Essays

Don’t Call It a Novel (It’s Been Here for Years)

There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order.  What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories -- the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose -- but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.” I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’...” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection. This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are. A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.) When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes: [T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of "cycle" is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them...Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole. Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.) It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre -- to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel -- is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory. Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!) Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains: [T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture -- but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel -- novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human -- the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability. I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies. There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners. And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely. I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me. And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
Essays

Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women Writers

Reader looke, Not on his Picture, but his Book -- Ben Jonson When I was in my 20s, I used to spend hours at the Strand Bookstore in New York, obsessively gazing at book jacket photos of authors. I was trying to discern something -- A key to genius? Or the mere fact that this lucky person, in this photo, had managed to get a book out into the world? The variations were endless: Here was a classic black-and-white, chin resting on fist. Here was a playful one, slightly off-center. Sexy duck face for a middle-grade children's book...okay. Or, how about this one, gorgeous photo, but one that looked completely different -- like witness protection plan different -- from the author I saw as I sat in the audience at a crowded Barnes & Noble. Or this one: instead of confined to the inner flap, her face on the entire back of the book, where the blurbs would normally be. Was this good? Did this mean the press thought she was such a great writer they wanted everyone to know her? Or, was it like using a pretty face to sell toothpaste? Fast forward a few years on, and I'm finally published. My husband is in grad school, but before that, he'd worked at the venerated publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Knowing my obsession, he would often point out the different FSG authors' pictures, noting how the press often signaled the importance of a book by commissioning one of the well-known author photographers, most famously, Marion Ettlinger, whose black-and-whites portraits are instantly recognizable by the unsmiling, dramatic poses of her subjects, the marmoreal lighting. These could run thousands of dollars for a single image. My first novel came out with Beacon Press, an independent press that published both poet Mary Oliver and the Pentagon Papers; it's owned by the Unitarian Church -- hardly to be faulted for not shelling out big bucks for an author photo. I was lucky enough to use a lovely black-and-white portrait done at MacDowell, an artist's colony. Earlier in my career, when I'd published young adult and middle grade fiction with Houghton Mifflin, my husband took the photos: we'd spent a day running goofily around New York City, occasionally imitating "serious author" poses and cracking up. The ones I submitted had me grinning, in jeans and sneakers sitting by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. But even though both my novel and children's books came out before social media, I received creepy messages via email and AOL about how "nice" I looked. "You look like a model." I don't look like a model. I am, however, smiling warmly and authentically at my husband and at Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the MacDowell photographer. A majority of these creeps seemed to be Asian fetishists, and were persistent as barnacles -- one guy stuck with it into the social media age, posting on my Facebook author page how we must meet -- I don't know if he realizes he's in love with a decade-old photo. Funny, yes, but unnerving, especially when the invitations for coffee appear. Sometimes I don't post events because of them. But after being out of the publishing game for more than a decade, it's author photo time! But I have come to wonder if, perhaps, for women, author photos are too often a lose-lose situation. Women are judged -- very often wrongly -- because of their looks. There is no more obvious evidence of how women's looks are "consumed" and "read" by the public than the most recent presidential debate.  Donald Trump galumps onto the stage in an ill-fitting suit, hair (if it is, indeed human hair) afrizz, his amorphous horse-fish hybrid face like a genetic engineering experiment gone awry. Hillary Clinton shows up in polished hair and makeup, understated age-appropriate business attire, probably a media consultant's pop of color -- but it's her appearance that becomes the Rorschach blot for an overheated electorate: She smiled too much! She smiled too little! Did she look healthy, sick, or overprepared? Was she going to cough, pundits wondered, breathlessly, while the audience could barely hear Trump through his odd and unsightly sniffling. It's as if we already give any American (white) man the benefit of the doubt in terms of fitting into any narrative, especially one of heroism or competence, but a woman who breaks through always has to be stopped, something must be wrong. Women authors, genius aside, must make sure they are not too old, or too young. Not too serious, but also serious enough. They have to be attractive, but not too attractive; for some reason in men it's dreamy but in women it's suspicious.  