I first met Amy Long through a writers’ networking group where she often answered questions with extreme thoughtfulness and generosity. We became friends, and Long was kind enough to give me an advance copy of her memoir, Codependence. Long’s book is a fearless look at opioid addiction. It sheds light on chronic pain, the opioid epidemic, romantic codependence mixed up with substance abuse—all through a stunning combination of experimental techniques and traditional essays. Long and I sat down to chat recently, and the conversation was just as frank and thoughtful as her new essay collection.
The Millions: First, I’d like to talk about the form of the book. Some of it is experimental, taking the visual formatting of a doctor’s prescription, or a reference book entry about a drug; some is straightforward. What made you decide to employ the experimental format? In what ways do you feel your writing differs in the two formats?
Amy Long: The book mostly started as a medicine cabinet I made as a final project in Matthew Vollmer’s creative nonfiction workshop at Virginia Tech. The library’s graphic designers helped me make all this cool stuff—I rolled up stories in pill bottles and bags of fake coke and actual Suboxone packets and had flash essays printed on the backs of motel keys and a giant check or tucked them into a fake hospital bracelet; it was really cool—and I wanted to figure out how to get those stories onto a 2D page without losing all the formal stuff that made me love them so much. So, some of the essays are experimental because they started out as something even weirder, and some are experimental in some part due to necessity. Like, a map of pharmacies—my friend Silas Breaux, a printmaker and visual artist, made me this insanely cool map to use in it; you can see it on my Instagram and in the book—felt like the best way to write about the trouble I always had filling my prescriptions and how discourse about opioid abuse affects my ability to take them for chronic pain. The glossary essay felt necessary in that I’d hear people in workshop say, like, “Well, she is on opioids. Maybe she’s hallucinating,” and I realized I couldn’t expect everyone to have the same prodigious drug history I do! I also wanted to catalog all the non-opioid medications I’d tried (most of which are also represented in the medicine cabinet), and they fit nicely into that form. I never wanted the formal experimentation to feel gimmicky, and while I like the generative nature of those kinds of constraints, it was also nice to sort of spread out in the more traditional essays.
The first essay in the book centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids. I wrote it as a braided essay, which I didn’t know then is an established form—I thought I was stealing the numbered-paragraph format from Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—and I started it immediately after I got off the phone with my mom. It came really fast, so I decided I’d kind of alternate between these two modes—experimental and braided, more traditional essays—but the decisions I made about how I’d write each essay were either intuitive or came from the medicine cabinet. The braided essays give me a lot more room and freedom, and I think I’m more associative and meditative there. I often touch on something or sum it up in an experimental essay and add more depth to it in a braided essay.
TM: Early on, you refer to yourself as an unreliable narrator. This seems true to a degree, but the book also has an unflinching honesty that a more traditionally reliable narrator could not bring to it. What are the benefits of styling yourself this way in non-fiction? Drawbacks?
AL: I mean, I don’t want people to think that what I’m writing about is untrue. Everything in the book happened the way I depict it to the best of my recollection. But I’m unreliable to the degree that I think all narrators in nonfiction are unreliable; I remember things wrong, I see my perspective first, there are things I don’t know. I guess I’m just a little more meta about it? I was aware as I wrote that I was creating a character with my narrator self, that everything kind of becomes fiction once it’s written down, and thinking of it that way maybe allowed me to be more honest (I also just don’t really have that filter; like, I never think “I don’t want people to know about this!”). But I also wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about what I’m doing or what’s happening to me, and nodding to that unreliability inherent in personal narratives gives them an interpretive space that I haven’t often seen in recovery or illness narratives.
TM: You speak early on about using drugs extensively in a recreational sense, then later for your chronic disability. At one point, you say that the disability’s manifestations may be “the best thing that ever happened to you,” despite their clearly destructive power over your life, because it will enable your recreational use. Was it important to you to mention one or the other first, and how do you think that affects the reader’s view of your use? Was it an intentional choice to have potential readers view you as a “certain kind” of drug user?
AL: Yes. Definitely. I want readers to question what kind of drug user I am. I did want the pain strand—the medicinal opioid use—to come first since I think that’s kind of the heart of the book, and putting it at the beginning might incline people to follow that thread. Something happens when you put these two kinds of drug use in conversation with each other, but I’m not even totally clear on what that is or what it means that I used to take drugs for fun and now take those same drugs as medicine. I was never dependent on opioids when I used them recreationally, but I am now; so, I’m kind of more of a “junkie” in the later parts of the narrative even though I’m not using drugs to get high. It’s a fertile juxtaposition that I like a lot. I think that also plays a lot into the unreliable narrator thing: like, can the reader trust me when I say I’m in pain since I admit that I still like drugs? But, mostly, I think it blurs the lines we put up between “addict” and “patient,” and I like that the two strands come together to complicate our narratives about addiction and illness.
TM: You use the phrase “an obsessive steward of your own history” to describe your role as a writer, and I think this is so illuminating of what a writer—of fiction or non-fiction—does. In the same sentence, you worry that the use of drugs will alter this stewardship. This seems like a deep fear, but do you feel the existence of the book itself makes it unfounded? Or not? Is this a fear you live with regularly?
AL: There, I’m writing about a particular drug, Topamax, which has a lot of cognitive side effects; migraineurs call it “Dopamax” for a reason! It makes most people kind of slow and foggy. I don’t worry about opioids altering the way I perceive my life since, now, I don’t get anything but pain relief from them. Like, I just took a pain pill, but I’m not high. I worry more about the opposite. In 2016, the CDC changed its opioid-prescribing guidelines in a way that has really hurt pain patients, and I’m afraid I’ll never get the level of pain relief I need in order to write another book. So, it is a fear I live with daily but not in the way most people would expect.
TM: The book doubles back on character often, portraying characters such as Beth and Chelsea in one light, then taking the time to portray them the way a “more empathetic” person might. Though, the effect is that your narrator (you) really does see both slants to the character, but is lacking in the insight that she is the more empathetic narrator she wishes to be, as well as the less empathetic one. This provides an image of multiple narrators on the page, the “unreliability” we are told to expect early on. However, this unreliability seems to be more reliable than many narrations that, for example, skewer everyone but the narrator. Did this come early on in the writing, or through the process of drafting and revision?
AL: I like your reading of that. I wish my sisters agreed with it. I don’t like memoirs that make the narrator a kind of hero or exclusively a victim. I wanted to depict myself in as harsh a light as I do everyone else, maybe even a harsher one. I aimed for that in the draft stage, but I did add to it and use my editors as a check during revision and editing.
TM: There’s a section when you discuss how your first boyfriend, David, used to tell you no one would ever love you like he did, which is both a threat and a promise that you later acknowledge is true in some way. While this becomes obvious to you later as a sign of manipulation, do you think it’s also truth in the capacity that no one ever loves anyone the way one person did? I feel like manipulators often bend truths to the ends of control. Is this what this feels like to you, even now? Is there something of truth and need in dependence to people or drugs that make the want and happiness the incidental thing?
AL: That’s a good question. Of course all loves are different—especially first loves. It’s hard to replicate that experience. You’re so stupid; you don’t know anything about the world or what love is, and you don’t go into it with baggage or real-world expectations. And there’s a certain level of drama built into the kind of relationship that David and I had. All the needing and the problems make it feel special and important and sort of Romeo-and-Juliet like. It makes you think you want this thing that maybe isn’t the best thing for you because all that adversity brings you closer together and makes you want to fight to keep it. I don’t still think that no one will ever love me the way David did, and now I really hope he’s right. That relationship put a lot of pressure on me at a young age—and I was a young 18—and has affected every relationship I’ve had since. Now, I think love should be stable and kind of boring and that that’s much more romantic. I still get drawn into those kinds of melodramatic dynamics, though, so I’m trying to appreciate the boring parts more.
TM: What’s next for you?
AL: I think in books, and the next book will center on the themes I touched on in my last answer: relationships, loneliness, how love shapes us and how we shape it. The medicine cabinet is the only outline from which I’ve ever been able to work, and I’m still trying to determine the next book’s structure and scope; I think I need to make a diorama or something so I can figure out what I’m doing.
Alex DiFrancesco’s novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms) were released this year. They can be found @DiFantastico on Twitter.
It’s easy to feel defeated these days. It takes more effort and conscious positivity to focus on the future, on the historic firsts. We elected a record number of women to the House this year, including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American Congresswomen. Florida elected their first openly lesbian mayor. There’s so much more. On a personal note, I teach high school students from across the United States. They all inspire me, but my female students in particular give me hope. From New York City to Detroit to Sioux Falls, they are canvassing, organizing community meetings and protests, creating change. I am flooded with strength as I look to the future.
So, in gazing forward while reflecting back on 2018, I want to highlight the women writers I’ve fallen in love with this year. I’ve read 35 books so far, and though some were written by men, we as a society need to #readmorewomen.
In poetry, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion both consider addiction, family life, dreams, myth, and cultural history. These powerful poems dismantled and surprised me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is stunning. Written in the voices of Korean “comfort women,” Yoon’s poems about sexual violence, gender, and oppression are brutal, incisive, and necessary.
My first novel was published in August, and with publication came an eventful book tour, which I’m profoundly grateful for. At the same time, book publication also brought the fear that I was speaking about myself, my writing process, and my novel too much. I found refuge in novels written by the wonderful writers I was lucky enough to do events with. I was drawn into the strange and magical What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine. In this dark, feminist novel a girl named Maisie has the power to kill and resurrect with her touch. I read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling in a packed, whirlwind of knock-out debut fiction. I loved Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, which alternates between Penelope, a young woman who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, and Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother in the Dominican Republic. In Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, four friends navigate their entwined careers, love lives, successes, and failures as a string quartet. Gabel’s descriptions of music, music-making, and auditory pleasure were absolutely beautiful.
