the neo-realists’ pretentions to infallibility than narrating the same event in simultaneous columns with contradictory facts? Reality, for him, wasn’t realistically rendered unless fragmented and subjective. The Prodigious Physician also opposed the regime because it traduced conformity, sexual abstinence, and Catholic values. Few of his readers would expect a scene brimming with amoral homoeroticism between the protagonist and the devil: He lay there in a pose of patient, indifferent abandon, his head resting on his arms, and allowed the Devil, who was invisible, to work himself up into a frenzy of desires. Long caresses ran lightly over his skin, whispered kisses nipped his body all over, hands lingered on his crotch, a hardness pressed against him, trying to penetrate him -- it had been the same ever since he had reached manhood and whenever he took off his clothes and was alone. He put up with it as he might do with an unavoidable affliction, which neither excited him nor provoked feelings of horror or repugnance. Sex follows the nameless protagonist around, and he’s long stopped seeing it as sacred. The physician was sold to the devil when his grandmother, “seeing him still prepubescent, but with the body of a grown man, had summoned the Devil, who had immediately enfolded him in a passionate embrace.” In exchange for his indifference, “he had received immense powers and, over time, had come to think that the Devil wasn’t really asking such a lot of him, contenting himself with a mere obliging availability, in which he, the young man, did not participate with so much as a gesture or a tremor.” As the novella opens, he stops by a riverbank to freshen up, and a trio of maidens invite him to frolic. After that, they take him to a castle, where a widow languishes from an unknown ailment; he uses his blood to cure her, and they fall in love. In this enchanted castle gender roles have been subverted, and women rule over men who “had quite forgotten their position in society, and were made equal in sharing the same pleasures and submitting to the same rules of obedience.” The novella’s a paean to sexual freedom, but if it looks like Sena was foreshadowing hippie communes, for a Portuguese reader it’s hard not to think of Camões’s epic poem The Lusiads, where Venus rewards harried sailors with a magical island filled with Cupid-intoxicated horny nymphs in a dazzling display of eroticism. Sena was not only one of Camões’s greatest scholars, he also shared his visionary hope in a paradisiacal society where women and men are equal and live bound by love. If I have a criticism to make, it’s that this spiritual love too often feels exclusively earthly. Sena may write that the physician finds in the widow “the love of which [the Devil] knows nothing, the pleasure he cannot feel, and the furious joy that, even without love, does not exist in the lewd pleasures he can offer,” but their relationship is rather cold. The novella’s complex meditations on love appeal more to my intellect than my heart. It rejects the soul (the Devil even claims it doesn’t exist) in favor of the body as the erotic center. Descriptions of breasts, thighs, hair, skin abound. Everybody ogles one another. The castle-dwellers party more than Poe’s noblemen keeping the plague out. Perhaps this was Sena’s goal, to emphasize the physicality of sex at the time when the regime controlled the body. He evidently relished in indecency, as the dirty epigraph by Arthur Rimbaud shows. But though I can appreciate the importance of transgression, gratification without an emotional grounding feels rather empty. Besides Rimbaud’s, there’s a second epigraph, belonging to 17th Jesuit priest Manuel Bernardes, author of a gigantic work of didactic moralizing. Readers won’t need to know that Sena considered the good priest a symbol of intellectual and moral backwardness and oppression to appreciate the joke of juxtaposing his earnestly pious sentences with Rimbaud’s scatology. He’s made of the same cloth as the novella’s castrating friars who prefer erecting scaffolds than their penises. In this part of the novella, Sena pushes too strongly in the direction of paper-thin parable when they unveil a “gigantic conspiracy by the Devil against the established order” that includes “sodomy, a whole range of crimes against nature, and a vast web of subversive propaganda.” And it’s hard not to see in Brother Anthony of Salzburg, “a famous expert and writer of treatises on matters infernal,” a caricature of dictator António Salazar. But Sena is not so much forcing a parable as stating that Portugal’s history had dead in its tracks. After three centuries under the Inquisition, followed by 100 years of relative freedom, a long dictatorship could only give the impression of static time: the present was the past, the past was the present. A few decades later, Lobo Antunes’s big Salazar novel, The Inquisitor’s Manual, would use the same metaphor. Instead of proclaiming a belief in progress, like neo-realist works, Sena’s novella hinges on subtle cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Reality may as well look back to see itself as if on a mirror. Ribald and raunchy, The Prodigious Physician is nevertheless tinged with pessimism. Unlike the neo-realists, Sena was too realistic to know that utopias never work. Although their books have aged badly, this novella continues to resonate in our time in the way it celebrates equality between women and men, sexual freedom over prudery, reason over fanaticism, and the individual over the state. Plus, Sena adds more context to translated Portuguese fiction, which often floats in an ahistorical vacuum, Sena’s blend of fantasy and realism predates José Saramago’s magical realism and allegories, and his rage at castrating tyrants brings to mind António Lobo Antunes. In The Prodigious Physician’s 100 pages we find all the main elements in the best contemporary Portuguese fiction. Jorge de Sena’s obscurity is a mystery, but the solution to that is simple and begins with reading this little masterpiece.