Take the example of poet Sarah Howe, winning the U.K.'s top poetry prize, the T.S. Eliot, but also nabbing the all-around medal for a trifecta of misogyny, racism, and ageism: "too young, beautiful -- and Chinese"--a bunch of male "critics" (I'm only calling them critics, in that they  criticize) seemed to feel someone who looked like that somehow didn't deserve such a storied prize, it had to be rigged! Forget the quality of her work, let's merely assume there must have been "extra-poetic reasons" for the award, such as her being "presentable" ("You look like a model!"). Author photos matter for men, too, but often these are calculated statements, gimmicks to gin up publicity -- the sloe-eyed Truman Capote-as-odalisque portrait was a publicist's dream. Men get to define what being an author is, women have to try conform to an abstraction that sometimes doesn't even include them: when Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for her wildly inventive A Visit From the Goon Squad, the Los Angeles Times ran the picture they thought best represented the genius novelist: a picture of Jonathan Franzen. In this hyper-exposed age, as authors we're told repeatedly we need a platform, a brand, some way to distinguish us from the swarming thousands of other authors being published each month. But this presenting can get in the way of the solitude that's needed for creation. I'm a creature of the Internet (hence you are reading this), but I've admired Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the Italian novelist who wrote the beloved series of Neapolitan novels. She does nary a book festival, a signing. She's stated she needs anonymity and privacy to write; her books are the only public thing about her -- and as book lovers, is there anything more we need? We know how that turned out. Some reporter tracked her down and wrote all about her personal life because he (yes, a he) decided he was somehow entitled to it. And The New York Review of Books (!) decided to publish his findings (a piece I have not read, as I am trying to -- possibly futilely -- keep the "Elena Ferrante" image running in my brain, pristine). Privacy-pro Thomas Pynchon indeed acknowledged the curiosity readers have about authors in his introduction to his 1984 collection, Slow Learner, Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one's personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite. But he's been more or less successful staying a mystery. True, there was a 1996 article in New York Magazine, "Meet Your Neighbor, Thomas Pynchon," that tracked down his supposed address in Manhattan, but what stood out to me in the article was not the exposure but its opposite: how much his putative neighbors were united in the protecting of his privacy, which has been left more or less unmolested for 40-plus years, so much that he was portrayed in an episode of The Simpsons with a bag over his head. Yet for Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend made her a worldwide sensation in 2012. I.e., she enjoyed her anonymity for four, not 40 years before a journalist decided to forcibly rip away her veil of privacy in a way that feels assaultive. Nobody feels Thomas Pynchon owes his public. But Ferrante, how dare she try to keep anything from an inquiring mind! One shudders imagining the secret videos and the doxxing that would occur if Emily Dickinson were living today. Back to author photos. Because I myself enjoying peeking at author photos, I felt it right to update mine for my forthcoming novel.  I contacted several photographers, went with a woman who specializes in musicians' headshots, and, because musicians must always be broke, was pleased by her reasonable rates and that she would give me the images to all the photos she took. But, even as I had the photos done in a chilly loft in Chelsea, knowing I was posing for pictures, I didn't feel like I looked like me. I don't wear makeup, that was part of the problem. But it went beyond that. Makeuppy me didn't look like the me who wrote the book. I also didn't want my spouse to take a picture -- I didn't want the self I save for my friends and family out there for public consumption. After what happened to Elena Ferrante, I feel that more than ever. I needed a buffer, a filter, a conception of an author that would be a stand-in for me. Indeed, trying to find a platonic ideal of author photo made me recall my friend Monique Truong's portrait for her first novel, The Book of Salt. I know what my friend looks like. But her Marion Ettlinger portrait somehow embodied the novel in an artful, ineffable way. When I asked her about the process, she said, indeed, what was funny was that the photo -- the one I liked so much -- was not the one she liked the best. Her editor chose it, which made her realize, in retrospect, "An author photo is a marketing tool, like the cover of your book. In that way, there's necessarily a disconnect between it and you." Ben Harnett, my friend on Twitter, has an ongoing art-project where he creates watercolors of Twitter avatars, many of them writers. I was curious if that would work.  It took a while -- he has a long waiting list. I loved it, but still felt it was a little too me, i.e., the private me. Then I did a reading that was attended by author-artist Kate Gavino, whose tumblr, "Last Night's Reading" (and book of the same name) showcases her unique talent of making a quick, almost crayon-y sketch of the author during a reading, and pulling out an interesting quote. She's profiled everyone from Amy Bloom to Zadie Smith. I was excited to appear there, too, and after first admiring the quote she picked -- "I write slowly because I have to fail in every single way possible before I get it right" -- I kept looking at the picture. I'm not smiling or frowning but something in-between -- it seems just right. I've started using it as my "official" author photo, and the responses I've gotten have ranged from "Can you send something a little less weird?" to "I love it!" to quiet acceptance. To me, it's the perfect image, one that includes a very simplified sketch of a necklace made of coconut shell, purchased in Key West when I was there finishing my novel. I didn't know the artist was going to be there that night, that she caught the necklace, and my beloved glasses (another story), made it perfect, landed it somewhere between a Ben Jonsonish no-photo and wearing a sandwich board with my face on it. Occupy author photo! Image Credit: Flickr/Christopher Dombres.
Essays