Elsewhere in fiction, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time. What took me so long? I want to devour everything she’s written, and I want more books that reimagine our literary canon. I finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing while on a weekend break from book tour. It made me want to return to my writing desk immediately. Ward is a literary genius, and I will read everything she writes. In more recent fiction, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman both made me reconsider the body, food, consumption, and our desire to belong.
In nonfiction, Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about the adopted author’s decision to find her biological family moved me with its honest portrayal of the fears we have about belonging, identity, and motherhood. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson on a beach, staring at the blue of the ocean, the sky. One of my dearest girlfriends gifted me Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships, which reinvigorated me to reach out to all of my female friends, to strengthen those relationships even in adulthood.
I want to end with Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck Is My Duck because she is one of our best living writers. Her fiction precisely illuminates what it feels like to be alive, to wade through our world in its natural beauty and manmade devastation. Her writing is political and true, intimate and expansive.
I hope to read more in these last weeks before 2019 arrives. I’ve just started Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses. Toni Morrison’s Paradise awaits, as does Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is on backorder at my local bookstore. There is so much more to read and so much more to hope for, and I am grateful.
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Memoir has emerged as a liberated species—breaking its own rules so repeatedly that there are now no rules except (for purists) to tell the truth and (for everyone else) to foil narcissism. The memoirist’s page is malleable. The memoirist’s frame endlessly shatters.
There are plenty of examples, but I like these: Joan Wickersham built The Suicide Index out of shifting perspectives, drawing on fiction, even, when she could not explain her father’s self-destruction. Maggie Nelson offered 240 numbered, jostled, jostling, perhaps not seamless blue-tinted paragraphs in Bluets. Darin Strauss delivered Half a Life with many half white pages. Mark Richard wrote his House of Prayer No. 2 in second person, save for an opening gambit in mostly third. Terry Tempest Williams, in When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, yielded, to the reader, many consecutive pages of white, white, white—in imitation of her own mother’s blank journals—before she went on to meditate about voice, but not in any programmatic order. Sarah Manguso stitched Ongoingness: The End of a Diary out of the piecemeal fabric of obsession. Heidi Julavits constructed The Folded Clock as a diary whose pages have been shuffled—a diary out of sequence. Jeannie Vanasco forged The Glass Eye out of “several color-coded binders labeled ‘Dad,’ ‘Mom,’ ‘Jeanne,’ and ‘Mental Illness.’”
And in Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, Beth Ann Fennelly compiled a scrapbook of small thoughts and big—a slender book of sometimes one-page flicks on topics like married love and children.
Life is iterative. Memoir is. No two stories can be the same true stories. And while it might seem today that all of this is obvious, that memoir must be plastic, it actually wasn’t nearly as obvious 18 years ago when Abigail Thomas—a writer known for her fiction, a woman known for her wit—published a collection of true stories called Safekeeping. It wasn’t a usual true-story book. It was declined, Thomas has said, by many a publishing house.
There was, to begin with, no “after that happened, then this.” There was no pronouncement of a thesis. There wasn’t even a profusion of I’s (there were far more shes), and though the whole thing seemed casual enough—no footnotes, no pretense, no unforsaken woe—the casual had been run through an intensifying rinse. These pages read like poems, but there were no line breaks. These lines kicked as if they’d been enjambed, but where were the enjambments?
Instead there was the hard knock of nouns. The slide of simple accountings. Sleight-of-hand suspense. A division into thirds, by which I mean sections titled “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” Meditations on, well, married love and children. Thomas could make you think that she was just delivering the facts of her life—three kids before the age of 26, three marriages, grief, passing conversations with a sister—as they occurred to her, but no. She was arranging them.
The book’s first paragraph suspends time and keeps it suspended so that time becomes everything that might have been and the things that actually were, what never came to pass and what hasn’t happened yet. It’s a magic trick. There’s a white bird, winging:
Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola. I played Music from Big Pink over and over. “Tears of Rage.” “The Weight.” Wheels of Fire. I had three kids. We ate on the overturned kitchen drawer because I didn’t have a table. I was young. I didn’t know what things could happen. I spent my time in the moment; everything else was shoved ahead, like furniture I didn’t need yet. We were crammed into a small space. My bed was in the living room.
Safekeeping sidesteps the blunt force of a directed narrative. It’s happenstance, with a purpose. The reader has to pay attention. On a page titled “Tomorrow,” it has been, Thomas writes in first person, a year since her second husband died—the husband she loved best when they were no longer married but (somehow) friends. On the next page, titled “Witness to His Life,” this second husband is remembered as alive, a first-person remembering about a restaurant. Next we have “When He Told Her,” which recalls the time this second husband was, again, alive, but relating the news of his cancer. “When He Told Her” is a third-person remembrance. It would silence the author, we sense, if the chosen pronoun were an I. Its opening line: “She didn’t really believe it, not really, not in her heart of hearts.”
We don’t understand our earlier selves, or we fear them, or we miss them, or we idolize the choices they didn’t make. In Safekeeping, Thomas’s earlier self is often a third-person self, because it’s often a truer true story that way. And when the truth cannot even be guessed at, it is not guessed at. Safekeeping, then, is also a book of blank spaces, an emptiness between micro-fullness.
Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard and other autobiographical inclusionists notwithstanding, memoir making is all about the needle and the thread, the patchwork and the patches, the careful stitchery. Memoir making is as much about how we remember as what we remember, and there’s no better exemplar of that fact, now or then, to my way of thinking, than Thomas’s Safekeeping and the two subsequent, equally brilliant Thomas memoirs: A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that previous memoirists have not played, for example, with point of view. Bell hooks, for example, announces her methodology right up front in her memoir of childhood, Bone Black:
Laying out the groundwork of my early life like a crazy quilt, Bone Black brings together fragments to make a whole. Bits and pieces connect in a random and playfully irrational way. And there is always the persistence of repetition, for that is what the mind does—goes over and over the same things looking at them in different ways. The prevailing perspective is always that of the intuitive and critically thinking child mind. Sometimes memories are presented in third person, indirectly, just as all of us sometimes talk about things that way. We look back as if we are standing at a distance.
But Bone Black is a childhood story, with a more or less chronological through line. Safekeeping, with its drifting time and shifting moods and searing gentleness, is un-diagrammable, self-forgiving. Reading Safekeeping is like reading Carole Maso’s AVA, a morning, afternoon, and night novel that ticks out the last-day memories of a dying 39-year-old professor of comparative lit. AVA stacks impressions, one upon the other. The sequenced lines are tethered to nothing but lifting desire:
Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance. Birthdays. Independence days. Saints’ days. Even when we were poor. With verve.
Come sit in the morning garden for awhile.
Olives hang like earrings in late August.
It’s up to the reader of AVA to fill in the blanks. It’s up to Thomas’s readers, too. We are forced to be smarter than we are.
Safekeeping is scrapbook and seam. It is ephemera if words can be called ephemera. It is wisdom without the baggage of authority. “Like most power it was utterly real and utterly illusory,” Thomas writes toward the end, about her younger, beautiful self. “But she spent the next forty years with her eye on who was looking back. This didn’t get in her way. It was her way. Her ambition was to be desired. Now it’s over and what a relief. Finally she can get some work done.”
Abigail Thomas placed her unassuming trust in her own ideas about linearity and urgency, dodge and confession, frame and voice, and maybe she didn’t know at first what she was making, but she made it anyway. Her words were her needle. Her life was her thread. Some of her stitches looped and some of them frayed and sometimes there was a break in the pattern. Life’s like this, Thomas instructed. Life is everything. Life can be made and it can be unmade, too.
Go on, she said. You try it.
She unbuttoned a button. She unbuttoned another. We grew less and less encumbered.
Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Soft Skull Press, 2018) is a rumination on desire, creativity, and the people who complete us. Told in elegant, precise vignettes, author Leah Dieterich uses ballet, philosophy, pop culture, and literature to gently tilt and examine the many facets of her identity.
Dieterich got in touch with me when she moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon, this year—I’m a recent transplant from New York—and we started going to readings and writing events in PDX together. Earlier this summer we spoke about monogamy, performance, and craft at her dining room table, a fuzzy outline of her sleeping daughter on the baby monitor between us.
The Millions: Was there a particular incident or feeling that spurred Vanishing Twins?
Leah Dieterich: I was writing a novel that was based on myself and my advertising partner, where I was imagining that we were running away from our jobs and responsibilities and taking a VW van up to Big Sur. I had been working on this novel for a couple of months, and then this one night when I was writing at a café in Santa Monica (where I ended up writing most of the book), it started to take a different turn.
I started writing about the French ligature with the O and the E smashed together, and I really didn’t know how it fit into the scene that I was writing, but it was coming out. I remember feeling so good about it but also concerned. I knew I wanted to follow this thread, but I had no idea what it had to do with the novel. At the same time, it felt like an epiphany. I realized that instead of the novel, this was what I wanted to write about. I wanted to explore my actual life in these weird ways—not necessarily as straightforward memoir, but using the interests I have in language and in other writers and thinkers to explore certain events and themes in my real life, rather than trying to make things up. I finally gave myself permission. I said, “I just want to write about my own life and that’s OK.”
TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Sheila Heti, somebody who’s known for straddling that line between fiction and non-fiction. How Should a Person Be? is a “novel” but—
LD: I think the subtitle of that book is A Novel from Life.
TM: Yes! And Motherhood has an unnamed narrator, but in How Should a Person Be? the narrator is also named Sheila. And of course real-life Sheila also has a best friend named Margot, same as in the book. Were you ever tempted to call Vanishing Twins fiction?
