Sunday morning. August 30, 2015.
I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.
I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.---Doctor Writer-Writer Doctor Oliver Sacks.
This is the only way I am at all like Oliver Sacks as a writer:
I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…
But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
I started late. Nineteen. But it took me a few years to really get going. I haven’t filled close to a thousand notebooks. But it’s up into the hundreds. I keep them in clear plastic storage boxes so I can look at them anytime. But I don’t just look. I read them. What’s more, I make use of them. A lot of what goes onto the blog comes out of the pages of notebooks. This post you’re reading right now, for instance. Point is, he kept journals, I fill notebooks, and that’s about the size of it. Where our alikeness ends. I’m what I am. He’s Oliver Sacks.
Was Oliver Sacks.
He told us he was going, back in February, but I didn’t believe him. We need people like him to live forever. I thought he knew that.
A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.
Last spring, one of my students was pre-med and during an editorial conference we got to talking about writing in general and doctors as writers in particular. She wanted to improve her own writing, but she also wanted to read about her chosen field written by people who didn’t drain all the life, interest, excitement, and joy out of it. I told her there’s a tradition of doctors who were good writers or, if you wanted to look at it the other way, good writers who happened to be doctors. She was surprised. Everything she’d ever read written by people in the medical profession was dry and dull, textbook-ese even when it wasn’t a textbook. I listed a few doctor writers (or writer doctors), starting with Sacks. Could have ended with Sacks. A summer spent reading all his books---assuming she could fit them all in---would have been all she needed to learn what she wanted to learn.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
I have Sacks’ book of essays An Anthropologist on Mars and some of his online writing on the syllabus for my course this fall, Public Intellectuals in the Digital Commons. I was planning to use his online chronicling of the coming end of his life and lesson in what can be done in writing for a virtual audience and how to write well about esoteric subjects and abstruse ideas, that is, for lessons my student was looking for for herself when she and I talked about doctors writing and writers doctoring. I think I’ll leave him on it.
There’s still so much left for him to tell us and I think my students will appreciate the lessons:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
The quote at the end and the one in the middle are from Sack’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he told us he was dying, My Own Life. The quotes on writing from Sacks are from an appreciative post by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality. Even though the class ended months ago, I put the link up on our Facebook group page in hopes my student will see it. I hope you’ll see it too.
On the front porch. 9:30 PM. May 7, 2015.
Just read a story by the late Fred Busch. "Timberline”. Story itself is ok but the portrait of the narrator’s good-natured father broke my heart.
That's the way it often is with Fred's stories and novels. The work as a whole will be ok, but along'll come a character or a scene...
...or a passage that breaks your heart. Except Rounds. That one broke my heart from start to finish.
Fred was also good on scenery and the weather. He loved Hemingway but wasn't much like him as a man or a writer except in one way...
Fred could tell you how the weather was in a way that made you feel it. And that's what Hemingway said you had to get right if you’re really a writer.
Fred was also good on marital sex. He made husbands and wives sexy.
There's a scene of outdoor lovemaking in Rounds that’s so sensual, so erotic, so dirty in the way Woody Allen says sex is if you do it right that…
…it made a grad student I used to know start looking forward to a life of monogamy.
Fred's gone, sadly. Died in 2006. Just keeled over. I can't say we were friends.
We met when I was at Iowa and he came to town to read...
He was kind and friendly and encouraging. And he did for me what Andy Griffith tells Jeff Bridges in Hearts of the West you aren't a writer until...
...another writer does for you. Calls you a writer. Fred called me a writer.
We kept in touch sporadically over the years, but we hadn't heard from each other in a while when he died.
So he didn't know about the blog. I wonder what he'd have thought of it. Wonder if he'd have still called me a writer.
If I was a writer that’s what I’d go do now, be a writer and write. But that’s not what I think I’ll go do.
I think I'll go read another of his stories. Have my heart broken again, feel how the weather was someplace.
Adapted from my Twitter feed.
Here’s Fred writing about Hemingway in the New York Times in 1992: Reading Hemingway Without Guilt. This was revised and retitled “Hemingway’s Sentence” for Fred’s collection of essays on the writers and writing, A Dangerous Profession, which is available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
From NPR's pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes:
Sometimes, screaming at yourself to write is like screaming at a bird to land on you. You're exhausting yourself AND making it worse.— Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) April 14, 2015
Following up on a post the other day, The most romantic writer I know and the sexiest train ride of my life, reading a lot of fiction does mean reading a lot about love and sex, along with money and death. But reading the fiction I’ve been reading has meant reading a lot about the weather, which is fine---Hemingway liked to say it was important for a writer to get right how the weather was, and that’s something he always got right---and reading a lot of descriptions of landscapes. Jim Harrison, Peter Heller, and Thomas McGuane particularly are all very good weathermen and geographers. McGuane’s the best of the three on both counts, I think. He doesn’t just get the weather and the lay of the land right and put you in it. He puts it in his characters’ heads and then puts his characters’ heads---and hearts---out into it. The weather and landscape aren’t only settings. They’re exposition. And that’s a reason for calling him the most romantic writer I know beyond the coincidental association with my own romantic adventures. Like the Romantic poets, he’s a practitioner of the misnamed and maligned pathetic fallacy. Here’s the opening of one of the stories in his new book, Crow Fair, “A Long View to the West”:
The wind funneled down the river valley between the two mountain ranges, picking up speed where the interstate hit its first long straightaway in thirty miles. Clay’s car lot was right on the frontage road, where land was cheap and the wind made its uninterrupted rush whatever the season of the year. Before the winter had quite arrived to thicken his blood, while the cattle trucks were still throwing up whirlwinds of cottonwood leaves, the wait between customers seemed endless. He couldn’t even listen to the radio anymore. In the snowy dead of winter it was easier somehow. Now, face close to the window, and one hand leaning against the recycled acoustic tile that lined the walls, he stared down at the roofs and hoods of used vehicles in search of a human form.
Like I said, a romantic. Or a Romantic.
In case you want to read the rest of the story this morning and can’t rush right out to the bookstore, Crow Fair is available for kindle at Amazon. If you’re more patient, you can order it in hardcover.
Poor Ken Mannion’s struggling with the essay he has to write for his 19th Century British Literature class. The topic’s Wordsworth’s “spots of time” as they appear in “The Prelude.” He doesn’t have to focus on the whole poem. Just on Book XI.
Ken’s enjoying the course and likes the professor. The essay, however, has him filled with self-doubt and confusion. He asked me to give him some advice, so I took a look over the assignment. My heart sank. The professor’s very exacting. He’s given his students a long list of Do’s and Don’ts, Musts and Must Nots. I understand what he’s trying to do and I applaud his goal. He’s teaching his students how to think and write critically, how to develop a thesis and argue from evidence, and if he’s successful they’ll have learned lessons that will be useful not just in all their future classes but in their future careers. This is good.
But he’s not teaching them to love poetry. Not with this assignment. There’s nothing in the assignment that even suggests poetry is meant to be loved, can be loved. There’s nothing to make them love this poem or love Wordsworth. (Actually, I don’t think you can love “The Prelude” unless you already love Wordsworth.) There’s no need to love him or it or anything to ace the paper. You just need to know stuff. And when they’re done, if they do it right, they’ll know stuff about Romanticism. They’ll know what marks Wordsworth as a Romantic, the Romantics’ Romantic, in fact. They’ll know his themes, his techniques, his conceits. They’ll know what he meant by “spots of time” and why he felt they were so important that he built a fourteen book epic poem around them. But Book XI contains one of Wordsworth’s most famous set of lines---
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven...