The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

1. In 2011, I spent Bloomsday at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris. The store is a jewel box: two stories, stacked with books buried beneath more books. On the first floor, a piano room provides a corner for readers to hide in, beneath towering stacks of hardcover biographies. There’s the children’s section with a miniature bed draped in red velvet, a typewriter tucked into a booth along the hallway, and then the library, lined with benches and books, the windows cracked, framing Notre Dame and cherry branches. Because it was Bloomsday in the store named for the store that had originally published Ulysses, an artist had been commissioned to draw Joycean-inspired works. There were readings throughout the day and devotees drifted through. I’d been living there as a tumbleweed for nearly three weeks. The tumbleweed program is unique at Shakespeare & Co and has been a feature of the store since it opened in 1951. In exchange for some hours of work, artists are allowed to sleep between the stacks, free of charge. Since the early days, the program has become a bit more defined. Tumbleweeds help open and close the store, as well as work for two hour scheduled shifts throughout the day. Since it was the middle of June, the store was packed. I was one of seven staying at the time, many of whom I already considered close friends. That evening, the tumbleweeds hopped a cab to a lavish home where the store was hosting a party for their first Paris Literary Prize. The party was an aberration in the daily routines I’d become adjusted to: taking a shower in either the public showers on Ile de la Cité or in the third floor, doing my best not to splash water outside the tarp or incur the housekeeper’s wrath, also doing my best not to wake a sleeping George Whitman. Then I’d pull on jean shorts and a t-shirt, grab a book, wander along the Seine, help between the stacks of the store, run off to some park or some wine bar or some museum. I purchased a copy of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, the cover blue with a liquid woman and most of the pages paperclipped to keep them together. Most mornings, I woke early, bought a coffee and croissant, and read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital along the Seine, until it was time to make my way back for the store to open. On Bloomsday, however, the tumbleweeds had been enlisted to help at the party. We were required to look presentable. We had to do our best not to smell like we’d been sleeping on the floor of Shakespeare & Co for weeks. We had to wear black dresses. I picked up mine for five euros from an H&M. The tumbleweeds poured champagne and refilled cheese plates, pausing to listen to toasts and an opera singer, stealing away to touch up lipstick next to the chic Parisians who put our pink shade to shame. Then, we got drunk on champagne and danced. At the end of the night, there weren’t enough cars to get everyone back to the store. We were offered a choice: waiting thirty minutes for the next cab, or taking three free bottles of champagne. We took the champagne and we walked. It was a few miles, but we just had to stay on the one road and keep going. We drank straight out of the bottles. We held hands and exchanged secrets and skipped a few steps forward to turn and photograph ourselves: tipsy tumbleweeds in black dresses. 2. The bookstore has just released A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Edited by Krista Halverson, the biography reads like a multi-faceted oral history and is told in many layers: colored photographs, tumbleweed biographies, recountings from former employees and writers-in-residence. The story it tells is as varied, unique, and romantic as the shop is. It’s a difficult thing, to capture something as expansive as the history of Shakespeare & Co, but this history manages to come close. At the center of the story is George Whitman. He opened the store, originally named Librairie le Mistral (“Le Mistral”), in 1951 on 37 rue de la Bucherie, across the Seine from Notre Dame. He’d purchased the building -- back then without electricity and fashioned like three long, railroad-style rooms -- from an Algerian grocer looking to move out to the countryside with his family. Despite