Essays

Ghost Stories

A controversial homebirth midwife; a woman cop who took six bullets as she helped stop a terrorist attack; a young woman making the best of life despite a disfiguring disease; a '60s-­pop-music buff who, after his fourth bout with cancer, decided to live out his dream of writing about his encounters with his idols. Those are the kinds of people I have ghostwritten books for -- not people like V.C. Andrews or ex-presidents. You don’t get rich ghostwriting for regular people. In many cases, you also don’t get rich writing for the big names, either. You’d be surprised -- sometimes it’s the wealthiest and/or best-known clients who pay the least. Exactly how much do I make writing other people’s stories? For most books, I receive a flat rate -- anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 in my case, plus or minus a percentage of the author’s royalties. Sometimes I get a percentage of the author’s advance --25 percent to 40 percent in my experience, plus or minus a percentage of the author’s royalties -- but I am told the top ghostwriters get 50. In the best cases I have gotten 40, with 25 percent of the author’s royalties. Here and there, I charge by the hour, $50 to $90, for what I call “editorial hand-holding” for clients who can sort of write, but need a lot of guidance and editing work. For me, ghostwriting is a job -- one I wouldn’t do if I didn’t need the money. Like any job, it has its pros and cons, its ups and downs -- lots of freedom, the satisfaction of helping someone tell their story; but also, frequently, having to handle intense personalities with kid gloves. And yet, I still have not given up on ghostwriting entirely. For every bad client there’s also an instance of grace -- mostly people grateful for my ability to help them express themselves, even if their books haven’t been blockbusters. There have been moments that made it all worthwhile, like helping an author’s daughter, who had severe learning disabilities, write an afterword that made her feel proud. Not to mention it’s a way for me to use the skills I have to make at least some money, while working at home, at my own pace. Here are a few of my most memorable deals from almost two decades in the trenches. THE FIRST TIME It’s 1996 and I’m looking for a way to leave my full-time job as a writer for fashion magazines Women’s Wear Daily and W and go freelance. I meet a young agent at an Authors Guild event I’m covering. She’s looking for someone to ghostwrite a book for a wedding planner. It sounds pretty easy. I’ve been interviewing people, writing profiles, and doing lifestyle journalism for a decade already. I know how to listen, how to construct a story arc, how to keep a story moving. I’ve also dabbled in nonfiction MFA programs I ultimately dropped out of -- Sarah Lawrence and City College of New York -- and have been working on a memoir. This seems like something I can easily do, and something that can supplement the money I’ll make freelancing, so I quit my job. If we land a book deal, the $3,000 I get up front to write the wedding planner’s book proposal will be deducted from the $15,000 in total I’ll receive for writing the book, in three increments: on signing, on delivery, and on acceptance. I’ll also get 15 percent of the author’s royalties once she earns out her advance. I get that job, and at the same time, another -- $10,000 for a book about hair and beauty styles for weddings by a hairstylist. Again, I will be paid in three increments, and this time I secure 25 percent of the author’s royalties. The hairstylist is my first client to muse aloud, from the beginning, about what he is going to say when he appears on Oprah. He is even paying for media training for this express purpose. He is far from the last client I will ever have who verbally anticipates an impending star turn on Oprah. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? But after I write four very different versions of her proposal, the wedding planner’s book never secures a deal. And the hairstylist’s book never earns back its advance. He never makes it to Oprah’s couch. THE GREAT MASCARA CAPER In 1998 I get a gig writing a book for the multimillionaire founder of a major cosmetics company. He’s paying $25,000, but no royalties. However, I am told it’s going to be an easy job -- probably taking no more than a couple of months -- because the author has all his information and research ready to go. As a consolation for my missing out on royalties, he also promises me the employee discount­ -- 75 percent -- on the company’s products, for life.On three separate occasions I spend three weeks working with him in a tiny town in Wisconsin (population: 650). I do what I do with all my clients: a combination of recorded interviews -- which are then transcribed