That’s evidence to argue from right there. It needs to be in the essay and I told that to Ken when I recited the lines for him. But there’s nothing in the assignment that tells you that those lines are meant to be recited. There’s nothing that makes you want to recite them. Nothing about the assignment that will stamp those lines on your heart in a way that you’ll remember twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now so that they’ll come bursting out of you spontaneously, rapturously, lovingly, for no reason you can explain except that you needed to hear yourself say them. You like the sound of them that much. And that’s the problem.
You can understand the themes, know the history, be able to put it all in a critical, literary, and biographical context, but if you never really hear it, if you don’t know and love the sound of it, you’ve missed the point.
You’ve missed the poetry.
I don’t know what if any good I’ve ever done as a teacher. I suspect not much. That’s why I take comfort in what Wendell Berry’s said about there being “no teacher meter”:
A teacher’s major contribution [Berry writes] may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student’s grandchild.
Now that I think about it---and I’d rather not think about it---my first group of students is old enough now that a few of them probably are grandparents. It’s still maybe twenty years down the line, but when these grandchildren start popping up regularly in my classes I’ll know it’s time for me to shuffle off the stage.
There’s at least one good thing I like to think I did do.
I saved a marriage.
Not on my own.
Me and Wordsworth.
There was a young married couple in one of the freshman comp classes I taught in Indiana when I was just out of grad school. They’d met in Korea when he was in the Army and stationed over there. They’d fallen in love despite their cultural differences, which didn’t include the one you’d expect, that she was Korean and he was a Hoosier and about as Midwestern an American as you can find, and did include one you might not expect---I didn’t, at any rate. She loved English poetry, the Romantics particularly and Wordsworth especially, and he…didn’t.
He didn’t get it. Any of it.
Wordsworth might as well have been writing in Korean as far as he understood a line of what he wrote.
It happened that I’d turned those comp classes into Intro to Poetry classes (The department chair let me get away with this.) so we were reading some Wordsworth. Not “The Prelude”! “Daffodils,” couple of sonnets, including one I’m going to get to. She was thrilled. He was in despair. It wasn’t that he was worried about flunking the class. He was scared he was flunking his marriage. She struck me as already pretty well Americanized, but she wanted to become even more American so that she could get a degree in English Literature and become a teacher herself. I don’t remember if she wrote poetry, but it seems likely. But her main ambition wasn’t to be a poet but to help students to love poetry as much as she did. And it hurt him that there was this whole important side of her that he couldn’t talk about with her. He felt left out. He felt left behind. He wasn’t angry about this or resentful. Just sad. He felt sad for her. Sad she was stuck with him. Sad at that thought that it would eventually dawn on her she didn’t have to stay stuck with him.
This wasn’t something I knew from watching them in class. To see them together was to see a very happy couple. And I don’t think they were pretending. They were in love. But they both told me about it separately, she before and he after. In her telling, it wasn’t a major problem, just a bit of a disappointment. She loved poetry and she wished he did too so she could share her enjoyment with him. In his version, it was looking like the end of all their happiness, until…
By the way, neither one came to me to confess anything. They’d both showed up at different times during my office hours to talk about their rough drafts for different assignments and things just came out. I can’t remember for certain which assignments. I had my students write a standard critical essay, although I wasn’t anywhere near as exacting as Ken’s professor, but I also had them write a personal essay about a poem, any poem, their pick, from our anthology in which they found parallels with their own lives or from which they could draw lessons that applied to their own experiences. This is anathema among many English professors because it was essentially assigning them to pick a poem they liked and tell why they liked it, guaranteeing, supposedly, that the most critically exact phrase put to work in every essay will be “I could relate to this.” Probably she came in to discuss the personal essay and he dropped by to go over the draft for the critical essay because that’s the order I assigned them. I know she wrote about Wordsworth. I don’t think he did. But we talked about him.
We talked about him because they’d talked about him.
They’d talked about him because, to his surprise, he could talk about him.
It was thanks to me, he said. Well, thanks to my class. Something I’d said, something that got said, something we read, had caused a switch to flip in his head. Suddenly he understood poetry.
He wasn’t claiming anything like a critical appreciation. He simply meant that when he heard a poem he heard it as ordinary spoken English and not a foreign language he needed somebody to translate for him. And when he said he heard a poem he also meant when he read a poem because now when he read one he heard it in his head. He heard a human being talking. He wasn’t always sure what that human being was trying to say, but he understood there was something being said and that he could understand it the way he could understand anything anybody said if it was said well and he thought about it. He could follow the conversation. So he and his wife had spent an evening talking about what the poets in our textbook were talking about. Which is another way of saying they’d spent an evening together talking.
And on top of that, he now had a poem by Wordsworth that he loved.
It was one I’d read in class. We read all the poems we discussed out loud. Usually I had students read them. I wanted them to hear the poems as spoken words but I also wanted them to hear their own voices. I wanted them to hear and feel themselves speaking in poetry. I wanted them to feel the poems belonged to them. But now and then I’d take over to show them how it was done and because I wanted to hog a poem I loved.
So that’s how Wordsworth and I saved a marriage. I don’t know if we saved it forever. Life doesn’t work out neatly that way. I hope they’ve been busily and happily saving their marriage for themselves again and again the way couples have to do over the course of time. I lost touch with them after I left Indiana for Syracuse. But I like to think that they’ve been talking about poetry and many other things ever since and I like to imagine that for their twenty-fifth anniversary they traveled to England and took a tour of the Lake District where Wordsworth lived. I like to imagine her delight as she showed him around Dove Cottage and I like to imagine his delight at her delight. And of course I like to imagine one of them saying to the other, “Remember that instructor we had back in college? What was his name? Manning? Meehan? I wonder what became of him.”
By the way, that poem I read? I didn’t read it. I recited it. I had it memorized. I still do. Most of it, anyway. It’s not the only poem by Wordsworth you should read, but it is the only one you need to understand him and his spots of time and his fellow Romantics.
Here it is.
Make sure you read it out loud.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln in Lincoln was transcendent to a level that no actor, not even one as good as David Oyelowo, playing any character, never mind an historical one, should be expected to match. In fact, I only bring it up because I think Selma’s screenplay was modeled on Lincoln’s and Day-Lewis had some advantages to work with Oyelowo didn’t, mainly due to the scripts they were handed, but starting with the effect of time on the images of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Over the past 150 years, Lincoln has become both more forgotten and better remembered. He’s better known and yet a stranger. Not only is there no one alive who remembers what he was really like. There’s no one alive who can remember anyone who was alive to remember what he was like. But a century and a half’s worth of memoirs, biographies, handed down stories and anecdotes, movies, plays, and television portrayals have combined to create a collective memory of the man. The real Lincoln is a mystery, but the essentially invented Lincoln is as familiar to most Americans and many non-Americans as an old friend. People just feel they know him or at least have a good sense of what he might have been like. And that gave Day-Lewis a solid character to play and play with and play against. And it gave Lincoln’s screenwriter Tony Kushner a character to write for.