the building having been condemned for nearly a century, Whitman decided to go for it. Over the next six decades, the store would go through many chapters. The events, in and of themselves, each seem larger than life: the Beat Generation infiltrating the store; the spies that circled it, applying for employment, during the Cold War; the years the shop was closed down because the Parisian authorities had finally figured out that Whitman didn’t have the appropriate permits; the filming of Jorge Luis Borges’s collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, Invasion, and then, years later, Ethan Hawke’s fictional book release in Before Sunset. The store has been at the center of riots and movements, with Whitman often leading the charge. He created a home for bohemians and wanderers in the middle of Paris. It didn’t always flourish, but the community grew, and when it came time to give back to the store, after a fire ravaged its shelves, benefits were held around the world. The list of authors that haunted the shop is formidable: Allen Ginsberg, Richard Wright, Henry Miller, James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Jeanette Winters, among so many others. Whitman, who died in December of 2011, had long wanted to write a history of the store. The title, A History of the Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, was his. He never got around to it, as easily distracted as he could be, but the story of Shakespeare & Co is his story to tell, and he told it to varying degrees of truthfulness. As is quoted on the back of the book, Whitman said: “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” Whitman himself could seem like a larger-than-life character. I was lucky enough to meet him before he died. Even in his pajamas, his untameable white hair poking in every direction, he held a room. Lawrence Ferlinghetti described Whitman as a “romantic wanderer, the kind of wayward Walt Whitman carrying Coleridge’s albatross.” To Anais Nin, Whitman seemed “undernourished, bearded, a saint among his books, lending them, housing penniless friends upstairs, not eager to sell.” Allen Ginsberg said of him: “He’s a saint, lives on nothing, gives shelter to everybody. Helps young poets, too, but he’s very poor. Someone should do something for him. His only income came from books.” Whitman told many that he considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot to be about him. He hid money in books and then forgot where he’d put them. Sometimes he’d refuse to sell a book if he didn’t want to part with it. Once, he got it into his head that he wanted a pyrotechnic wishing well in the middle of the store. It was ill-planned and dangerous and someone else had to rush in and stop him from burning the shop down. Whitman was known to set his hair on fire if a reading was boring or if he needed a haircut. Other times, he’d interrupt a reading by tossing chicken down from the top floor for his dog to catch When his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, started to help maintain the bookstore, doing her best to bring it into the 21st century, he resisted. He hated any attempt she made at modernity and did his best to sabotage her. If she alphabetized books, he’d come down after closing to return the store to its rightful disorder. He attacked the newly installed, no-longer-life-threatening stairs with a hammer, the same hammer he used to destroy the toilet Sylvia had installed. He literally stole the cash register under cover of night and, the next morning, pretended he had no clue of its whereabouts. Best guess: bottom of the Seine. He also loved to tell stories about Shakespeare & Co, helping to imbue the shop with its own mythology. Whitman winked at a relation to Walt Whitman and an affair with Nin: “I might have loved her once.” In her journals, Nin wrote how Whitman had originally come to Paris to find a houseboat, inspired by her story, "Houseboat," except that the books had mildewed, so “he moved as near to the river as possible, and often from his window, watching the river, he had the illusion he was living on a houseboat.” Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart appropriately sets this recounting aside, with a swift: “This story isn’t accurate.” More than likely, it’s a story Whitman told Nin. At the beginning of Halverson’s attempts to collect these stories into a publishable history, she worked on the top floor of the shop, where Whitman used to live. She sorted through his papers, all kept in wine crates and plastic tubs. Many friends of the store came by, offering their own experiences and inquiring after stories they’d heard: “Did William Shakespeare really establish the shop while on vacation from playwriting in London? Was James Joyce buried in the building’s cellar?” Halverson writes that “the story of Shakespeare and Company is not simply a set of facts and dates; it’s also a feeling, an emotion.” She “wanted to construct a book like a box of treasures that would be valuable both to those who know the shop well and to those who’ve only just learned of it.” With A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart, Halverson has managed that. The book is electric, dense with details and filled with the ephemera and lore and love one finds when stepping into the shop. 3. Each night at the bookstore felt like magic. There was the night we ran through the streets during Festival de la Musique, listening to terrible bands playing on street corners and getting drunk off bottles of red wine we clutched at the neck; there was the night we went as a group to a bar down a side street off of another side street where the bartender was a ninety-year-old woman who served bottles of one variety of beer and reserved most of her bar for sleeping birds and a fat cat leashed to the front door; there was the night we tried and failed to put on a reading of The Importance of Being Earnest. The tumbleweeds were all the same breed: young and eager, imaginative, strange, and kind. We all understood how lucky we were to be staying at the shop, and how singular those weeks would be. We did our collective best to make the most of them. These tumbleweed biographies collected in this book are one facet of the “box of treasures,” offering a window into the store, through the eyes of those who have slept on its concrete floor. Helen Martin stayed at Shakespeare with her husband in 1951, right at the beginning, and made stew with George “right over the books.” Linda V. Williams was enlisted by Whitman to mind the store in the midst of the student revolution, only to find herself in charge of two Scandinavian girls being chased by the gendarmes. The 25-year-old Amanda Lewis stayed at the shop until the end of 2002: “I stayed exactly a month and slept in the children’s section surrounded by picture books and went to the soup kitchen and walked around looking at churches and drank red wine in the library and fell asleep at night in the middle of paragraphs and was so, so content.” By the time I stayed there, Sylvia had taken over management of the shop. She and her then-fiancé, David, pushed me repeatedly to write my biography as my time at the store neared its end. I kept putting it off. I didn’t know what I could possibly say. I didn’t have a photograph to include, which was required, so a friend, Brit, and I ran off to Palais de Tokyo, where they had a photobooth. We each did an individual set, and then we did one together, vogueing behind editions of Bluets and Invisible Cities that we’d borrowed from the store. It was my final day in the shop. I’d made plans with friends to drink wine and eat cheese on the Seine after the store closed down, but before I could do that, I had to fulfill my one last requirement as a tumbleweed. Back on the third floor and faced with a wall of binders filled with tumbleweed biographies, I sat down at the computer. I told a version of my story, as I’d been taught to do by the versions of the store’s story I’d heard while I was there. Now my biography is one of the dozens included in A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart. Near the end, close to the present tense, a page is darkened with my typing, my solo photobooth mugs angled across the page. Kelsey Ford, aged 22, stayed at Shakespeare & Co between May 31 and June 24, 2011. As George said, “All the characters in this bookstore are fictitious, so please leave your everyday self outside the door.” Shakespeare & Co is a store that houses stories. To become one of them is a small, special thing. Image credit: Brit Bachmann
Essays, Torch Ballads & Jukebox Music