LD: Yeah. Once I started being really honest about my story, I got scared and thought, “Maybe I should call this a novel.” It felt like a way to hide, perhaps. I tried to query agents with it as an autobiographical novel in the vein of Sheila Heti’s book, but in the end, the agent who wanted to represent me called it a memoir (since I think I’d had a casual conversation with her about whether to call it fiction or nonfiction) and I was like, “OK. If you wanna call it a memoir, and you think you can sell it as a memoir, then let’s go for it.” I didn’t really have to do anything to the book to call it a memoir. I’d already changed all the names of the characters from my life, and since that’s totally acceptable in memoir, I just kept them the same as they’d been when it was called a novel. The names were an important part of the narrative or structure of the book—having all three of my main characters’ names begin with E.
TM: I was wondering about that choice.
LD: Yes. I wanted to make them feel sort of interchangeable. I wanted them to overlap.
TM: Did the people—the three Es—know you were going to write about them?
LD: Yes. I had written a short story inspired by my relationship with Elena before I started this book, and she’d seen that. My work colleague, Ethan, also knew; I had written a short story with characters inspired by us that I’d shown him. That scene actually appears in the book.
Eric (my husband) always knew that I would be writing about our life. I didn’t have him read the book until I thought it was ready to send out to agents. At that point, I’d already had my mentor, Sarah Manguso, read it and give me edits on two separate occasions over the course of two years. The first time my husband read it, he said it was beautiful but he didn’t like the way that he was portrayed. To his credit, he was like, “I’m not the audience for this book and I still think you should send it out.” I did send it out, although somewhat reluctantly, and luckily I didn’t get an agent for it then. It was kind of a relief because if someone had been like, “We want this,” and then I would have had to decide if I wanted to sell the book knowing he was unhappy with it, that would’ve been horrible. Some of the agents that rejected it had interesting feedback that I read to him and he total agreed with. I thought, “If I work on the book with this feedback in mind, hopefully it will satisfy this, or any other agent, and also my husband.” I showed him the manuscript before I sent it to a new batch of agents and he was like, “This is amazing–this version totally solves all of my problems and I think it’s incredible.” In the end, it worked. He was happy and I got an agent, but it took a year of revisions until I queried again, right before I was about to give birth to my daughter. That had been my deadline for myself.
I think the process of revising the book helped our relationship in a certain way. It helped me have more perspective on the time in our lives that I was writing about, to have delved into it more deeply. I think that’s why the book ended up being better. I think before, I was just scratching the surface with his character, and mine too for that matter. We weren’t full people on the page.
TM: So it wasn’t that you didn’t include enough about him, but maybe you just needed to include—
LD: The right things. I was so selective in what I had chosen to remember, but luckily, I had a lot of documentation. During that time in our life, we had been living apart, (he in New York and I in Los Angeles) so much of our communication was written.
LD: iChats. A lot of instant message. I would save all of the conversations that felt significant, both with him and with Elena (who lived in London). I had all of that. I knew that I would do something with it someday, so I saved it all. I literally went through about 20 chat transcripts that were each two to three hours long. This is weirdly masochistic and totally the way I operate, but instead of just reading them, I transcribed them all word for word. I had read some of them many times already for research, but I tended to skim them. Transcribing forced me to relive them. I spent a few months just doing that every single day. I’d be at the coffee shop crying over my laptop because I felt like I was in that moment again, but this time I could be the observer, too, which was even more heartbreaking for me. I could drop into the role of myself eight or nine years ago, but also see her from a distance.
TM: That’s crazy to think about going back through and kind of reliving it.
LD: It was amazing.
TM: You incorporate a bunch of outside texts into Vanishing Twins. Did you write the narrative first and then go through and add in the research bits? Or would things jump out at you as you were constructing the story?
LD: That’s a great question. One of the main outside texts is A Lover’s Discourse, by Roland Barthes. I was obsessed with that book. I’d bought it while we were living apart. I hadn’t started writing Vanishing Twins yet, but years later when I was working on the book, I’d be writing these little snippets of action, a scene I remembered from my life and it would remind me of something from A Lover’s Discourse, or from Adam Phillips’s Monogamy and I’d think “I should go get that and look at it.” When I’d feel blocked, I’d transcribe all of the quotes I’d underlined in these books. That way I felt like I was always accomplishing something even if it wasn’t generating new material. Once I copied down all the things I’d underlined, they started finding their ways in or inspiring new sections.
When my husband and I moved back in together after living apart for nearly three years we went to dinner at a friend’s house in LA and the friend started talking about Adam Phillips, and he was like, “Have you read Monogamy? It’s amazing.” He brought this little book down from the shelf. I don’t remember perfectly because I was really drunk, but I remember being upset about the book and its title, because though my husband and I had closed our open relationship, I was still very anti-monogamy in theory. We borrowed it and my husband read it, and was like, “This is amazing. I think you’d really like it.” I was resistant but I acquiesced and once I did, I was like, “Oh my God.” I was floored. That book changed my life. It complicated everything I thought about monogamy and made it seem dangerous (which I liked) and a worthy challenge, instead of something boring you do out of laziness.
[Monogamy] is so short. There’s basically just a paragraph on each page. They’re vignettes, or propositions. As I began writing Vanishing Twins, that book started to find its way in too. I write in a program called Scrivener. Do you use it?
TM: I don’t, but people love it.
LD: I really love it. Especially for this type of book where there’s a lot of short sections that are interchangeable. I would spend hours rearranging them. It’s really easy to do because each section is listed in a column on the left and you can just drag and drop them and move them around. Before I started using it, I was using Word and I had like 20 pages and I just couldn’t keep track of everything. I think having Scrivener helped the book start to grow, just from a file organization standpoint. It’s a really important part of how the book came together.
TM: In Vanishing Twins there’s heavy use of white space—it’s a distinctive form. Were there other writers besides Phillips who gave you permission or encouragement to do that? Was there a particular blueprint you used as you were constructing the book?
LD: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was my blueprint, really. That moment I described, when I was working on the road-trip novel and I began writing about the O and E ligature. That was when I was like, “I want to write nonfiction. I want to write lyric essay or memoir in the vein of Bluets or Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay.” There’s this thing in L.A. called Writing Workshops Los Angeles that Edan Lepucki started. That’s how I met Sarah Manguso, actually—I took a one-day poetry workshop with her. Anyway, they had a memoir class, but I was like, “There’s no way in hell I’m going to be able to actually get to this class on time after work and/or have time to participate and read everyone’s work,” but I thought the teacher and the syllabus sounded really interesting, so I contacted her.
Her name is Chris Daley and she’s now running WWLA, and I said, “Can I just do an independent study with you?” And she said yes. We met at a coffee shop and I showed her the pages I had, and said “I love Maggie Nelson and I love Sarah Manguso. I want to write a book that is about my life but is not straightforward memoir. I want it to be more…”
LD: Yeah. I told Chris, “Here are my pages. I love Bluets. What advice do you have for me?” Some of the pages were about the œ ligature and some were about my open relationship and some were about twins because concurrent to wanting to write this book, I had also had the idea to write a movie about a young married couple who are struggling to grow as individuals while maintaining their bond who meet a set of identical twins and end up getting into a relationship with them—the woman with the one sister and the man with the other sister.
Chris said, “Maybe twins could be your blue.” It was like a lightbulb went off over my head. But it was her head. Then she said, “That’s just a thought—it doesn’t have to be that.” I wasn’t even listening anymore. I was off and running. I hadn’t seen how I could connect all these seemingly disparate ideas and concerns but once she presented it to me, it was so obvious.
TM: It’s always interesting when someone else can see the common themes in your work more clearly than you can.
LD: It made it so much easier to write, because any time I was trying to come up with new material, I would be like, “What about binary stars? Those are twins.” It was like a prompt.
TM: Before writing this book, you existed in two different artistic spheres: dance and advertising. I wonder how ballet and writing ad copy influenced the writing of Vanishing Twins?
LD: To write for advertising, you have to be very concise. I was telling someone the other day that there is a rule that you can’t have more than six words on a billboard. So I was used to cutting things back to their core. Sarah Manguso is all about concision and cutting everything you possibly can, which for me was easy because it’s what I did all day. That I think, definitely informed my style and the way that I write.
For dance, I don’t know. That love of performing might be one of the reasons I write memoir. It’s a way to put myself out on stage in a way. I think I miss that from dancing, that feeling of being out there and being exposed. Somehow I think if I was writing fiction, I would feel more like I was hiding and that wouldn’t be as satisfying.
TM: In the book, you talk about making the decision to cut your hair short and stop wearing makeup—abandoning what some might refer to as performative femininity. At the time, your husband is not into this change. I wonder if that issue has persisted—are you aware of femininity as a performance still?
LD: Ever since I started writing this book I feel like it has allowed me to express the fullness of my identity so I worry less about how I dress or how long or short my hair is. I don’t need my appearance to do all the heavy lifting anymore. My hair is really long right now and I like it, but of course I still sometimes think, “What if I cut my hair really short again?” but I resist because I know my husband likes it longer and at this point in my life and relationship, I want him to find me attractive just like I want to find him attractive. I have a LOT of opinions about his appearance so it’s only fair that he should have them about mine. I’m sure I’d have to have those negotiations with anyone I was in a long-term relationship with, regardless of their gender. I rarely wear makeup anymore which is something I’ve carried over from my more tomboyish days, but occasionally, and I should say VERY occasionally, I put on some lipstick.
TM: It feels a little like a costume to me at this point, especially after having kids. I wasn’t wearing it for a long time because I was too busy, but I do now on occasion. My kids will be like, “You look different. You look pretty.” It’s so weird that they notice that, and weirder that they like it, that they’re already receiving cues about what is “pretty” and that they’ve attached a value to that. It’s so bizarre.