Martin Luther King, though, is still well-known in the same way he was known when he was alive: as a public figure. Most people’s sense of what he was really like comes from what they’ve seen on television and read in newspapers, magazines, and grade school and high school history textbooks. They know him as a great orator, as a charismatic political leader, as a secular saint, which is to say, they know him as a distant figure way up there at the head of a crowd. There are many people alive who knew him intimately and could tell us what it was like to be in his company in private moments but many of them are still reticence, worried about preserving his public image, and the recollections of the others haven’t spread into the collective consciousness yet. This gave Oyelowo a too well-defined outer man whose appearance, gestures, expressions, and voice he had to match and very little inner man to re-create. He had to invent the private man and in that he faced the problem of having to do that without violating King’s public memory. Playing the outer man was a simple matter of impersonation. Playing the inner man required tact, discretion, indirection, and reserve. Day-Lewis could play it up. Oyelowo had to play it way, way down.
His challenge was compounded by his not having the lines to say. This was because Selma’s screenwriter Paul Webb had the same problem as Oyelowo in having to portray Martin Luther King without violating King’s public memory but also because he didn’t have the lines to give him. Kushner handled it brilliantly and beautifully but he had something to work with Webb didn’t, his main character’s own words.
Lincoln wasn’t just one of the two best writers who’ve been President---the other being Thomas Jefferson---he’s one of the great writers of American prose. King was a great writer in his own way, but mainly a great writer of speeches. Of course Lincoln was a speech writer too and his writing is mainly known by his speeches. But his style was more idiosyncratic and idiomatic. He was a politician and a lawyer. He crafted his speeches and his public writings with individuals as his audience in mind, individual voters, individual members of a jury. King was a preacher. Most of his writings and speeches are essentially sermons. He was always trying to stir the collective hearts of a crowd or at least the congregation. He was also the leader of a mass political movement and again he was trying to reach and move a crowd. That requires a different, more impersonal rhetorical approach. You can get a sense of what Lincoln might have sounded like when he talked to people one on one to a degree you can’t with King. That makes Lincoln easier to mimic. King’s private speech---and again, this is a consequence of the reticence of people who did talk with him in private---has to be wholly invented and that posed a risk Webb couldn’t take, not for a movie like Selma. It wouldn’t have been right to have played it too safe, but he had to be extra careful. And even if Webb hadn’t had to worry about not offending anyone it’s difficult to make any character sound like a real person talking. The upshot, though, is Kushner had both more material and a freer hand and that gave Day-Lewis more to work with. Day-Lewis had things to say. Oyelowo mostly had things to get across. Pretty much he had to move from speech to speech with interspersed with passages of exposition which were essentially short speeches themselves. He couldn’t talk like Martin Luther King because his King didn’t talk. He orated.
And this is why his portrayal of King was most persuasive and most moving for me when he was silent.
It was the pensive look in his eyes.
You can see it best in the photographs of King. There’s a sadness, a faraway-ness to him that showed up in many of his most glorious moments. He often appears to be somewhere else and that somewhere else is a dark and troublesome place for him. It’s as if he isn’t looking out from the mountaintop at the Promised Land, or even at the still long and difficult trek across the desert ahead, but back at the way he’s come and he’s seeing all his own missteps, hesitations, and changes of direction that took people out of their way instead of leading them forward. It’s the look of a man who knows he’s not the saint people think he is and that he believes he needs to be. It’s the look of someone who is growing increasingly burdened by his role and his mission and who is beginning to look forward to its end.
It’s been said that towards the end King seemed to be developing a death wish. I don’t know. I suspect nobody does for sure. I suspect not even Coretta Scott King knew although she worried about it. But I believe he saw what was coming and while he dreaded it and prayed for that cup to pass from his lip he was trying to resign himself to it.
I call it his Agony in the Garden look and I see him not yet at the point of being able to say, “Not as I will but as thou wilt.”
Oyelowo captures that look perfectly and I think that’s what lifts his performance far above the level of simple impersonation.
I’ve had Robert Stone’s last novel in my stack of To Be Read books for months. Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I was saving it for a special occasion, that is, for a time when I had nothing distracting on my agenda and I could just give a day or two to reading it for the plain fun of reading a book by a favorite author. I’d say that author’s death counts as a special occasion.
Unless he had one in his drawer or on his computer, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is Stone’s last novel as in his final novel. He died yesterday.
When I went off to Iowa for grad school, I carried in my head four writers I was planning to model my own writing on. Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Paul Theroux, and Robert Stone. This was naive and laughably self-unaware of me. All four were travelers and their fiction drew from their experiences traveling. I had not traveled. I was not likely to travel. Driving to Iowa was my greatest road adventure to date and it still is. I had some half-baked idea that I would travel. I thought I’d take my first advance from a publisher and hit the road or take to the sea. I’d spend some time in Paris or Bangkok or Key West. But I’m not a traveler. I’m an observer. You don’t need to roam far to find interesting things and people to observe. In fact, it’s better you don’t roam or don’t roam far. It’s best to observe a single place up close and again and again and really get to know it. In all the moving about and in the jumble of impressions that traveling entails, you’re bound to miss things. Conrad, for instance, missed women. Greene, generally, missed people’s ability to be happy with their lots and enjoy what they have. Theroux, as far as I’ve been able to catch him at it, misses nothing, which is why he’s still my favorite of the three who aren’t Conrad. Stone probably missed a few things but he didn’t write enough for me to be sure. In the books he did write and I’ve read, he seems to have taken at lot in. So far, thirty pages into Death of the Black-Haired Girl it feels as though he’s trying to pack in everything he didn’t get into his previous books. He’s an efficient packer. But like I was saying, I’m not a traveler, I’m an observer, a very keen-eyed observer, to be honest, which is why it makes sense that the observers Dickens and Chekhov quickly grew more important to me than those four travelers and why my failure to become a novelist is a loss to literature. I didn’t leave Iowa with a publisher’s advance, but I did leave with a grant, which I used to travel to Indiana not India. Never mind. I arrived in Iowa with the drafts of several stories that showed the influences of all four but mainly that, I would have claimed at that time, of Stone. One of the stories was about a beautiful young American living in Barcelona where she’s waiting for her lover, whom she met and fell in love with while teaching English in Poland, to be granted an exit visa. She’s working at an import-export business run by a couple of Polish émigrés who in some way I had yet to work out had attracted the hostile attention of Basque separatists. Basque separatists were blowing up things all over Spain at the time. The story ended unhappily, of course. I could have called it “The Death of the Chestnut-Haired Girl”. Except that my heroine didn’t die. She was presumed dead and in an act of author contrived irony lost her lover who went off to America without her where he got over his grief in a hurry and married a Polish girl his aunt and uncle introduced him to in Cleveland. The story was based on the experiences of a friend who had taught in Poland and had lived for a while in Spain while she waited for her fiancé to get permission to emigrate. There were no Basque separatists in her life and her story ended happily in that she and her fiancé reunited, got married, moved to the United States, and had my goddaughter who is now grown and married herself. I never turned the story in to be workshopped. I’m not sure why. There are many reasons I failed to become a novelist, one of which is my taking my grant money to Indiana, but I think a big reason is that I lost the manuscript of that story. Another is I never wrote another story like it.
Anyway, before I move on to Death of the Black-Haired Girl: one other thing Conrad, Greene, Theroux, and Stone have in common is they’re Catholics. So maybe I wasn’t completely foolish to think I had an affinity with them.
I took a break from writing this to read some more of Death of the Black-Haired Girl. I’m now sixty pages in. I was right. Stone is packing it all in. Practically every paragraph is a sketch or an anecdote that could stand on its own without needing a novel around it to make sense and have an effect. This makes for some start and stop reading. But I’m enjoying that. There’s a rhythm to it that feels like the purposeful paddling of a canoe. A push and a glide. A push and a glide. Each increment of motion a trip in itself but also giving a satisfying sense of adding up, of getting you somewhere.