Frank Ocean and the Black Male Body

R.I.P. Trayvon, that nigga look just like me -Frank Ocean, “Nikes” That looks like a bad dude … -A Tulsa police officer, on the body of Terence Crutcher 1. I can’t stop thinking about the video footage shot from above the highway where Terence Crutcher died in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you watch the footage, you’ll see the 40-year-old man walk away from officers with his hands up before Officer Betty Shelby shoots him dead. But what we see isn’t what echoes for me -- it’s what we hear. If you listen you’ll hear one of two officers in the helicopter (one of whom was Officer David Shelby, husband to Betty Shelby) authorize Crutcher’s death moments before Crutcher crumples to the ground. Pronouncing, “That” -- this is a human being he’s referring to -- “looks like a bad dude,” he renders Crutcher a threat in the absence of any evidence outside his body. These words echo for me because in the footage their effect approaches something like magic. The officer observes, and moments later Crutcher is dead. It’s too perfect -- much too perfect -- an illustration of how preconceptions about black people begin with the visual, with assumptions about our bodies: how we move through space, the way we cast our eyes at others, our affect, and on and on. It’s too perfect an illustration of how assumptions emanating from the visual field produce physical ramifications, how they structure and are structured by racist fictions about what our bodies mean. 2. There are three covers for Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, all of which present black men flinching from our vision into various anonymities. One shows us a man disappearing behind weed smoke’s dense haze; the second presents another man (perhaps Ocean himself) ensconced in a motorcycle helmet’s hermetic safety. The third interests me most: it depicts the crooner standing in front of spotless white tile. He’s shirtless, so that we get to peer in on his slender, muscular body, but his hair is dyed green in a Stroop-inspired taunt. He obscures his face with a bandaged hand, beneath which you can make out his furrowed brow, suggestive of a grimace or weeping. Meanwhile, his hand, upper body, and forehead are beaded with water or perspiration. Of all Blonde’s covers, this one most recalls the album’s original title, Boys Don’t Cry. Ocean dropped that title upon the album’s release, but when I look at this image of him soaked and covering his grief like Masaccio’s Adam leaving the Garden, I can’t help but hear that former title’s echo. It draws our attention to the precarious relationship between the normative gender assumptions that shape our conceptions of masculinity, and the reality of emotional vulnerability that those notions elide. Ocean’s obscured visage bespeaks the tension between the image of the black male body -- a cluster of signifiers to which so many meanings attach that we hardly see it at all -- and the emotional intricacy underlying these ossified stereotypes. Amidst another cycle of renewed attention to police violence against black bodies, I’ve come to think that Ocean’s cover suggests possibilities for more nuanced portrayals of black masculinity and emotion than those that currently pervade our national consciousness. Every death of a police-shooting victim underlines the state of hypervisibility in which the black body exists. For black men, this means that a certain fiction is always preceding our bodies, walking ahead of us into rooms, intimidating people on sidewalks, and speaking for us before we can open our mouths. As Nicole Fleetwood observes in Troubling Vision, this fiction imbues us “with a mythic sense of virility, danger, and physicality.” I take Fleetwood to mean that in America’s cultural imagination, the black male body always signifies as an existential threat, one characterized by predatory violence, hyper-sexuality, and overwhelming physical force. This will be true no matter what we do to attenuate the nervous unease that crowds us. We’re always already hollowed out, reduced to receptacles in which the nation’s most basic fears circulate. Blonde’s cover short-circuits these assumptions, creates a tear in the visual field that unsettles received notions that black masculinity is legible, easy reading for whoever might chance upon it. Consider his green hair: it employs the Stroop effect to taunt us via a textual-visual misdirect so that seeing and reading are sundered from one another. (In another slight at legibility, the album title is stylized as “blond” on the cover, though the official title is Blonde.) Ocean’s hair reshuffles our expectations before we hear a note of music, demanding that we dedicate renewed attention to an image we thought we knew. It’s an emphatic reassertion, a warning that with Ocean, what you see will not be what you get. Then there’s that hand, raised to hide an emotional turmoil that, according to the script, shouldn’t exist at all. In We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity, bell hooks writes that in order to compensate for the structural violence wielded against them, black men are taught “to believe that a real male is fearless, insensitive, egocentric, and invulnerable” and thus adopt a “cool pose” (emphasis mine). This is a masculinist posture that rejects emotional vulnerability -- and interiority in general -- as inimical to manhood. Hip-hop’s