by a professional transcriber (the client balks at paying the fees, but my agent insists) -- and getting my client to do some freewriting (free-associating on paper) because sometimes people brainstorm better that way. I keep waiting for him to give me some big folder full of all the research, but it turns out it’s all conveniently stored in his brain. Some details come out a little different each time. So I interview the scientists at his company myself. I learn to translate into layman’s terms why curly hair tends to be drier than straight, and other secrets of beauty science. The job seems like it will never end. It ends up taking nine months, monopolizing my life, and leaving me nearly broke. Within a year, the client has sold his cosmetics company, and I promptly lose my discount. THE BEST (AND WORST) DEAL This is the memoir of a mother whose son had become quadriplegic after an accident. I race through the proposal so my agent can have it in time for a big international book festival. She’s hoping to get offers in the $200,000 range. That sounds good to me; I’ll receive 40 percent of the advance. My agent calls three times from the festival, first to say she’s gotten an offer of $250,000, but will keep going. The second call, she says she’s snagged a $750,000 offer, but she isn’t stopping until she has $1 million. By the third call, she’s made good on her word. This is it. I am going to make $400,000 in six months for writing one book, plus 25 percent of the author’s royalties. I am stunned. But I am also so scared. What makes a memoir a million-­ dollar book? How would this have to be different from a book I would have delivered for $200,000? How the fuck am I going to do this? I receive my first of three scheduled payments: $113,000 after my agent’s cut. I have never made that much money in a year, not even when I was an advertising copywriter. But that’s the only check I get. The editor gushes over early glimpses we give her of the manuscript. But then she changes her tune. She rejects two different drafts of it. This is now 2008. The economy is changing. The business is changing. The publishing house wants to kill the book. It seems they’ve realized they’ve been too loose with their money. The agent campaigns to not have the book killed. How can you do this to a woman in her situation? she argues, pulling out the author’s backstory for sympathy. Instead of killing the book, they fire me. I wonder if there’s some kind of lesson I’m supposed to learn from this: I have made the most money I have ever made in ghostwriting on a book from which I was fired. The book eventually comes out, and it’s a huge flop. (And no Oprah appearance.) THE $20,000 BESTSELLER At a time when I am fairly desperate for work, a celebrity’s wife comes along. She wants to write a memoir about raising a kid with a disability. She’s offering $20,000 with no royalties. Subtract my agent’s 15 percent and taxes. Know that this work is very taxing with even the best clients. Know that I need a job. My agent presses for royalties, but the woman and her people refuse. Don’t worry, my agent says. This book won’t be big. There probably won’t be any royalties. I go to meet the author and resentment rises up inside me as she proudly shows me around her 10-bedroom mansion. At the end of our first interview, I ask whether she’s ever tried a gluten-free diet for her son. No, I can’t do that, she says. He’d freak out if I served him something different from his brothers and sister. Tonight, for instance, I’m making spaghetti. It’s his favorite. I can’t deprive him of that. A half hour later, we walk into her kitchen, and there, in front of the stove, is an older woman in an apron making spaghetti. Oh, my god, I think, my client thinks she’s making spaghetti. She’s so used to having people do things for her, she doesn’t even know she’s not actually doing them! I feel like another one of the many people she pays to live her life for her, and it doesn’t feel great. After the book comes out, my client reportedly tells interviewers she didn’t have a ghostwriter -- that the publisher had hired someone, but her work on the first chapter was unsatisfactory, so they fired her and the author wrote the whole thing herself. In five weeks. That false claim amounts to a public retraction of the acknowledgment stipulated in my contract. I am advised to have my lawyer send her a cease and desist letter. To add insult to injury, not only are there royalties for the author, the book lands on The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks. I get nothing for it beyond the $20,000. That sours me on ghostwriting for a while, at least for stingy quasi celebrities. * A couple of years later, I’ll have a very gratifying experience working with an unknown author on his memoir about