The story’s set at a midsized, moderately prestigious private liberal arts college in a New England factory town undergoing a fitful recovery. The town’s in the middle of an unhappy transition from struggling-to-get-by blue collar to riding the wave of the information economy white collar. At the moment, though, both blue collar and white collar workers seem lost in the crowds of the dislocated and dispossessed. The college is an island of stability, culture, and relative prosperity. Which makes it a target for blue collar resentment, an attraction to white collar strivers, and a refuge for the dislocated and dispossessed.
Stone wasn’t an academic. He taught at various places but he was always there on a visit. He sees college life from the outside and one thing that’s clear from that viewpoint is that college campuses aren’t little mini-societies and subcultures unto themselves. They aren’t outposts of progress, they are ports. They are places where people from many different subcultures and mini-societies meet, collide, and conflict, while trying to recreate home or make new homes. Where immigrants outnumber natives. Where many residents think of themselves as just passing through even though they’ve lived there for many years and have built lives there. Two of the main characters introduced so far are passing through. They’re students who have left complicated and unhappy pasts behind but, because they are bright and talented and resourceful and lucky (in different ways), are already on the way into their own better futures somewhere else. The other two, an ex-nun turned CSW and a Robert Stone-like writer with a tenured position as a professor of literature are, in the case of the nun, reconciling herself to the fact she is probably there to stay and happy to do so or at least not that unhappy about the prospect, and, in the case of the writer-professor, avoiding thinking about it by doing his best to enjoy the perks and pleasures of his job, the latter of which includes at the moment an affair with one of the students, and letting the future take care of itself. And Stone sees the college as a place with a peculiar geography and its own weather patterns, natural and psychic, and not as simply the setting for intimate dramas.
My categories of writers as travelers and observers aren’t mutually exclusive. Good travelers are good observers. Observers routinely travel. (Dickens did. Chekhov not as much.) Stone was a good traveler which means he was a good observer. Death of the Black-Haired Girl is observational and the observations strike me as exact. For instance, this is the view from my office window and the weather outside it when I left it at the beginning of December:
Still at the window, Brookman watched the quad. The only color was of the autumn-yellowed grass on the lawns; the sky matched the sidewalks and the Norman tower of New Chapel. There was a faint snow, salting a drizzle. It was slightly cheering because the month had been gray and wet, more chill than truly cold.
And I know this guy, but despite my own keen powers of observation I hadn’t seen him as well or thought about him with as much real sympathy:
The man Brookman watched was in his forties and had been around the college for a very long time. He lived in the small downtown condo his parents had bought for him. No backpacks for him; along with the plastic bags from Price Chopper and Target and 7-Eleven he carried a worn briefcase with a college sticker he had pasted on it more than twenty years before as a student. Sometimes he walked silently, eyes fixed on the pavement. Other times he carried on a dialogue with the unseen, an exchange that sounded so nuanced and literate that new students and faculty thought he was addressing them or talking into a cell phone. Occasionally he grew angry and shouted a bit, but like many of the delusional, he had learned not to confront real people who---downtown---could prove all too substantial.
Brookman stayed at the window to watch him. It was possible to picture this man sitting all night in the room his family had bought for him, and Brookman wondered if he was alone or accompanied through the small hours by the voices he heard. Whether he turned on the light or sat in the dark with them, whether they were visible to him or simply voices. What their identities were, how they treated him. Did they make him angry? Certainly he heard no good news from them.
Sometimes the man wandered into the college buildings and rode the elevators. Security never stopped him; no one bothered him. If he was in an elevator when someone got on, he would get off, even if he had just got on. If he was trapped in the elevator by a crowd, he began to act desperately sane, polishing his glasses with his handkerchief, nodding pleasantly at no one in particular, ignoring his voices. When he reached a floor he would race out, plainly agitated. Madness was hardly unknown in the college. There were others like this man, forever groping through the maze of alma mater.
Brookman saw that the man with the bags had reversed direction. The man was now walking as fast as he could, fleeing a noisy group of students excited by the powdering of snow. He was dull-eyed, chin down, jaw clenched. He didn’t like the snow on his fair balding skull, didn’t like the happy youths. In a moment he would turn again and walk back to his own voices. It was so much work to be crazy, Brookman thought.
Stone’s mother was schizophrenic, by the way. All writers, whether travelers or observers, are autobiographers.
Almost every year a kid was referred to the counseling office in whom Jo could detect the first sings of adolescent-onset schizophrenia. She was not qualified to work with its victims---there was a clinical psychologist at the center---but she knew the signs well enough. The too-wide smile, undercut by fear and wonder in the eyes, the futile attempted escapes into non sequitur, all the small signs of demeanor that signaled the beginning of the adventure. The descent of the innocent into half light, half life.
Took another break. A hundred and eight pages in now. Lives are spiraling out of control. A scary visitor has arrived in town. Two more are probably on their way. Ominous things have been said. A happy ending seems unlikely. Back to reading. I’m going to try to finish the novel before the Packers and Cowboys finish their game. But I’ll be checking in as I go. I have at least two posts in mind and maybe one of them will turn into a formal review.
If I didn’t already love Patton Oswalt, I’d love him for loving Strunk and White.
If you could require every American to read one book, what would it be?
“The Elements of Style.” Ugh, the typos I see, everywhere. The clunky syntax from supposedly smart people. Make my headaches go away, Strunk and White!
My students this spring are required to own The Elements of Style. They will be required to refer to it regularly. They will be required to make corrections and revisions based on Strunk and White’s precepts and prescriptions. They will have to sit still and smile and nod as I repeat over and over again: “Make the paragraph your unit of composition.” “Keep related words together.” “Omit needless words.”
I know there are plenty of people with a brief against Strunk and White. They have their points, most of which seem to me to boil down to “Who’s E.B.White to tell me how to write?” I try to be kind and understanding with such people and not say things like, “Talk to me when you’ve written your Charlotte’s Web or ‘Death of a Pig.’”
I’m tactful that way.
The fact is, when I set out to be a writer I didn’t set out to write prose. I planned to write plays and movies. The idea that I would ever have to write an expository sentence longer than “He reaches for her gun” struck me as so unlikely and unnecessary that I actually got into an argument with my comp professor in college who suggested that I had a talent for it and could be an even better prose writer if I tried a little harder.
Then a major metropolitan newspaper paid me a hundred and fifty bucks for some prose I wrote for her class and I got to thinking the prof might be onto something.
I took her advice and set to work trying harder by memorizing The Elements of Style and Essays of E.B. White.
Take that for what it’s worth.
The main thing here is that the quote above is from a Q and A Oswalt did for the New York Times Book Review’s By the Book column and you should read the whole column.
Oswalt is also a fan of The Great Brain series of books by John D. Fitzgerald, another reason to love him.
And he’s an author in his own right. He has a new book out: Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film.
By the way, I haven’t watched this season: have the writers of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. figured out the show needs a lot less Skye and much more Agent Koenig?