visual codes and genre conventions often reinforce this posture, with the effect of embracing and heightening the fictions foisted upon us by white supremacy’s image repertoire. In Hip-Hop Wars, Tricia Rose argues that contemporary rap’s calling cards have become “distorted, antisocial, self-destructive, and violent portrayals of black masculinity” along with rampant misogyny and homophobia. The cool pose instantiates the representational straitjacket against which black men struggle. I’m not certain that I can accept hooks and Rose’s assertions uncritically, but that’s for another essay. But if we receive them as true, Ocean’s cover flouts the cool pose in favor of emotional vulnerability, insisting on depth in the face of a dyad that reduces black men to surface. Ocean’s damaged hand is raised in an attempt to enact the earlier album title’s dictum -- boys don’t cry, remember? -- but it’s a futile act; the gesture only displaces his grief so that his tears reappear in the visual field as the moisture beading his body, each tear a tear in his cool pose. Here, feeling and vulnerability are irreducible no matter what pose we might strike in order to hide it. Call it a new law: the Conservation of Feeling. This hand also blocks us, creates an opacity to stump a presumed transparency. The overall effect is a reinsertion of interiority into a body that had been hollowed. 3. How does this sound? On Blonde, what we hear is a struggle between the masculinist conventions of contemporary hip-hop and Ocean’s assertion of a queered black masculinity, two images of black manhood jockeying for position in one aural space. It’s a drama not unlike the one Ocean presents on the album cover, and if you listen you’ll hear the tears in hip-hop’s cool pose. Take the first track on the album, “Nikes”: These bitches want Nikes They looking for a check Tell ‘em it ain’t likely Said she need a ring like Carmelo Must be on that white like Othello Ocean cycles through some of contemporary hip-hop’s most enduring tropes with impressive dexterity: he plays a vigilantly unattached bachelor weary of commitment and manipulative women, works in references to cocaine and sneakers, and name checks an NBA star. It’s a masterful display of Ocean’s facility with the genre’s conventions after a four-year absence, and like most good hip-hop these days, the verse is deeply boring but also hilarious in the way that Ocean breathes life into tired tropes via inspired wordplay. (Will there be a better couplet written this year than “Said she need a ring like Carmelo/Must be on that white like Othello”? Probably not.) The verse also initiates the album in a moment of dissonance: after seeing Ocean embrace queerness not just as an identity but also as a political orientation, it is jarring to hear him turn to the cool pose’s rhetoric. But this rhetoric’s cool surface has a conspicuous tear in its fabric. After all, Ocean sings the song’s first three minutes through a distorted filter, sounding as if he inhaled helium before running his vocals through autotune. At times he howls and whoops rather than sings, and if we didn’t know who the singer was, it would be impossible to assign Ocean a gender.  Reverb doubles his voice, heightening its alien quality. A lone, woozy synth that approximates a Theremin runs the song’s length; behind the synth, constant vibrato makes the song’s bass line sound weirdly distended. It sounds like we’ve been stranded in some unfamiliar space. The queer quality of this defamiliarization becomes apparent in the song’s video, which features shots of Ocean sporting eyeliner, suggestively palming a gearshift, and pantomiming fellatio. Later, he stands alone on a stage, garbed in a white jumpsuit, eyes closed in private reverie, glitter sprinkled upon his face. Ocean shows us a queer black male body, conspicuous in its refusal to be forced into the kind of hypervisibility that allowed police officers to condemn Terence Crutcher as a “bad dude” on sight. The effect is a defamiliarization of those familiar tropes associated with a toxic masculinity. This is why I find the beginning of “Nikes” ’ second verse so compelling. Leaving behind the cool pose, Ocean mourns for some fallen black men: A$AP Yams, the New York producer who passed away earlier this year; Pimp C, the Texas rapper whose ghost has haunted hip-hop this year; and Trayvon Martin. When I first heard Trayvon’s name mentioned in company of Yams and Pimp C, I was confused. What did he have to do with these two artists who performed a certain vision of the black male body? But now I see that including Trayvon in that pantheon constitutes a refusal and an expansion: black masculinity can look like Yams and Pimp C, yes. It can also look like the face of this boy, whose body was read as thuggish and dangerous for no other reason than his blackness. By inserting Trayvon Martin into this list, Ocean asserts the elasticity of black maleness. If Trayvon looks like Ocean, then he also embodies the alterity Ocean foregrounds in this song and video, the possibility of “otherwise,” as Ashon Crawley might say. When that lyric arrives in the video, Ocean holds the ubiquitous self-portrait of Trayvon staring out from beneath a white hood. This image circulated relentlessly in the aftermath of his murder, and public as it has become, we might be tempted into thinking that we know it. Ocean demands that we look again.
Essays