his struggle, in his 20s, to come out. I don’t get rich on it by any means, but I am fairly paid and enjoy the work. There are aspects of this client’s story that resonate with the memoir I’ve been struggling to write, and so I feel personally invested. This job leaves me feeling hopeful about ghostwriting as a means of supporting myself. Helping people tell their stories, writing books in one of my favorite genres -- memoir -- feels like the most logical and best possible use of my skills, in cases where I am being remunerated decently and treated fairly. It keeps me from having to acquire new skills to stay afloat, like some colleagues who have become real estate agents and lab techs, or are studying nursing. Since then, I’ve had a couple of easy, small gigs, and one nightmare job that would have put me off ghostwriting forever if I weren’t lacking other skills that are as lucrative. As of this writing I’m considering another longer project. The woman who reached out to me has said two things that caught my attention: Money is no object, and, The client is...well...emotional. Here’s hoping that, at the very least, the former makes up for the latter. From Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin. Copyright ©2017 by Manjula Martin. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Essays

How Mark Twain Invented the Wild West

1. Huck Out West The "Wild West" is ultimately a mythological creation, one filled with recognizable motifs: cowboys, 10-gallon hats, revolvers, horses, lassos, cacti, saloons, vast landscapes, and so on. It was the American answer to the European world of medieval chivalry, providing a stage for the stories of many great novelists and filmmakers of the past 150 years. To most people, the Wild West is synonymous with action and adventure, which is why a reimagining of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) set in the Wild West offered so much potential. Robert Coover picks up where Mark Twain left off, telling of Huck’s experience immersed in the merciless American frontier. Coover’s Huck is certainly consistent with Twain’s: an enterprising, thoughtful youth whose good nature can leave him exposed to manipulation and danger. The author also takes naturally to the dialect of Huckleberry Finn, evoking the slack-jawed voices of the Midwest. Ultimately, Huck Out West bores more than it entertains. There is no brilliant, overarching plotline; Coover’s narrative merely rambles along, following Huck’s aimless wanderings through America. The scenes of action, physical suffering, and gun-violence are so frequent that they quickly lose their force. In contrast, the best Western films and novels savor the drawn-out tension before an act of violence (think of the sensational five-minute showdown at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Coover populates his Western landscape with a rather lacklustre cast of characters. He inherits the brilliant Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but most of the surrounding individuals, save a few exceptions, feel like reflections of one another. They are stereotypical Wild West nomads, roaming the land with a penchant for violence. Coover has moments of brilliance. His metaphors are sometimes wonderfully imaginative, like when Huck tells us that his "yallerness" (yellowness) had "begun to fade like fence paint in the sun." There is no doubt that Coover completely understands and appreciates the dusty, expansive atmosphere of the Old West, but his intense focus on the atmosphere comes at the expense of a good plot. Furthermore, although not many people notice or acknowledge it, there is already a piece of the Wild West in Twain’s writing. 2. Mark Twain’s Modern Cowboy Revisiting Huckleberry Finn before reading Coover’s sequel, it became clear that the modern cowboy played by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood was born in the pages of Mark Twain. He deserves recognition in the timeline of the Wild West’s genesis, which places heavy emphasis on writers such as Zane Grey and Owen Wister and not enough on Twain. It is commonly held that Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was the first novel to establish the common features of popular culture’s cowboy. It offers us the gunslinging Lassiter as its hero, an expert shooter and horse rider clad in black. Lassiter’s blend of mysteriousness and masculinity, novel then but clichéd now, laid down the foundations for Hollywood’s cowboy hero. Lassiter actually helps to herd cattle, something John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, in fact, do very little of in their Western films. Riders of the Purple Sage is not a good novel, full of saccharine sentimentality and predictable heroic successes, but it is an important historical point in