It was the last daylight hour of a December afternoon more than twenty years ago---I was twenty-three, writing and publishing my first short stories, and like many a Bildungsroman hero before me, already contemplating my own massive Bildungsroman---when I arrived at his hideaway to greet the great man. The clapboard farmhouse was at the end of an unpaved road twelve hundred feet up in the Berkshires, yet the figure who emerged from the study to bestow a ceremonious greeting wore a gabardine suit, a knitted blue tie clipped to a white shirt by an unadorned silver clasp, and well-brushed ministerial black shoes that made me think of him stepping down from a shoeshine stand rather than from the high altar of art. Before I had composure enough to notice the commanding, autocratic angle at which he held his chin, or the regal, meticulous, rather dainty care he took to arrange his clothes before sitting---to notice anything, really, other than that I had miraculously made it from my unliterary origins to here, to him---my impression was that E.I. Lonoff looked more like the local superintendent of schools than the region’s most original storyteller since Melville and Hawthorne.
---from the The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth.
Ike Zimmerman, the literary hero of Philip Friedman, the young novelist who’s the protagonist of the clever and darkly satirical (but seemingly deliberately unfunny) pseudo-documentary portrait of writers as bitter young and old men, Listen Up Philip, the best adaptation of a Philip Roth novel that Roth hasn’t written, doesn’t make as distinguished, dignified, and gentlemanly first impression as as E.I. Lonoff makes upon young Nathan Zuckerman in Roth’s The Ghost Writer. Ike is not meticulous about his dress or his manners. He’s rumpled, irritable, overbearing and demanding rather than commanding. Autocratic is both too harsh and too mild a word to describe his particular sort of domestic tyrant. And there’s no mistaking him for anything but a writer. But as soon as Ike invites Philip to come visit him at his house in the country, where a mysterious and alluring young woman awaits to capture Philip’s imagination, the parallels and allusions, and parallels and allusions within the parallels and allusions, are made clear.
The ghost writer, ghost writers, of Listen Up Philip are Roth and his many literary alter-egos whose spirits haunt the plot from beginning to end.
The game is given away graphically early on and throughout, in the lettering style of the credits and in the glimpses of the covers of some of Ike’s early books which recreate the covers of the novels Roth published in the 1970s that made him a bestselling novelist with a salacious reputation, The Breast, My Life as A Man, Our Gang, The Great American Novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, the paperback editions of which I bought when I was a kid deciding it was time for me to read what the grownups were reading. But you can’t name one of your novelist main characters Philip and the other a near-homophone to Zuckerman and then have them re-enact part of the plot of The Ghost Writer without bringing Philip Roth and his novels and characters into your movie about the trials and tribulations of the literary life in a significant and signifying way.
Philip (Jason Schwartzman) isn’t an exact stand-in for a young Philip Roth or even a young Nathan Zuckerman. He’s too unfocused, too undisciplined, and, I hope, too unlikeable. And if Ike (Jonathan Pryce) is an older version of Zuckerman, it depends on which Nathan Zuckerman you’re talking about.
But since all the Zuckermans are alter-egos for Philip Roth, except for the Zuckerman of My Life as a Man, who’s an alter-ego for that novel’s “author”, the writer Peter Tarnopol, but who is himself an alter-ego for Roth, it doesn’t matter which. At one, two, or three removes, Ike is a stand-in for Philip Roth.
But then that depends on which Philip Roth. Philip Roth has used Philip Roth as a stand-in for Philip Roth.
The question is, is Ike a fictionalized version of Philip Roth or a fictionalized version of Philip Roth’s fictionalized version of Philip Roth?
And even though Philip isn’t much like Philip Roth or Nathan Zuckerman he is a younger double of Ike which makes him a double of a double for Roth.
So who’s who and who’s what?
This ambiguity of identity and the questions it raises about the relationship between a writer and his fiction and between fiction and real life are concepts that amused Roth throughout the middle period of his career and he used them as central conceits in My Life As a Man, the Zuckerman Bound series, Deception, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock. (The Zuckerman who narrates the later trilogy of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain lives in a different and more conventional, less meta- literary universe.) This is why I called Listen Up Philip an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel that Philip Roth happened not to write. He might have written one like it: a sequel to The Ghost Writer (instead of the sequel he did write, Exit Ghost, or in addition to it), in which Nathan Zuckerman finds himself reliving an important episode from his past only this time instead of being the young writer looking at his possible future self, he’s the old writer looking on in horror and dread as a version of himself as a young man verges on throwing away his chance to have a career like the old man’s by becoming prematurely too much like the old man himself.
The question is, who’s the intended audience for this? Who goes to the movies for an hour and half of literary exegesis?
People like me, I suppose, the more than casual readers of contemporary non-genre fiction, religious readers of the New York Times Book Reviews, enthusiastic attendees of author readings and book signings, followers of the latest trends, fads, feuds, and spats among the literati. We’re the most likely to get it, to recognize, for example, that a novelist rival of Philip’s, a poseur and a phony and possibly a hack, has been given Jonathan Franzen’s glasses and David Foster Wallace’s fate and find that funny in a it’d be too cruel to laugh way, and to get a kick out of trying to identify which books of Ike’s are references to which books of Roth’s.
Also fans of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. I’ll get to that.
And fans of Jason Schwartzman and Bored to Death. I’ll get to that too.
But Listen Up Philip is more than just an extended in-joke for fans of Philip Roth in particular and contemporary fiction an observers of the current literary scene in general.
In fact, it may be too much for them to take, because its writer characters are appalling.
If you want to think well of writers and dream wistfully of the writing life, Listen Up Philip is not your movie.
Both Philip and Ike are mean, bitter, jealous, gratuitously insulting---and because they’re writers and brilliant with words their insults are smart, witty, and devastatingly exact---emotionally abusive, destructive, deliberately hurtful towards everyone around them (except each other), self-sabotaging, and pathologically self-absorbed.
They’re also tremendous bores.
When Philip arrives at Ike’s house in the country, the mysterious and alluring young woman there to meet him isn’t a contemporary version of Ann Frank or someone Philip can make fictional hay with by pretending to convince himself she’s Ann Frank. She’s simply Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) who immediately recognizes the basis of the affinity between the old and the young writers and how they complement and double each other.
Speaking of her father she says to Philip, “I’m glad he’s replaced himself with a younger surrogate to handle the forlorn moping.”
It’s an old, old story: artists and writers set on self-destruct. How many movies, plays, and novels have been about some talented but tormented genius coming to wrack and ruin through booze, through drugs, through romantic misadventure, by being spoiled by fame, by being broken by failure? But I can’t think of another movie in which the artist-hero sets out to destroy himself simply by being relentlessly, insistently, childishly, perversely, and repetitively just himself.
Who wants to sit through one hundred and nine minutes of that?
People like me again, I suppose. Neurotic intellectual-types with unrealized literary ambitions who are grateful to be told it’s ok to sneer at ourselves for ever having wanted to be like that but who can’t sneer because we were like that and probably still are. We’re the people most likely to be horrified by the film in the way someone will be horrified by a photo of himself he thinks is grotesquely unflattering but which all his friends tell him is the best picture of him ever taken, the one most like him.
We want to see ourselves and our literary heroes caricatured as vain and pretentious, moral, intellectual, and artistic frauds. Listen Up Philip provides Schadenfreude for the self-infatuated. It’s a mirror held up to those for whom self-loathing is practically our default emotion and---truthfully?---a form of self-love.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Probably it’s me.