LD: It is. I feel the same way. I’ve always felt weird about wearing makeup that is observable—stuff like red lipstick. I own it and think it’s pretty, but I still feel the same way I felt when my mom put lipstick on me the first time for Halloween when I was eight, and I felt like I couldn’t close my mouth. I still feel like that. I don’t know how to hold my mouth when I’m wearing it.
TM: Did you feel a duty to be honest in this book? Were there things that you specifically left out because you didn’t want to hurt somebody?
LD: I did leave things out. There were other relationships I had while we were open, but they weren’t as significant. They felt extraneous and would have complicated the narrative. I think that was one of the main things I learned about memoir—that you don’t have to talk about everything. That was the thing that was hardest for me to realize: I have the freedom to give this thing a shape.
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.
Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.
The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”
The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”
But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.
Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.
Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.
For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”
These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.
The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)
The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.
Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.
I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.
Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.
Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.
The problem with finishing Proust is that there’s nothing left to read. I’m sure Swing Time is just as excellent as everyone says, but it felt like a slog to me, and I stopped close to the end, with only 40 pages left to go. It sits on my bookshelf, unfinished. The same went for my book group’s March pick, a classic, Les Liasions Dangereuses. I tried some novels that I’d been meaning to read for months, but they didn’t matter anymore. Nothing seemed interesting. Apparently, this particular form of boredom is common for anyone who has finished In Search of Lost Time. Anne Carson describes it as “the desert of after Proust:”
There’s a kind of glacial expanse that opens where nothing seems worth reading and all you want is for Proust to start over again, but of course he can’t and so you read, in a desultory way, things about Proust or criticism or biography, but it’s not the same and eventually you just give up and realize you’ll be in Proust withdrawal for a while and then life will sort of go on in a grayer level.
Like Carson, I picked up criticism and biographies of Proust, as well as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton’s book was especially depressing, like reading the tour guide of a country you’d just visited, and wouldn’t be able to return to for many years.
Knowing I might feel bereft, I stretched out the final volume, Time Regained, for as long as I could. For me, it was the most compelling part of the novel because it spoke so directly to the writing process. After years of frittering away his time at social events, Marcel has a strange and unexpected revelation when he’s on his way to yet another party. While crossing the courtyard outside the Guermantes mansion, he jumps out of the way of a car, nearly tripping on some uneven paving stones. The feeling of disequilibrium brings back a strong memory of Venice—a memory as strong as the one that famously came to him when he dunked a madeleine in a cup of tea and his childhood visits to Combray bloomed in his mind. All at once, Marcel understands the work he must do to write the book he has dreamed of composing.
In a startlingly direct 200-page passage, Marcel describes what writing is, what memory is, and how writing and memory allows us to translate our experience of life—our consciousness—into art. He explains the way that our deepest-held impressions are accessed through our senses, by the sound of a bell, the feeling of paving stones beneath one’s feet, or by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In Proust’s philosophy of memory, the majority of our recollections are intellectualized narratives; these are voluntary memories. But involuntary memories are those that come to us when we encounter a physical sensation that seems to put us in two worlds at once: the past and the present. These types of memories dissolve time, and they also, Proust observes, dissolve the ego:
These [memories], on the contrary, instead of giving me a more flattering idea of myself, had almost caused me to doubt the reality, the existence of the self.
To forget oneself is one of the great joys of writing, possibly the greatest joy, but we’re not living in a moment when people are encouraged to forget themselves. Social media, our most popular narrative form, is all about intellectualizing memory, and crafting a narrative of self that gives a particular impression. But these curated memories don’t have much correspondence to what people actually think or feel. Furthermore, most of us aren’t aware of their most deeply buried memories, the ones that shape our experience of life. If you want to find out your true impressions, Proust says, you must push away the distractions of everyday life:
As for the inner book of unknown symbols…if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book.
I read those words on Tuesday in February. I know it was a Tuesday because my son has swimming lessons on Tuesdays, and, having read Time Regained for longer than I’d intended, I was in a rush to pick him up from school and take him to class. Still, I arrived at the YMCA pool in a spaced-out mood.
Usually I bring my smartphone down to the observation deck, so that I can check emails and read the news while my son takes his lesson, but on that day, prodded by what I had read, I left my phone in the locker room. I brought my book group’s February selection—Bluets, by Maggie Nelson—but I didn’t open it. Instead I stared at the pool, occasionally searching for my son’s swim-capped head. The scent of the chlorine was strong and I drifted into memories: my lifeguard training as a teenager, an unhappy time when I swam lap after lap on Saturday mornings in a pool that left my hair greenish. I changed among girls I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to like me particularly. The bathroom smelled strongly of bleach. Later, I found out that I didn’t even enjoy lifeguarding, but I did like the confidence it gave me in the water. I love to swim laps in the ocean and out to the middle of lakes. I want my son to have the same love of swimming when he’s older, but I don’t know if that’s something you can actually pass on.
My son finished his lesson and I dried him off with a white towel worn from industrial washings. We put his suit in the noisy drier that I’m certain is damaging to the fabric of his swimsuit but which he loves to operate. I wondered if he would remember any of it—the noise, the chlorine, the shower stalls—years from now.
That same Tuesday, my husband and I went to a lecture by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He was promoting his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, which addresses the evolution of human consciousness. As we waited to attend the lecture in a very long line outside of a warehouse near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, I noticed that the majority of the people in line were looking at their smartphones. It was an unremarkable observation, but waiting in a long line had gotten me nostalgic for my 20s, when free lectures were a way of life. Except, back then, no one had smart phones. Instead, you had a book, or a magazine, or you made idle conversation with your friend or the friend of your friend who arrived first. If you called someone on your phone, the people around you were slightly annoyed to be put in the position of eavesdropping on your one-sided conversation. Everything was a little bit awkward, and a little bit boring. But on that night in Gowanus, nothing was awkward. No one was bored. Everyone was on their phones, doing as they pleased: playing games, texting, posting, reading, scrolling, commenting, joking. It was great, maybe? Or it was sad? Were these even the right questions to ask?
It was a mild night, for February. Above the sky was faded New York City black, with the streetlights glowing orange. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven and there were puddles at the curb, reflecting the lights. The gutters were dirty with trash and debris. People waved to approaching friends and companions, removing earpieces in advance of hugs and kisses. They showed each other images, lit by small glowing screens. They checked the time. Many human behaviors remained the same. But a certain lull was gone.
There was also, harder to pinpoint, a disengagement from the physical world. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t just read Proust’s theory of involuntary memory, and the role of sensory input in the formation of thoughts and memories. I wondered how many people waiting were absorbing anything about waiting in line with these particular people at this particular moment in time. I wondered if it mattered. I wondered if the online world, that abstract place of arguments and images, comments and shares, likes and links, was becoming, or had already become, larger in people’s imaginations than the world of paving stones and dirty puddles, telephone poles and night skies, elevated trains and guard rails, dropped gloves, car horns, peeling paint, swiftly moving clouds, and strangers standing close enough that you can smell their floral perfume. I wondered if I was a foolish, stubborn person, willfully out of touch with a new social language, a new way of being human.
During his lecture, Dennett discussed his theory that consciousness is a mental process that has evolved over time and exists on a spectrum across many living creatures. He argued that human consciousness is unusually powerful because it allows us to be aware of our capabilities. That is, a spider can make a complex web but as far is we know, a spider is not aware of its web-making skills. From our awareness comes an ability to be intelligent designers; we don’t have to wait on the slow-moving, trial-and-error process of biological evolution to grow our species. We have cultural knowledge, such as language, music, and cooking, to help us survive and thrive.
When describing the transmission of ideas among humans, Dennett refers to memes, a word that originates with Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. Dennett defines memes as “a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed.” Words, Dennett writes, “are the best examples of memes.” He likens memes to viruses, looking for a host in a human brain. He sees them as similar to genes in their ability to replicate. He’s deeply interested in artificial intelligence, which he sees as a new stage of human evolution. His ideas are controversial among philosophers, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through his very long, very dense book and don’t completely understand his theory of consciousness, nor the arguments of his detractors. But his book was the one that brought me out of my post-Proust reading drought, I think because he looks closely at human habits, the way that Proust does.
After the lecture, there was a Q&A, and an attendee asked Dennett for his view on religion’s influence on culture. Dennett said religion was a meme, a way of behaving in the world, and like all memes, its chief goal was to spread among humans. He didn’t think there was a point in assessing religion as good or bad for humans. His verdict: “Religion is good for itself.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help applying the same formulation to social media: “Social media is good for itself.” There is really no point in deciding if social media is good or bad. It is now part of our cultural evolution and there’s no going back. Like religion, it is sometimes a means for justice and compassion. And like religion, it is also sometimes destructive and divisive. I thought of all those people, waiting outside, their heads bent over their phones, as if in prayer. I realized that my discomfort with social media is similar to my discomfort with organized religion. I am sympathetic to its allure, and in awe of its power to organize communities and bring about social change, but I am alarmed by the way it creates a new reality for people.
That was February. Now it’s June and I’ve been taking a break from social media for the past few months. For me, that meant quitting Instagram, neglecting my Tumblr feed, and ignoring online comment fields. I also removed email from my phone, which made the biggest difference in my daily routine. I hadn’t realized how much I was checking email. I also wasn’t aware of how often I was taking photos with the thought of posting them to Instagram. It’s a relief to have those small decisions—Should I check email? Should I take a photo? Should I post a photo?—removed from my life. There’s still plenty of distractions on my phone, but I stare into space more than I used to, and I pay closer attention to strangers, and passersby. My life feels quieter and more relaxed, but also lonelier. If I wasn’t living in a place with a busy street life, and where I know a lot of my neighbors, I think I might feel very isolated. I keep noticing how often people refer to things that have “happened” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and in the comments section.