the Wild West’s development. Novels about the American frontier previous to Grey’s bestseller lacked the Lassiter figure, the cowboy hero who commits violence with swagger and style. James Fenimore Cooper’s the Leatherstocking Tales series, which includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), was certainly the first popular fiction to romanticize the frontier, but it lacked the kind of hero that Wayne and Eastwood would come to popularize. On the contrary, Cooper’s hero, Hawkeye, is a white man ultimately aspiring to be a Native American -- the indigenous figure that would become the Wild West’s most popular villain. Enter Twain. His claim to having created the first modern cowboy is borne out of only a short scene that occurs on the periphery of Finn’s story -- a nugget of gold nestled in the middle of the book. It is an altercation between a drunkard named Boggs and Colonel Sherburn. Remember it? I didn’t either. The scene reads like one from a 1950s Hollywood Western, the ones you find on television during working hours on weekdays. It is bursting with features that would become typical Wild West motifs. For instance, it begins with Boggs riding up to Sherburn’s property and demanding that he show himself: Come out here, Sherburn! Come out and meet the man you’ve swindled The confrontational language immediately suggests one thing: showdown. The two men meet one another before an audience of nervous townsfolk, another fixture of most Westerns. Eastwood’s proficiency with a pistol would be far less thrilling were it not for the gasps and guffaws of numerous spectators. Sherburn gives Boggs an ultimatum, demanding that he stop with his abuse before 1 p.m. or there’ll be hell to pay. Think of that: Twain was only one hour away from predicting the "High Noon" ultimatum. The Wild West’s obsession with meetings at midday would have to come after Twain’s time. Sherburn talks to Boggs "mighty calm and slow," preempting the steely coolness so essential to Hollywood’s cowboys. Boggs fails to meet the terms of Sherburn’s ultimatum, and his murder is extremely histrionic. Sherburn emerges at 1 p.m. and "sings" out Boggs’s name, and the drunkard dies mid-plea: "O Lord, don’t shoot!" Twain exposes a predilection for sound effects, too, imbuing his prototype for the Wild West with a cinematic quality that is astonishingly prescient. Bang! Goes the first shot…bang! goes the second one Huckleberry Finn’s evident thrill in narrating this experience is clearly in fact Twain’s. Boggs dies "clawing at the air’" and then hits the ground "with his arms spread out." His body writhes with that melodramatic gesturing typical of most of Wayne’s anonymous victims. Twain has Sherburn conclude his gunplay with a Hollywood swagger, glamorizing the violence and fashioning the modern Wild West cowboy. When Sherburn turns around "on his heels’"and walks away, it brought to mind Steve McQueen coolly swiveling around in The Magnificent Seven. The conclusion of the scene is Twain at his most visionary. He recognises that the Wild West is an invention; a product of stories told again and again, until almost all fact is lost and only myth remains. Huckleberry Finn witnesses the first stage in this process of repeated retellings. The townsfolk are instantly captivated by what they have seen, and one man feels compelled to reenact it. Twain sees the theatrical potential in the genre he helped to create. The man stood up straight and stiff where Sherburn had stood…and sung out ‘Boggs!’, and then fetched his cane down slow to a level, and says ‘Bang!’, staggered backwards, says ‘Bang!’ again, and fell down flat on his back…the people that had seen the thing said he done it perfect. Twain also predicts Hollywood’s penchant for retelling its own stories. The relatively recent Western films 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and True Grit (2010) were both remakes of earlier films, which were in turn adaptations of novels. Of course in September we had The Magnificent Seven, a reimagining of the 1950s blockbuster that was in fact based on the Japanese film Seven Samurai. The Boggs-Sherburn scene is little longer than a couple of pages, but it precedes Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage by 28 years. Sherburn, in fact, is the first Lassiter. Twain’s novel sold tremendously well; his influence upon the development of the Wild West, even through this short scene, should not be understated. He not only wrote one of the "Great American Novels," but also provided a building block for one of the great American industries. It seems likely that Coover saw the germ of the Wild West in Twain’s original, but he allows it to grow until it looms too large over his continuation of Huck’s story. This iconoclastic experiment comes at a cost.