Anticipating the approaching publication of his second novel, which he knows to be a creative leap forward from his first and has good reason to think will be a commercial and critical success, Philip Friedman---Philip Lewis Friedman. He insists people use his middle name not as if there might be another Philip Friedman he doesn’t want to be confused with or as if leaving out the Lewis was akin to mispronouncing Philip or Friedman, but as if correcting them on a matter of fact they shouldn’t need to have corrected and that they do can only mean they’re stupid---has been seized by an existential despair. It doesn’t matter how good the novel is or how successful it will be or make him. It won’t be enough because he has discerned a central truth about the world.
Nobody, not even his girlfriend---especially, he thinks, not his girlfriend---cares enough to put him at the center of their private universes.
Where he’s come to doubt he belongs anyway.
In his anger, he’s lashing out, as only the most morbidly narcissistic and passive-aggressive can, by sabotaging his relationships with his girlfriend, his best friend, his editor and agent, other writers who might be valued colleagues, and with his own writing (by not writing).
Philip’s grievance with the world stems from his not having accepted a central fact about the life of an artist.
If you’re lucky you’ll have some true believers among your family and friends. They’ll support you and encourage you and love what you do. They’ll cheer your success and cry with you over your failures.
If you’re lucky in another way, someone important to you will be overtly hostile to your dreams and ambitions. They’ll dismiss your work, deny you have the talent or the character or the ability to make your own luck. They’ll make you want to show them and keep on showing them. They’ll drive you on with their doubt.
But most people you care about and who you thought cared about you will be worse than indifferent.
They won’t even notice you’re doing what you’re doing.
You’ll tell them about your latest success and it’ll just remind them to tell you, “Did you hear about cousin Sue’s daughter? She made the volleyball team.” Confess your frustration, lament a failure, express self-doubt and they’ll reply, “I had to take the cat to the vet the other day. Something in his eye,” not as if the cat is as important as your problems and pains or even more important, but as if you haven’t said anything about your problems and pains but instead asked about the cat, as if the cat was the only thing that could be important to you. It’ll be as if there’s nothing going on in your life and you have nothing to occupy your time or thoughts but what’s going on in their lives. It would be arrogant to say they become a waste of your time, but it’d also be inaccurate. What happens is they act as if your job is to let them waste your time, because you have so much time to waste. They’ll only ever discuss art or literature with you is when they want to let you know what a great book by somebody else they just read or about a fascinating interview they saw on TV with somebody else or how they heard that a painting, again by somebody else, somebody you know to be second-rate, sold for gobs and gobs of money.
It’ll be as if they’re denying to themselves you are an artist and are insisting you let them deny it to the point of denying it to yourself. You won’t be allowed to think of yourself as an artist around them. You won’t be able to work around them.
And because they’re people who are important to you and you care about them and what they think, you will start to wonder if they’re right, if the reason they won’t acknowledge what you are and what you do is that it’s not worth acknowledging, and not because you’re not good at what you’re trying to do, although there’s that, but because you’re not really doing anything. There’s nothing for them to acknowledge.
And if you don’t get away from these people, if you can’t put them out of your head, more and more you will act as if you aren’t doing anything by…not doing anything.
Philip can’t get away from people like this or put them out of his head. They’re everywhere he goes and everywhere he will ever go and everyone he knows and will ever meet.
But he has another, more serious problem.
It’s hard for anyone to care about his work because it’s hard for anyone to care about him.
As I said earlier, Philip is appalling. Mean, bitter, spiteful, gratuitously insulting and emotionally abusive. He’s impossible to please. As soon as he likes or begins to enjoy something, he decides to hate it. This happens with him with people too. And his own writing.
Philip acts like many a successful artist, as if great talent is a license to be selfish, self-serving, demanding, entitled to deference and adoration, to act like a spoiled, self-important jerk. The thing with him, though, it’s not an act. He actually is a jerk. He knows this about himself, too, but refuses to try to change on the grounds that it might get in the way of his being a writer. But it’s not his writing that seems important to him and needs protecting, it’s his freedom to be a jerk. It’s seems likely that became a writer because it would give him the freedom to be a jerk.
On top of this, he’s paranoid.
Philip suspects he’s not a very good writer. Not that he’s bad. Not that he’s mediocre. Not that he isn’t good. Just not very good, as in destined for greatness. This causes him to wonder if he might be a fraud, since his whole professional life has been built on the premise that he’s destined for greatness. So he’s on the lookout for signs that people don’t think of him as a writer and don’t care about his work. And he finds those signs in everyone and then he gets angry at them, both for their stupidity in failing to appreciate his genius and for causing him to doubt himself.
But, by the same token, he gets angry at anyone who does seem to appreciate his genius or expresses admiration for his published work. He treats them as if in telling him how much they like his writing they’ve confessed to an unpardonable sin. He maliciously leads on a beautiful young assistant at his publisher’s who has a crush on him and then rejects her in mid-kiss. He refuses to even try to make friends with his colleagues at the college where Ike has secured him a gig teaching creative writing, apparently on the Groucho principle of not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member, and considers resigning in the middle of the term just for spite. He belittles his students in class and when one of them persists in respecting him anyway and tries to persuade him to take her on as a protégé he flat out tells her he hasn’t read any of the stories she’s submitted for class, implies he doesn’t ever intend to, refuses to write her a recommendation for an internship, and makes it clear she’s wasting her time trying to become a writer and his time by asking him to treat her as one. Against the odds and all reason, one of his colleagues, a professor of French literature, falls in love with him, but, after reciprocating for a little while, he abruptly breaks things off apparently because their romance was making them both happy. Then he whines about how nobody likes him.
But why would they? How could they? There’s no reason. No reason for anyone to like him. No reason that we can see for anybody to have ever liked him. No reason for us to like him except on the humane grounds that somebody has to. As far as we can tell, he’s gone through life since college being vociferously unhappy and dissatisfied with everybody and everything, including himself and his writing, and expecting people to admire him for this as if it proves his honesty, intellectual courage, and moral and and mental superiority. All it does is make others unhappy and dissatisfied and what makes it worse---actively cruel, in fact---is that he knows what he’s doing and still won’t cut it out.
Astoundingly, there are people who like him or have liked him, loved him, in fact. And they’re not crazy or stupid or overtly masochistic.
We meet two of his former girlfriends and both seem smart and well-adjusted, although the main evidence of their intelligence and mental health is how cheerful and relieved both appear at having Philip gone from their lives. His current girlfriend is even smarter and more put together. Her name is Ashley and she’s a talented artist in her own right, a photographer beginning to achieve some success herself (but unlike Philip enjoying it). She’s good natured, outgoing, attractive, and not just because she’s played by a golden and glowing Elisabeth Moss but because she is one of those energetic and engaged people who take a physical delight in going about their daily lives, and there’s no doubt she could and should be doing better in the boyfriend department. But she loves Philip and is committed to their relationship and she’s confused and hurt when he decides to accept Ike’s invitation and spend the summer apart from her. Her fidelity to Philip, who she admits treats her “in a way that only points out how meaningless” she is, is baffling. Even though there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with her, we can’t help wondering, What’s wrong with her?
Then, while Philip extends his stay at Ike’s, leaving Ashley feeing even more abandoned and rejected, she adopts a cat to keep her company and when we see her doting on the cat we begin to understand.
We all know a certain type of cat person. They like to tell you how loving, attentive, playful, and loyal their cat is, like a dog, really, they’ll say. But when you see them together the cat turns out not to be any of those things. It’ll be content to loll in its owner’s arms and soak up the love and attention without giving any sign it notices or cares in return. And the owners don’t seem to notice their cat’s languid indifference. They’ll act as if the cat’s giving them a great gift by deigning to be fussed over, coddled, and carried about like a Teddy Bear or baby doll for grownups, as if it’s doing them a great favor by allowing them to attend to its every need while needing nothing for themselves in return but the occasional contented purr. They’ll cuddle it, hug it, pet it, scratch its ears, rub its belly, talk baby talk at it, and, although the cat will look too bored to even work up the effort to yawn, they’ll act as if the cat was responding with lavish shows of grateful affection.