But do the things that happen on social media actually happen? Do they have any basis in reality? This is the question I keep returning to. I know that what happens on social media affects reality, and it affects people’s perception of reality, and maybe that’s enough. But I also know that when I meet people in real life after following them on social media, the online version of the person usually becomes irrelevant. A person’s social media profile is kind of like the publisher’s summary on the backs of novels. Maybe it draws you in, or maybe it turns you off, but it likely has very little to say about the actual experience of reading a particular book. It’s better to open the book at random and read a few pages, just as it’s more informative to meet someone in person. Even an extremely self-aware person, who is “good at social media,” has aspects of their personality or physical presence that they would never think to display. It’s also just very difficult to represent yourself on media platforms whose parameters are designed with the intent, above all, to grow and replicate a larger network. (Remember, social media is only good for itself.)
The difficulty of knowing yourself is one of Proust’s central themes, and one I’ve touched on several times throughout my posts. For most of In Search of Lost Time, Proust explores this law of human perception through social life, as he gently exposes the hypocrisies and delusions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He’s so good on other people that you barely notice that his narrator, Marcel, is a struggling writer, a person who tries, and fails, repeatedly, to undergo the self-examination necessary to write. It’s only in the final volume that Proust addresses the difficulty of discovering (or rediscovering) a reality that is worth expressing:
The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life.
I underlined that passage with the passion of an undergraduate, feeling as if I’d discovered the secret of writing—of life, possibly. Yes, my true impressions were constantly being smothered. Because what else is social media but a process fueled by vanity, passion, intellect, and above all, habit? What else is so much of Internet content, with its barrage of hashtags, inspo, links, and #goals, but “a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life”?
I feel naïve writing these things, and when I first started thinking about this post, I wanted to title it: How Proust Convinced Me to Give Up My Smartphone. But to write that essay, I’d have to give up my phone, and I don’t want to. My phone makes certain parts of life really easy, and it also makes it easier for other people to be in contact with me—important people like family members, friends, neighbors, and my son’s teachers and caregivers. There’s also the fact that I’m writing this essay on a platform that uses social media and mobile apps to distribute its content. I can be as morose and confused as I want about the proliferation of social media, but the reality is that I have become habituated to its many uses.
This is the struggle of modern life, an irony Proust touches on throughout In Search of Lost Time, as he encounters new technology like telephones, airplanes, and motorcars. He loves the convenience of calling his grandmother, and yet he experiences new strains of melancholy when he hears her voice through the receiver. One can only imagine the new forms of jealousy he would have encountered if his beloved Albertine had been on Instagram. And yet he would have adapted. Habit, “that skillful and unhurrying manager,” would have interceded.
Louis C.K. has a joke about how quickly we adapt to technology, the joke being that the first thing we do after achieving an amazing technological advancement—like flight—is to complain that it could be better. For Louis C.K., this is evidence of our fundamental ingratitude and unhappiness, but Dennett might say that our rapid acclimation to new technology is the special gift of our species, the thing that has allowed for our wild success in reproduction and survival. I think Proust’s observations on the power of habit bridge both views. Reading Proust became a habit for me, and it’s one I still miss, months later. Certain books, Proust writes, can be a lens for your life, a way to see more clearly. His novel certainly did that for me. Years from now, I’ll read it again, when I need to see the world with fresh eyes.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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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.
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.
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
This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Maggie Nelson is known best for her non-fiction. Often described as some combination of “lyrical” and “philosophical,” Nelson’s five book-length works of nonfiction have won her a steadfast following. She might be described as a “writer’s writer.” The evidence is in how often her books are named by other writers in our annual Year in Reading series. Bluets, a meditation on the color blue, won praise from David Shields (“utterly brilliant”), Stephen Elliott (“excellent”), Haley Mlotek (“I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride.”), Leslie Jamison, Jaquira Díaz, and Margaret Eby. Meaghan O’Connell wrote of Nelson, “She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair.” Many of the above writers also praised Nelson’s more recent The Argonauts, “a genre-bending memoir,” as did Bijan Stephen, Olivia Laing (“It thinks deeply and with immense nuance and grace”), Karolina Waclawiak (“I found myself underlining on nearly every page”), and Parul Sehgal. Nelson herself appeared in our Year in Reading last year, shining light on books by Eileen Myles and Ellen Miller, among others.
Claudia Rankine, poet, has received especially wide acclaim for her “provocative meditation on race” Citizen: An American Lyric, a book that (perhaps along with Between the World and Me by last year’s “Genius” Ta-Nehisi Coates) that can be pointed to as a literary catalyst. Many may have first become aware of Rankine earlier this year, when her book — wielded as an object of protest — was caught by cameras behind a ranting Donald Trump at one of his rallies. MacArthur rightly describes Rankine as “a critical voice in current conversations about racial violence.” Ed Simon named Citizen this moment’s best candidate in his search for America’s great epic poem.
In its announcement, MacArthur says artist and writer Lauren Redniss “is an artist and writer seamlessly integrating artwork, written text, and design elements in works of visual nonfiction. Redniss undertakes archival research, interviews and reportage, and field expeditions to inform every aspect of a book’s creation, from its text, to its format and page layout, to the design of the typeface, to the printing and drawing techniques used for the artwork.” Redniss is probably best-known for 2011 National Book Award finalist Radioactive, a vibrantly illustrated biography of pioneering scientists Marie and Pierre Curie. Our own Hannah Gersen described it as “elaborately beautiful.”
Gene Luen Yang has smashed stereotypes with his vibrant graphic novels, American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile (with Derek Kirk Kim), and Boxers & Saints. Our 2010 interview with Yang explored his influences and his work.
The lone playwright to be named a “genius” this year is Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. “Many of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays use a historical lens to satirize and comment on modern culture, particularly the ways in which race and class are negotiated in both private and public settings.”
Sarah Stillman has become a byline to look for in The New Yorker, carrying out journalistic investigations that have raised public outrage and spurred recalcitrant politicians into action. “Taken” is perhaps her best-known article. It investigates how local police forces have used the principal of “civil asset forfeiture” to plunder citizens and enrich themselves.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
At the end of last year, my brain had been steeping in mid-century Southern literature as research for South Toward Home for so long that I resolved in 2015 to read mostly books that had come out in the past five years. That mostly worked out: this year had some real dazzlers in the bunch, the kind of books that I would start reading on a Saturday morning and soon find myself cancelling weekend plans to finish by Sunday night. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was like that, as was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network, and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which I read greedily one summer afternoon before immediately launching into her equally excellent Bluets. In mid-summer I was derailed from my resolution by the juicy, dreamy Meanwhile There Are Letters, a collection of the correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald, which sent me back into Flannery O’Connor’s sharp, insightful correspondence collection The Habit of Being, the kind of book that I’m always tempted to buy extra copies of so that I can pass them out to friends. This year I first read Percival Everett, thanks to his new collection, Half an Inch of Water, and went on a collect-them-all mission until I had a good five of his books teetering on my nightstand.
But one of the books that’s most stuck in my brain this year is Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins’s stunner of a debut novel. I read it in the unseasonal heat of early September, when her vision of a parched, overheated, waterless country seemed particularly close at hand, but I’ve found myself reaching for it in the cooler months too, to reread passages of Watkins’s semi-apocalyptic psycho-geography of the West. It’s a fascinating piece of work, bleak and weird and unafraid to question the assumptions of American mythology, and even be a little bored by the idea of a dystopian future. Plus, there’s a huge ever-moving sand dune. It’s pretty great.
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I’m a promiscuous reader, always reading multiple books at a time, switching back and forth. I’m not a poet, but every year, I find myself reading more and more poetry collections. My biggest poetry crushes this year? Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and (though they weren’t published this year) Stacey Waite’s Butch Geography, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which (I guess) qualifies as poetry, but I would call it fiction. My poet friends and I keep having the same argument about whether Maggie Nelson’s work is poetry or nonfiction. They keep trying to claim her, of course, but we all know the truth. After reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an examination of love and suffering and her personal obsession with the color blue, I immediately went out and got The Argonauts, which is a hybrid of sorts, although I’d call it lyric essay. It’s a love story, but it’s also an exploration of motherhood and gender and family and queerness and sexuality, and so many other things. Bonus: the sections discussing women’s anal eroticism, in which Nelson writes, “I am not interested in a hermeneutics, or an erotics, or a metaphorics, of my anus. I am interested in ass-fucking.” Yes!
Most of the novels and story collections I enjoyed most this year were fabulist, or had some kind of supernatural element — apparitions or hallucinations or ghosts or the unexplained — and required some suspension of disbelief. Kelly Link’s stories in Get in Trouble, funny and imaginative, were rife with ghosts, super heroes, vampires, and pocket universes. César Aira’s allegorical novel Ghosts, in which a family squatting in an unfinished apartment building in Buenos Aires can see ghosts, is strange and witty and sometimes a little disturbing but surprisingly lighthearted. John Henry Fleming’s stories in Songs for the Deaf were inventive in the best way, sometimes satiric, sometimes dreamy and lyrical, sometimes dysfunctional, and often hilarious. This year I also revisited Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle — one of my all-time favorites — a gothic novel, about two sisters who still live (with their elderly uncle) in a house where most of their family was murdered. It’s dark and funny and surprising, part murder mystery, part psychological thriller. Bonus: Merricat, the young narrator, is creepy and sadistic as hell.
Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature was probably my favorite story collection in the last two or three years. I finished it and then texted a bunch of friends to tell them about it and then immediately re-read it because DAMN it was just that good. Cook’s stories are hilarious, even when they’re tragic. Executives are hunted by a monster in an office building, babies are stolen from their mothers, unwanted (or “not needed”) boys are sent off to be incinerated, a giant baby can bench press more than his father. Cook’s stories remind me of Karen Russell, whose stories always knock me out. (By the way, Karen Russell’s novella, Sleep Donation, was one of my favorite reads last year.)
My two favorite memoirs this year, Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side and M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos were both as harrowing as they were beautiful. The Other Side opens with Johnson’s escape from a soundproof room, where she was imprisoned by her former boyfriend — he’d intended to kill her, but she managed to escape. Johnson’s memoir, rather than just a story of the trauma and violence inflicted on her, is about how one deals with the aftermath and effects of trauma, written mostly in short, lyrical sections, often laced with metaphor. M.J. Fievre’s A Sky the Color of Chaos is a memoir about growing up in Haiti after the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the country’s violent dictator, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide became president. During this time, the Haitian people were taking violent revenge on the Tonton Macoutes, who were responsible for thousands upon thousands of rapes and murders, and several massacres. As much as it explores Haiti’s difficult history, A Sky the Color of Chaos is a coming of age story, and a story about Fievre’s complicated relationship with her father.
I started reading Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House while planning a move to Detroit. I was looking for what I thought would be “a Detroit novel.” What I got was so much more than that. A moving family saga full of complex characters and subtle metaphors — Cha-Cha seeing haints, the rise and fall of the city, the house itself. Everything about this novel feels balanced — the writing is controlled and elegant; Flournoy chooses two of the 13 siblings to focus on, the eldest and the youngest; the family experiences hard times but also, much like in real life, joy. The Turner House is timeless. And speaking of timeless: I was lucky enough to snag a copy of Amina Gautier’s The Loss of All Lost Things, her third story collection, which comes out next year. The stories in this collection, which is her best, are about all types of loss — parents who lose their son, a boy who comes to terms with the fact that he is lost, the loss of innocence. Gautier is definitely a prose stylist. Her sentences are lyrical, evocative, often haunting.
Like every other person I know, I’m in the middle of Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is brutal and irreverent and unapologetic and badass, which is why everybody in the world is talking about it. I’m also finishing Phillippe Diederich’s Sofrito, a novel about a restaurant owner who travels to Cuba, his parents’ homeland, in order to steal a secret recipe he thinks may save his restaurant. Diederich, a former photojournalist, really has an eye for details. Cuba is very vivid in this novel — you can see it, smell it, taste it. And I just started Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us. Kim is a South Korean investigative journalist who secretly crossed the border into North Korea, going undercover in Pyongyang and posing as a North Korean teacher. Without You, There Is No Us is the book she wrote while immersed in the North Korean culture. What’s next? I’m excited to finally get to Tanwi Nandini Islam’s Bright Lines. Tanwi and I will be in conversation at the Betsy Hotel South Beach on December 12, talking about books, queer coming of age stories, and so much more!
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The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
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Where do I start? The year was full of chances to read new work from authors I already loved: I ingested Marilynne Robinson’s Lila in a tiny Parisian garret like I was binging on communion wafers, and I felt a crazy gratitude for the ragged, stunning insight of Charles D’Ambrosio’s new essay collection, Loitering. I gave several days of my life to total immersion in Michelle Huneven’s latest novel, Off Course — one of those books that casts a deliciously addictive spell over the days it occupies, then lingers long afterwards with its questions and insights and strokes of emotional acuity: it kept me racing back to my apartment just so I could curl up with it on the couch again. It’s the story of a woman caught in the thrall of a destructive love affair — the seduction of that compromised intimacy, its price — and the whole thing happens in Huneven’s deftly sketched vision of the High Sierras: a bear smearing his nose against glass windows, boots crunching over pine needles, the abjection of waiting for a phone call. The book made me feel — in the smartest, most graceful way — like it was a lantern held up to deeply interior recesses of my own soul.
For a seminar I’ve been teaching on the art of criticism, I re-read two of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Art of Cruelty, books I love for different reasons: The Art of Cruelty honors a kind of restless thinking that resists conclusions; Bluets honors, among other things, the kudzu quality of loss, how it creeps into everything else.
Another book on loss (was every book on loss?) that blew me away and kept me riveted, absolutely locked in its orbit for days, was Will Boast’s recent memoir, Epilogue, about grief and — in the best, subtlest, utterly un-cloying ways — the possibility of unexpected renewal. There’s a chapter about Boast’s attempt to write a short story about his brother — after his death, giving him life somewhere else — that will stay with me for a long time, a man crafting an alternative narrative to hold what he’s haunted by.
A trip to Sri Lanka on assignment sent me down a rabbit hole of research reading: Gordon Weiss’s The Cage, a chilling account of the final months of the Sri Lankan civil war — its bloody final siege — and V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage, a poignantly realized novel about the ripples of that war through the Sri Lankan diaspora community. Back home, I returned to several books of documentary poetry — C.D. Wright’s One Big Self and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary — that witness certain unseen margins: coal mining communities, incarcerated life.
As fall got seriously cold, I started reading Dorothea Lasky’s new poetry collection, Rome, about lust and dissolution, and reckoning with what language can do for either one, and — brilliantly — Diet Mountain Dew. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you: “And what is not / Well I’ll never know / I will quench the thirst of my stomach / And eat the bitter doughnuts / Under the blank sky.” I read her poems on a crowded 4 train during rush hour and still felt completely immersed — which says something about her voice, how it creates what Olaf (the most infamous snowman of the year) might call a personal flurry.
But the book that meant the most to me this year was one I’d already read a few years back — or rather, listened to and been spellbound by, on a long drive across desolate Western states: Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, a novel about Vegas and the deep longings people bring to its neon jungle. Its account of a marriage under duress is one of the most powerful visions I’ve ever read of what it means to keep showing up for someone you love, even when you feel absolutely disconnected or humbled by grief. But I am no doubt a biased observer, because — as fate would have it — near the beginning of the year I met Bock in a kitchen, and near the end of it, I married him.
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I’m suffering from that complete lack of perspective that afflicts us when we try and enforce a strict linear timeline on our lives; that is to say, to borrow a dumb driving metaphor, that objects in my figurative rearview mirror are closer than they appear, and the books I read at the beginning of 2014 and throughout 2014 have all blended together in that grey matter soup sloshing around my skull, and so I’m now going to name my favorite book of the year as one that just happens to be a book I read very recently, but so what, this is my entry and I can do what I want.
I found Artful at my favourite book store in Brooklyn and put it down because I had already spent too much money that weekend, a rare exercising of willpower. Three weeks later I went back to that same bookstore, after having tried to navigate a delayed flight and a city shut down by a marathon and a friend who had left me his empty apartment and yet had failed to leave me either his keys or his Wi-Fi password; I thought about weeping, but instead dragged my suitcase to buy the book I wanted because I thought it would make me feel better, which it did not. I was on edge and paranoid and convinced, once I got the keys, that I wasn’t alone inside the apartment. If I had known Artful was a ghost story I might not have read it. When I got to the part of the book where the narrator’s dead lover shows up in her living room to steal her teacups I felt compelled to get up and check the closets for, I don’t know, ghosts? As though they were perhaps just waiting in my friend’s linens for me.
Ali Smith’s collection of four essays, ostensibly about time and form and literature and art and film and trees and the Greek language, but actually the story of a woman grieving her recently deceased partner, put me on watch for ghosts and relaxed some weird tension I hadn’t even known I was holding until I read it: “Books,” Smith writes early in the book, “need time to dawn on us.” We wouldn’t listen to a piece of music just once to fully understand it, she explains, a fact anyone who has heard “Anaconda” can relate to. “[W]e tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once…it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them, because books are produced by books more than writers; they’re a result of all the books that went before them.”
I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science, but it’s not really common sense either. Since childhood, I’ve clung to books the way babies cling to their preferred blankets, believing in their soothing or restorative properties, even if I knew how they would end. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite book of the year because I sometimes think I only have favorite books, full stop, and they are books I’ve been reading and re-reading for years with a really high level of guilt about it; like, do I really need to read I Love Dick for the 16th time? I know how it ends. I need something else, I suppose, the rhythm of something I’ve heard before.
This year, I read and re-read my favorite books like it was a guilty pleasure, ashamed to be shunning all the new books that had come out, books that probably would’ve expanded my worldview or taught me something useful, but fuck it, Ali Smith gave me permission to take some time to understand the book in front of me. In 2014, I read Bluets twice in the same plane ride and Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, four times in five months. I read Kate Zambreno’s reissued novel Green Girl six times as I wrote a very long article about it, Over Easy by Mimi Pond twice, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit four times. I read the same two pages of Susan Sontag’s journals as many times as it took until I thought I understood what she was saying even though I’m still not entirely sure I do. It’s the books I read just once that are probably a sign of doing something wrong, either on my part or the books’ part, because I haven’t found a way to make them part of this linear narrative of books I keep circling back on, the books that follow me as I try to turn the peripheral objects of my life into symbols of some sort of meaning or permanence or ratings like “best” and “worst.”
All of this is to say: I really don’t know what my best book of 2014 was, but since that terrible weekend in Brooklyn, I’ve read Artful cover to cover three times.
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We here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been surprised to find ourselves – for lack of a better word – trending. From Eric Bennett’s allegations in “How Iowa Flattened Literature” to n+1’s book MFA vs NYC, we really didn’t think there was more to say about our institution…and then Hannah Horvath, in an odd twist of fictional life becoming reality, was accepted on Girls.
Of course we were excited by the buzz. But in this larger discussion, we found that something was lacking: namely, the view from Iowa City. Right here, right now.