Edward Albee Was My Mailman

When I was an aspiring fiction writer fresh out of grad school, I won a fellowship to spend a month at an artist’s colony in Montauk, at the very tip of Long Island.  Known as the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the colony was founded and funded by its namesake, renowned author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and many other wonderful plays, who recently passed away. The Albee fellowship was the biggest thing that had happened to me early in my career as a writer, a label I still felt uncomfortable wearing. In fact, during my first week at the colony, I happened to overhear another of the artists on the phone, a playwright, who was explaining to a friend who else was in residence: “There’s a poet, a sculptor, a painter from Japan, and a novelist from New York.” My ears perked up. A New York novelist? Where? Who was it? Someone famous? In my head, I started to rattle off the names of my favorite writers. It took me a minute to realize he meant me. I was the novelist. I was a novelist. Besides the sense of validation it brought, one of the perks of being a fellow at the Albee Foundation was how we got our mail. Since the colony had no regular postal delivery, all our letters came to Albee’s P.O. Box in town, which Edward Albee himself, who had a summer home nearby, would pick up and then drop off for us. Yes, for one month, Edward Albee, arguably America’s greatest living playwright, was our mailman. The aspiring playwright I’d overheard calling me a novelist -- let’s call him Joe -- had known even before arriving at the colony about this Edward-Albee-is-our-mailman arrangement, and because of this, he’d ordered everyone he knew to write him letters at the colony. That way, Joe figured, the great playwright would see his name so often on the return address that it would stick in his mind. It turned out that Albee was an elusive kind of mailman.  He’d drive up to our house, quietly drop off the mail on the kitchen counter, and slip away. At first we thought he didn’t like us. Later, we learned from the colony’s caretaker this was because he didn’t want to disturb us at work. When Joe figured this out, he began doing his writing at a picnic table in front of the house, right next to the kitchen, and that’s where he’d sit all day, waiting for Albee to show up. “You should try it,” he told me. “There’s another picnic table out there you can have. It’s a bit further away, but you know, it’s there.” To further cement our bond with Edward Albee, Joe decided that we should host a dinner and invite our benefactor to come join us socially.  We did, and Albee accepted the invitation. I was tasked with making the dessert, which was a challenge because Albee, who had diabetes, did not eat refined sugar. The dinner was a great success.  Albee arrived with his partner Jonathan, broke bread with us, and complimented the sugar-free summer fruit cobbler with a biscuit topping that I’d made especially for him.  Throughout the dinner, he maintained a polite unassuming presence, as if he were just a neighbor we’d happened to invite to join us rather than a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. I was astounded when Albee mentioned that he remembered from my application that I was working on a story collection about Prague.  He told me about when he’d visited that city before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  “I attended a party where no one was there,” he said ironically.  All the other guests, dissident writers and artists, had been sentenced to internal banishment, declared non-existent entities by the Communist government. After the great man left, Joe went around high fiving us all, whooping, jumping up and down.  He suggested we all go to the one bar in town that was still open at that late hour and celebrate. So we all piled into Joe’s car:  me, the poet, the sculptor, and the painter from Japan, whose English was not the best, but certainly far superior to any of our Japanese.  Along the way, we were all saying Edward Albee this, and Edward Albee, that.  And suddenly the Japanese painter broke into the conversation because there was something he did not understand.  He said, “Joe, I keep hearing you mention this Mr. Edward Albee.  Who is Edward Albee?” We explained that in addition to being, well, Edward Albee, he was the guy whom the colony was named after, the guy paying for us all to stay here.  The guy who, despite all the fuss we’d made over him, had maintained such a quiet, dignified reserve that our Japanese friend had had no idea of his extraordinary reputation. Over the years, I have thought back many times to my time at the Albee Foundation, and specifically the comportment that Edward Albee had modeled for me, for all of us who want to pursue careers in the arts.  Without words, he was letting us know, I am just like you.  Writing is the work I do, not who I am.  As a writer, he was famous.  As a person, he was just the guy who brought us our mail, another guest at our dinner table.  His calm and quiet good manners seem all the more extraordinary in our current day and age, when writers take to social media with the regularity that most people brush their teeth. Several months after my first book came out, I got a letter in the mail, forwarded to me by my publisher.  It was a handwritten note on heavy cream-colored stationary.  I looked at the return address and realized it had come from Mr. Albee. “Dear Mr. Hamburger:” he wrote, “I just finished reading The View from Stalin’s Head.  Such good work!  Congratulations!  What’s next?  Regards, Edward Albee” I still have that note.  And every once in a while, when I have trouble believing I’m a real writer, I take out that piece of paper and then quietly get back to work. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

The Author Wore Prada

This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as "The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada" -- with one foot firmly in each of both the "literary" and "commercial" realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people's biases against fashion, the commercial (read: "unserious") theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues. Part of my preoccupation with "seriousness" came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered "good enough" for one's work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I'd been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject. I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was "for girls," the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser -- a frivolity. Personally, I didn't see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression -- writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion's unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn't think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous. Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit -- juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which "fashion" was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada. Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, "bad" -- and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in"serious" journalism -- the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled. The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged -- a missed opportunity. After all, it wasn't always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors. Consider Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband's death, she can't bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: "How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?" There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the '50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character's despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and "a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet" -- making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton's society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality ("If I were shabby no one would have me," says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, "a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself") -- while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany's, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind? Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn't who you'd expect. He's a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich -- an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character -- most likely, a white woman's sassy gay best friend. The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike. See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.  
Essays

Killing Me Softly

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

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

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

Literary Touchstones: On the Life and Death of Marcel Proust

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

Freezing White Men for Posterity

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