Ashley is that kind of cat person and Philip is a cat.
Someone else cares for Philip. Someone who is not that type of cat person. Ike.
Bastard that he is, Ike is not entirely with sympathy or affection. He may have ceased to love his real daughter, if he ever did love her, but he is leaning towards loving Philip as a surrogate son, in his way, at any rate, which is the way of an egotistical and selfish father doting on his favorite who is favored because the old man sees him as his replacement in whom and through whom he expects to live on after death.
His affection for Philip is cold-hearted, self-serving, and self-flattering. It’s based on a reversal of Philip’s usual effect on people:typically people don’t care about Philip’s writing because they don’t care about him; Ike cares about Philip because he cares about nothing except Philip’s writing.
To Ike, you are the work you do. He’s interested in you to the degree your work interests him. And he has an extremely limited idea of what work is and what makes it worth doing and worth his attention, which seems to be based on how closely it resembles the work he’s done as a great American writer. If he doesn’t see the work you do as comparable to the work he does, he’s not interested. In fact, he’s contemptuous and dismissive. This explains his treatment of Melanie.
Of course, what Ike cares most about in Philip’s writing is its resemblance to his own.
In caring for Philip, Ike is caring for himself, a task he finds as difficult as everyone else who has to put up with him.
Ike is a cold-hearted, miserable son of a bitch, as relentless and ruthless as Philip in inflicting his misery on others. Like Philip he’s an emotional sado-masochist, seeming to need to hurt others because it hurts him to do it and he wants that pain. But Pryce makes Ike’s vicious expressions of misanthropy, cynicism, nihilism, self-imposed alienation, and emotional cruelty in the service of beating back all claims on his affections sound like statements of self-evident principle. There’s the ring of moral decency in his meanest and most self-aggrandizing one-liners. Of his many estranged friends, once-valued colleagues, and formerly devoted students he declares, “Having once known me will always be the the most interesting thing about them,” and coming from Pryce it sounds not like an insult but like exactly what Ike intends, an indictment of their inexcusable weakness of character. When he decides he can’t bear Melanie’s company any more because she’s being “a pain in the ass” by insisting he treat her with some kindness, she being his daughter, after all, and tosses her out of the house, he tells her “I don’t know if I can continue to accommodate you here”and it sounds so reasonably and diplomatically put you almost want to congratulate him on his tact.
And Pryce gives Ike a residual measure of warmth and a vestigial capacity to enjoy life’s little pleasures that Philip doesn’t have, which makes us think or at least wish that once upon a time Ike was a nicer, more likeable person and a writer whose work was admirable for more than its intellectual heft.
Philip’s fiction, we suspect, is like his hero’s in being infinitely clever and knowing and full of an acerbic wit. But we can believe that Ike’s fiction, the best of it, at any rate, the stuff he wrote when he was in his prime, was infused with an intensity of feeling that ranged beyond anger and self-regard and revealed a moral and emotional intelligence that carried readers away.
That doesn’t preclude his having been a louse back then. It just suggests that he was once capable of not being a louse or not as terrible a louse. But however decent-hearted he might have been at one time, it’s all in the now distant past and Pryce makes it plain that it’s going to stay there. This is not a man who’s going to be redeemed, even if he wanted to be, which he decidedly doesn’t.
Pryce as Ike’s almost loving Philip and Ritter as Melanie’s not out and out loathing him are about all Philip has going for him in engaging our sympathies and keeping us sitting still to watch his story play out on screen.
In a story with such an unsympathetic protagonist you might expect to find a rooting interest in his antagonists or his victims. The trouble here is that Philip has no worthy antagonists ---the way he deals with the rival novelist, the Jonathan David Foster Franzen character, gives us a clue that he’s adept at avoiding involvement, professional and personal, with anyone who might pose a threat to his vanity or stand up to his cruelties---and his victims have flaws of their own apart that make them difficult difficult to sympathize with.
An exception is Norm, an old novelist friend of Ike’s, played by Yusef Bulos. He appears only briefly, but he warms up the movie while he’s on screen, quietly and modestly reproving both Ike and Philip by demonstrating that’s is possible to be a great and famous writer and still be a mensch.
Just about every other character, however, is obnoxious to some degree past bearable and there’s no good reason to care about them or be interested in them except that they are all human and afflicted by the human stain, which may be the most Rothian thing about the movie.
The rival novelist (Keith Poulson) seems too proud of his reputation as a kind and decent person unspoiled to actually be kind and decent. Philip’s former girlfriends (Samantha Jacober and Kate Lyn Sheil) seem nice but only nice enough and nice in that way that’s often a pale and lazy substitute for genuine decency. The publisher’s assistant Philip rejects and insults in mid-kiss (Dree Hemingway) seems to want Philip because others want him. The fact he has a longtime girlfriend turns her on. The student whose dreams Philip casually crushes (Maïté Alina) is on the make. She’s an opportunist and having Philip as her teacher is an opportunity. The French professor (Joséphine de La Baume) is a calculating careerist but a sneaky one. She knows how to sabotage other people’s careers without being seen as a saboteur. She’s also self-destructive. In falling for Philip she seems to be deliberately foiling her own scheming and in taking him on as her lover she’s getting the punishment she thinks she deserves.
Even the two female leading female characters, Melanie and Ashley, wronged and abused as they are by the most important men in their lives, make problematic heroines.
Melanie is problematic because we only ever see her in the company of Philip or Ike or both and they’re crazy-makers with a knack for bringing out the worst in others. But if this is Melanie at her worst then we have to think that her best must be pretty darn good. She’s bitter and acerbic in self-defense and Ritter handles Melanie’s bitterness and acerbity with wit and a quiet ferocity without letting the bitterness and acerbity define her.
Ashley is problematic in another way. She’s a victim who looks like she ought to be a heroine. Moss appears harder than she does on Mad Men, and I mean harder in bone and muscle as well as in spirit. She’s filled out in a way that prefigures a sturdy middle-age and in Listen Up Philip she looks more like a former college lacrosse player than the dancer she was. The effect is that next to Philip she comes across as too old---the now thirty-four year old Schwartzman looks to be the same size he was when he starred in Rushmore sixteen years ago---to be putting up with the perpetually adolescent Philip. That Philip can reduce someone this mature, strong, and intelligent to tears is a proof of his maliciousness. That someone this mature, strong, and intelligent sticks around for him to do it is possible evidence of her masochism. Anybody can be victimized by a malignant personality, but we can’t help thinking Ashley knows better and could resist if she wanted to.
With Philip away, she’s lonely and adrift, but she’s also relaxed and, when she’s not thinking about him, happy, and we’re glad for her but also worried for her because of what might happen when Philip comes back. This is one romantic comedy in which we root for the guy not to get the girl. The suspense is in our wondering if Ashley will gather the strength to throw the bum out of her life once and for all, and once we see how she is with cats we have reason to doubt that she will.