So: here it is.
On a dismal midwinter Thursday, we – eighteen current students of the Writers’ Workshop, poets and fiction writers alike – set out to chronicle one ordinary 24-hour period in our lives. That February 13th, we took copious notes. We worked, whether on our novels or on our Twitter accounts. Some of us taught classes. Some of us went to a poetry reading and after-party. And some of us just ran around tossing Valentines into each other’s houses.
My colleagues’ responses may vary widely in form, ranging from poems to stories to lyric essays, but all of them are, like my colleagues, entertaining. And furthermore: excerpts from their responses, when laid out to roughly span those 24 hours, give a decent picture of what it’s actually like to be a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now – that is, to be one of many people all striving to do the same difficult thing, in the same moderately-sized city, at the same talked-about school.
Hannah Horvath: take note.
(Van Choojitarom, second-year fiction)
Van is having trouble leaving his apartment. The problem today is getting dressed. It’s not that Van is particularly vain or fastidious. It’s that as he’s putting on his suit and necktie he invariably begins delivering a bad guy monologue to the bathroom mirror. Welcome to my island, Mr. Bond, the solid grey suit seems to say. Sometimes he can cut it down, but other times, some inner Hans Gruberian impulse cannot be checked and he ends up trying on all his different coats in front of the mirror, regardless of the actual weather, lapels folded over his throat, inveigling the ceiling, delivering solid broadly humanitarian, ultimately Marxist reasons for Bruce Willis to surrender.
This morning he’s fixated on a grey plaid double breasted jacket that puts in him in mind of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter. It seems to be driving him to wider, patterned ties: “I don’t really think your story has POV problems, Will. I just wanted to see how you’d react…”
(Jessie Hennen, second-year fiction)
Every morning I wake up and Colin is still asleep. Usually I lie there for twenty minutes and try to ease myself out of the bed without him noticing, but inevitably he does. “Stay,” he says, not quite awake. Then I have to sound like an absolute bitch and say that I am done sleeping, that I have things to accomplish. Really it is that I am sick of looking at the light fixture, at the sky coming in bright against my peach-colored curtain, the ceiling shimmering like the northern lights. While I look at the ceiling I think too much about the future.
“I can’t sleep in any more. I have to finish (x),” I always say. Today (x) is a novel chapter about giant deep-sea fish who grow weary of being imprisoned in a tank and incite their angry brethren to make the oceans swim with rage.
“Oh, okay,” he says, but he doesn’t let go. Frida the cat sits in the middle of the bed, meowing. I suppose she is cozy. I tell him I had a very episodic dream. “I was surviving the Rapture with my family. Our house was under siege, people kept throwing rocks at our windows, everyone wanted in. Finally the call came from heaven, and our whole house floated up into the sky above the angry mobs. I almost got Left Behind because I was drinking a beer, but I tossed it out and we made it to heaven.
“Heaven, it turned out, looked a lot like Milwaukee. Very small houses, a very bright sky. The powers that be were keeping us in a strip mall until they could find proper heavenly places for us. It was packed – kind of a shantytown, really. It had a barter economy going. Some guy had a computer with Facebook, and I convinced him to check mine. Jen Percy had been posting these really great photos of Hell. As it turns out, Hell is a dusty Victorian with vintage drapes and canopy beds. I wasn’t sure whether she was there on assignment, or permanently.”
“Well, you have to include that,” he says, and we get up.
(David Kruger, second-year poet)
I walk through a parking lot, down a flight of outside stairs and into an old brick building where I teach what is essentially Basket Weaving 101, but instead of palm fronds and twigs, I talk as vaguely as possible about metaphors.
Today I say things like: student A, you need more flesh and muscle for that prostitute in your car, and Student B, the statue of David you encounter during your trip to Florence might be thought of as symbolic of the patriarchy and therefore of the trials you and your gal-pals endure. Student C’s story is about the big game, and so I simply point to Plot Mountain on the board and suggest that stakes, when raised, are like little plateaus for the reader to climb and consider.
Toward the end of all of this, I really have to pee.
(Mallory Hellman, second-year fiction)
4:07 pm – I’m late to pick everyone up, and I’m the one leading our lesson today. When I pull up to Dey House, all four of my fellow Youth Writing Project volunteers are assembled on a snowbank waiting for me. One holds a bag full of construction paper. Another shivers under a hat with long ear flaps. Troopers. They get in, and I gently disrespect the speed limit until we’ve reached Cedar Rapids.
4:45 pm – Our gang of ten is happy to see us, even though we didn’t come bearing snacks. We cluster three tables together in the classroom and hang up our laminated Writing Club sign.
5:15 pm – Teonie, who is eight, has written an ode to tacos and nachos. Most of it is a meditation on her two favorite foods’ similarities, concluding with a tenderly inflected, “Are you sisters?” This leads, naturally, to a heated debate about which foods are sisters, which are brothers, which might be cousins, and which aren’t related at all.
5:45 pm – Lasagna and calzones are parents to spaghetti. Pizza is a cousin, on the calzone side of course. Macaroni wants to be in the family but isn’t – it rolls with the hot dish instead. Peaches and plums go hand in hand, but mangoes and green peppers have never met. Avocados and pears hate it when they’re mistaken for sisters.
(Matthew Weiss, first-year fiction)
Taught Interpretation of Literature. Big old room. Clonking around in my shoes.
Talked about the etymology of the word symbol.
It originally meant two shards of a ceramic pot broken at the moment two parties made a deal. Later, you’d know things were legit if the two pot shards fit back together.
Hence Plato’s: man is a symbol of himself, looking for his other half.
Also, a symbol could mean: a chance meeting, a receipt, a watchword, or a Pythagorean cult password.
For example, the Pythagoreans would recognize a brother by muttering things like, “What is the sea?” and getting back, “The tear of Kronos!”
Lost track of time. Possibly I showed the kids a clip from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I claimed was “symbolic.”
They’d never heard of 2001: A Space Odyssey before.
(Patrick Connelly, first-year fiction)
There is a girl in the hall where I teach rhetoric. She looks like she is about eighteen, nineteen years old. I always see her. She is hunched in an electric wheelchair with her wrists and her neck bent and her chin down. She isn’t quadriplegic; I have seen her hands and fingers move. I think she has a neuromuscular disease. Her body is small. She is sitting against the wall, alongside the other kids, waiting for the classrooms to empty. To be honest, I try not to think about her beyond the end of the hall (outside, at Prairie Lights Café, at the gym, at home, and then at a party after a poetry reading), but I can’t help it. Today is different. When I pass her, she is playing Bejeweled on her iPad Mini, swapping the colors around the screen with her finger; she is bored.
In class, I ask for a show of hands. Who’s read To Kill a Mockingbird? I get up and talk about empathy. You can never really understand a person until you climb into her skin and walk around in it. You can’t understand a controversy or advocate for a proper solution until you’re able to consider things from other people’s point of view.
Is simply being aware of something or someone any good? Because I probably won’t ever talk to this girl in the hall. I will only write about her.
I should ask my students what they think.
(Misty Woodford, third-year poet)
On the way home from teaching, I’m thinking about trochees, and this happens: “GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum/GUTzon/BORglum” – by now I’m stomping out the rhythm as I walk – and I don’t realize I’m also saying this out loud until I near my apartment building, and see a figure freeze up on the lawn. It’s the guy who lives in the basement and I’ve scared him this time. I start to walk normally, more pyrrhic, I guess, and say, “Hello!”
He says “Hi” and attends to his cigarette. Dinner is multiple cups of tea and the hope that chamomile and valerian work tonight.
(Thomas Corcoran, second-year fiction)
After rereading the last day’s work, I begin the current day’s session, writing on a 1971 Olympia SM-9 typewriter with a 12-point font similar to Garamond. Typewriters are useful when the desire is more to make daily advances on a draft than to polish the prose. Before being written, sentences are usually imagined but not too precisely; and except for the occasional “xxxx” (over which I always feel a pang), corrections are simply too hard to make in great number. As with writing generally the challenge is to convert insights that might have limitless depth but no duration into sentences that are stretched out in length but constrained by their gathered energy, like ocean waves striking the shore. After a lot of practice the prose is reasonably good in this format anyway. The rhythm of the typing helps. What may still be needed are selection, precision, and courage.
(Dini Parayitam, second-year fiction)
…This place is about vulnerability. Every second of it is a lie you tell yourself. “I belong here. I am happy here. I am happiest here among people like me.” Really you are very hyper-conscious of the fact that you aren’t actually happy here. Being with so many people who do these things that you love better than you makes you question why you are worthy of doing it at all in the first place.
This is what Iowa Writers’ Workshop teaches you:
1. The wish to write a good story is fake.
2. The will to write a good story cannot be trusted.
3. The insecurity you feel when you are done is normal.
4. The insanity of the writer is a very real thing.
(Andy Axel, first-year poet)
“Observatory Log: 13 February 2014 Iowa City”
1 discreet tree relief
10 a whole class chanting what sounds like “TOGA” with increasing speed
11 dough-faced boy in american flag vest with cup not actually from starbucks
12 prime view of the capitol from the waiting room
1 the word “widowed” on a dropdown menu
2 when I see more than three robins in the same place I start to get suspicious
3 I check to see whether I’m wearing a sweater
5 child ode to cat:
“Feliz: you are not like a garbage can.
You are like a light when you surprise me.
Do you speak Spanish?”
6 when I enter the Dey House it smells like ink and xmas
7 my view field’s all baldspot
11 dogs express interest in the terrible smell of my boots
12 enough of weather
(Jake Andrews, first-year fiction)
After lunch, I sat down to write. The main character’s girlfriend had just walked into his room and told him some good news. He recollects: “Had I ever thought about sex as a way to celebrate academic achievement?” (I, the author, certainly have; Daniel was a bit more surprised.) The story had taken a turn I wasn’t expecting, and I was stuck. So I started cleaning up my desktop (the one on my computer, not the one on which the computer usually sits, though it wasn’t there on this day in any case; I was sitting in a chair in the living room because – to re-emphasize the solitude that prompts reflection – my wife was out).
I stumbled on a collection of photos that my step-mom had put together for my dad’s funeral back in December. I had downloaded them and forgotten about the folder.
Two photos in particular jumped out at me. In the first one, my dad has me on his shoulders. I can’t be two months old. (My mother remembers taking this picture and being horrified.) My head peeks out above his hair, and his hands hold me in place. My pudgy feet are almost to his chin. In spite of the 1970s glasses, he looks remarkably like my middle brother, mainly because he is skinnier than he was in later life. He’s smiling like a kid – he would’ve been 20 – and looking at the camera. I’m gazing off to the left, my hands gripping his hair, my face – wide cheeks and a small chin – looking remarkably like my own son’s the day we removed him from life support.
In the second photo, my dad isn’t looking at the camera, but he’s still smiling. He’s on all fours, and I’m crawling between his arms, probably just over six months old. My left hand is raised, reaching for a balloon. If you look close enough, you can see that he’s holding it for me. My straight blond hair has lost the red hue from the earlier photo; like my nephew, I’ve got pudgy cheeks and pudgy fingers. I’m in motion. There’s a blur to my hand.
I don’t really know how long I looked at the photos in the folder. I didn’t write for a while after finding them. I made myself a cup of tea.
On readings and parties:
(Sean Zhuraw, second-year poet)
A friend, SE S, sees the stich of my saccades trailing the runaway cambus down Clinton Street, sees I’ve missed the bus.
She gives me a ride to the doctor.
My eyes are fine.
Try this when looking at something, she says, after looking at it, look away.
Take sanitary breaks, she says.
Take mind off.
There are layers among the distances, magnifications.
Her assistant returns to dilate my pupils.
When the doctor leans into my eye, she says, don’t look at the light; keep focus past it.
I buy a few Valentines.
I live in a small town, so on the way home I stop by JM’s house, open her door, sneak into her kitchen, stuff a rabbit down the back of her shirt.
It says, Ears Hopping you’ll be mine.
I also make one Valentine from two.
They’re angels unless you mess with their halos – the TV’s ad.
Later, I catch myself eating a sandwich in a mirror. It is the only way I can see what my hands are on.
Ditto the poetry reading that night.
Language is an organ, he says, not just sensate but reciprocal too.
Q: Do the eyes rhyme with their host?
A: I don’t know. I keep checking to see if it’s changed.
(Laura Ferris, first-year poet)
Now that my schedule for the day has played out, I feel less certain of how I spent my time. Tomorrow I know I am going to the library to do more research for my historical-ish surrealist-adjacent poem, spending hours at a microfilm scanner. I consider going out because I’m supposed to be writing about my day, but ultimately decide I don’t care enough about making the day seem like anything.
I watch more episodes of Sailor Moon with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, think about to what extent I care about Valentine’s Day. I want to say that I usually do more, write more, than this. Today, though, I’m spent, uninspired, and a little lonely – and unable to go out.
(Will Jameson, first-year poet)
Anthony and Elyse and Jordan and I are drinking gin and tonics. Elyse doesn’t have a lime but she has a lemon. We finished the pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Falbo’s we’d ordered which was a circle cut into squares. Jordan is playing Drake on his computer and Anthony is drawing a grid in his notebook that plots where our poetics stand in relation to each other. It looks like a sketch of Orion without the helpful lines drawn in between to illuminate the figure. Elyse reads aloud some Norman Dubie. Anthony reads aloud some James Tate. Then we keep talking about ourselves.
(D.R. Simonds, second-year poet)
“The Willow Tree on the West Bank, Iowa River”
For Emma Woodhouse
Near the “Train Only” bridge we footbridge, you burn
willow branches two at a time, saying
you know I know
how to respond
in a heartbreaking situation, (having broken
hearts before), spine-burn
running thru your hands, but the other
white-hot willows nearby
I am never showing you, my first impulse for our survival
I can’t never show you.
(Jerika Marchan, second-year poet)
I want to be original and smart. I want to not feel guilty about eating half a chocolate bar for breakfast. I don’t eat microwave dinners. I want to delude myself into health. I listen to this interview on Iowa Public Radio because I feel like I can participate and because the conversation is smart. People feel strongly about things and I can, too. I Can Too.
I go downstairs and make a bean burrito. The door to the house is usually left unlocked, and as I’m guiltily overstuffing my burrito, someone busts in to tuck in the tag hanging out of my dress and leave me a Valentine. I scream for a long time.
Jessie gets home and asks if I wanna go to Meredith’s for pad thai and sake. Yes get me out of this house, I’m full of burrito. (I will eat only bunny-amounts of pad thai is what I tell myself.) Pad thai happens in a sake-induced fog. (Meredith googles “what’s in sake bombs?”) Meredith and I successfully open a very-difficult-to-open jar of organic coconut oil. I bust my ass trying to sit on what I thought was a chair but really was a cookie sheet resting on a chair, and I fall to the ground. It’s kinda nice. (Is that weird?) I haven’t fallen on my ass in a while. It’s nice to know what it feels like from time to time.
Jessie and I tell Mere about my ongoing boob-angst, and she looks at me for a quick second before deciding that I’m at least a D-cup.
(Rachel Milligan, second-year poet)
I wake up at noon, spend the day reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets on the couch, lighting three candles, blowing them out, and then lighting them again. I have a glass of wine before the Richard Kenney and Carol Light reading. My night concludes with one of my best friends scream-singing at me, perched on top of the refrigerator.
(Cassidy McFadzean, first-year poet)
After dinner, we walk to Dey House for Richard Kenney’s reading. Nathan slips on the ice outside our apartment, but he doesn’t see the blood on his hand until he leaves a mark on the door of the workshop. He wipes it off. We sit with Will, with Connor in front of us. The three of us were in Rick’s workshop last semester, and I see the other seven students scattered around the room. Rick refuses the microphone and reads a mix of riddles, charms, and pun-filled haikus, occasionally stepping out from behind the podium to address us, bringing his words closer to our ears.
The after party’s at Will’s and I make him show me the group pictures he took of our class last semester. I feel nostalgic. I eat pita chips and hummus and talk with Connor and Nikki about the classes we’re teaching. I talk with Winter about the buttons on the sleeves of her dress. I talk with Clare about how amazing Hy-Vee is, though she does not share my sentiments. I talk with Chad about Canadian poets, and Petro about Trailer Park Boys.
Every party proceeds the same: the bass gets turned up, the lights get dimmed down. Someone plays Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” We talk about how every party ends this way. It’s around midnight, and some of us leave, and some of us stay.
Image Credit: J.Y. “Warmer is not warm.”
I kind of hate to say this, but the very best book I read this year was Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s cliche, and he doesn’t need the boost. I read a number of smaller press books, some of which were excellent. Bluets by Maggie Nelson in particular springs to mind. But still, I really think Freedom is a masterpiece. I read it as an advance copy, so I had the fortune to read it when there was hype, but not as much hype as there became.
I will say this, it was not my best year for reading. It was a year where I read a lot of really good books but almost no great books. Last year I read three books I would consider better than Freedom, though only one of them was a novel, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. It took me six months to read 2666. In the meantime, I also read We Did Porn by Zak Smith, which was also a better book, as was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. But that was last year, and that’s not what this is about.
But I don’t care. I want to talk about something else. You know what’s a great novel? Lush Life by Richard Price. That’s from my 2008 list (I keep a list of every book I read). Also, in 2008, I read the novella Ray by Barry Hannah. Are you kidding? You want to talk about great literature, you have to read Ray before you can even have the conversation. And those two books weren’t even the best books I read in 2008. Because in 2008, I read the absurdly underrated Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, which impacts the way I think about creative non-fiction still to this day.
And then in 2007, I read Stoner, which would probably top the list of “Best Books I’ve Read In The Last Four Years.” 2007 was a glorious year for reading. Sylvia by Leonard Michaels, Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer, The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart.
I’m not even going to get into 2006. I’d start to cry.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
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Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (there are passages in this book that I love as much as anything Baker has ever written–which is saying something)
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest (I reread this book seemingly monthly, attempting–futilely–to figure out how he managed this brief, perfect magic trick.)
Joe Brainard, I Remember (I’m very late to the party on this book, but it’s an extraordinary assemblage of seemingly unconnected–in fact, profoundly interconnected–sentences)
Albert Camus, The Fall (see The Mystery Guest)
Robert Clark, The Angel of Doubt (an as yet unpublished manuscript; a gorgeously written, deeply felt, and relentlessly smart sequence of intereconnected essays about religion, art, and sex, not necessarily in that order)
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave (see The Mystery Guest)
John D’Agata, About a Mountain (a beautiful embodiment of what is to me a
central principle of great nonfiction: it’s not remotely about what it purports to be about)
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate (see The Mystery Guest)
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries (4 volumes of diaries; read together, they dwarf his plays and are commensurate, I swear to god, with Proust)
Spalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night (see The Mystery Guest)
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street (very late to the party on Kirby, too; I love his work; “poetry as well-written as prose,” as good ole Ez said)
Phillip Lopate, Notes on Sontag (I disagree with Lopate’s assessment–in my view, too generous–but I love the book)
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (one of the least sentimental and most deeply emotional books I’ve ever read)
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain (see above)
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (utterly brilliant)
Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour (the screenplay; the best book she ever wrote)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (where it all started and ended)