Everyone Philip encounters is such a poor specimen that we begin to wonder if maybe he’s right about people. Perhaps his alienation and misanthropy are justified. He’s a writer after all, a talented one, even if he’s not as talented as he believes he should be, and writers are notoriously insightful when it comes to analyzing character (everyone’s but their own, usually). If you’ve spent any time in the company of writers you know one of the most unsettling things that can happen to you is to catch one of them studying you.
But this is Philip, after all. He’s an expert at seeing the worst in people and then bringing it out in them just to prove himself right. So we can’t be sure: Is it him? Is it them? Is it both? Is it us? Where’s the truth here?
For most of the movie, Listen Up Philip sticks to Philip’s point of view and how reliable is Philip? We don’t get much help from the narrator---Didn’t I mention there’s a narrator? I’ll get to him---who affects objectivity but is too knowing in a way that makes him sound as if he’s holding an awful lot back. He also sounds written. And that raises the question, Written by whom? The movie’s director and screenwriter, Alex Ross Perry, of course, but who is Perry writing as? Himself? “Himself”? The director and writer of the documentary Listen Up Philip supposedly is? And is that documentary a real thing? It could be a product of Philip’s imagination. He’s the only one we can imagine being interested in such a documentary. That would make Philip the narrator of the movie or, rather, the narrator of the narrator. Just who is telling this story?
Who is telling the story of any story?
The inherent unreliability of storytelling and storytellers is another very Rothian theme at work in Listen Up Philip.
What makes all these characters compelling or at least worth paying attention to is they are constructs of a very smart, very witty, very literary script and are brought to life by an ensemble of extremely talented, intelligent, and subtle actors. But what really saves them in our eyes, literally, is that we see them through a camera under the sly and mind-games-playing direction of Alex Ross Perry.
Unlike in The Office and Parks and Recreation, the fake documentary conceit isn’t simply a device to let characters talk about themselves or get around holes in the plot or hide the fact that there isn’t a plot. It’s intrinsic to the storytelling. In fact, that’s the point: it is storytelling. Perry’s calling attention to Listen Up Philip as a told story.
But like I said, who’s telling the story?
Who’s supposed to be behind the camera? Who wrote the script? Who wrote the narrator’s lines? Who is the narrator? Perry makes artful use of him, whoever he is. Perry lets him drone on at the top of the film until just past the point where we’re screaming for him to shut up and let us focus on the characters and the main action and then lets him fall silent until just past the point when we’re begging for him to come back and give us some relief from focusing on these characters. Perry keeps up the pattern throughout and by about midway through we’ve not just grown used to the narrator’s intrusions, we’re looking forward to them for his sake. He’s grown on us as a character. In fact he’s the most likeable character in the movie, whoever he is.
It helps that he has the sonorous baritone voice of Eric Bogosian.
Wes Anderson likes to play with narrators, onscreen and off, named and unknown, to call attention to his movies as told stories too. And there are other Anderson influences at work in Listen Up Philip, not the least of which is the casting of one of Anderson’s favorite actors from his stock company of players as the lead playing the sort of oblivious egotist Anderson likes to put at the center of his movies. But the main stylistic influence that struck me was Woody Allen’s.
Listen Up Philip looks and sounds like Allen’s two best films from the 1980s, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors. It’s set among the same cohort of New York pseudo-intellectuals and is about people too smart for their own good who should and do know better but behave badly anyway, although nobody in Listen Up Philip tries to get away with murder. And there’s the fact that Allen did his own take on Roth in 1997’s even darker but funnier and more succinct (and I think underappreciated) down-there-on-a-visit---there being the main character’s private hell where Billy Crystal reigns as the Devil---Deconstructing Harry.
But the fake documentary and the narrator are the giveaways.
The characters are completely unaware they’re being filmed, as if the camera’s hidden and they’re being observed from a distance like a tribe in the Brazilian rainforest who have no contact with the outside world and are best understood if they’re left undisturbed to go about their traditional ways. The narrator speaks in an almost affectless tone, as if being over-careful to sound completely nonjudgmental and his vocabulary is that of an anthropological or psychological case study. The serious, humorless, unironic, deadpan, detached, ostensibly unbiased and professionally objective tone is at odds with the intimate and emotional comedy being played out, which is the joke. Allen made a movie built around the same joke. His first one.
Which is another joke.
All joking aside, Listen Up Philip depends on our being able to put up with Philip for nearly two hours. That challenge to our patience and tolerance is made easier by his being played by Jason Schwartzman who is somehow able to get away with Philip’s meanest lines. Reacting to news of the death of the subject of an interview he was counting on doing for the money and exposure it would bring to him, Philip says, “I’m glad he’s dead and all, but it would have been a great opportunity for me. Last interviews are hard to get”, and Schwarztman almost makes us feel Philip’s pain.
Some of it is due to his being pint-sized. He’s too small to take seriously as the menace he wants to be, coming across as endearingly and pathetically ineffectual in his hostility, like a terrier straining at his leash and yapping at a passing Great Dane he means to chase from his territory.
Some it is due to the naiveté he’s able to bring to the role. Philip seems to sincerely believe that his narcissism, cynicism, and anger are attractive qualities and reasonable responses to the way life is and he can’t understand why people refuse to see things his way.
But some of it, at least for me, is the reservoir of good will he’s able to draw from thanks to his three seasons as the star of HBO’s Bored to Death.
On Bored to Death, Schwartzman played Jonathan Ames, another young novelist at odds with himself and disappointed with his own writing and the direction of his career. Like Philip, Jonathan is a solipsist and an egotist with a penchant for saying the wrong thing and a habit of thinking it’s all about him. He’s bitter and angry too. But unlike Philip, he is basically decent and kind-hearted and instead of sulking through his life, he tries to get out of his own head by going out of his way to help others, although in a self-romanticizing way by taking up a second career as an unlicensed private detective.
He’s active and, although cautious because he’s usually aware he’s overmatched in almost any situation, brave. And he’s likeable with good friends whose friendship is worth having and it’s not surprising that he gets the girl from time to time.
There’s something else he is.
An alter-ego for a real life novelist.
Bored to Death’s creator, novelist Jonathan Ames.
Naturally, I couldn’t help drawing the thematic parallels. I began to imagine Jonathan and Philip as alter egos of each other. And I went back and forth between wondering which was the invention of which. I could see Listen Up Philip as an episode of Bored to Death in which Jonathan is at work on a short story about the kind of successful novelist he dreams of being when he’s not afraid of becoming that kind of successful writer and I could see Bored to Death as a dramatization of a novel by Philip Lewis Friedman in which Philip portray himself as he actually sees himself, a nice and decent guy doing his best in a hostile world designed to thwart him at every turn.
In the end, I decided that Philip doesn’t have the sense of humor, sympathy, and detachment to imagine himself as a comic failure while Jonathan has all the angst, self-doubt, and innate decency needed to imagine himself as such a shit-heel.
And that’s how I finally came to enjoy Listen Up Philip, as a sequel to Bored to Death…
When I wasn’t enjoying it as that Philip Roth novel Philip Roth never wrote.
At Slate, something to talk over at a coffee shop with WiFi after you’ve seen the movie: The Brilliant Fake Novels of Listen Up Philip.
Speaking of Woody Allen, Philip Roth, and Deconstructing Harry…also at Slate, by Alex Abramovich: The Estranged Twins. Woody Allen and Philip Roth: Separated at Birth?
Last words by L.A. Times book critic David L Ulin: Finding Lost Philip Roth in a Provincetown used bookstore.
Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Starring Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Joséphine de La Baume, and Eric Bogosian. 108 minutes. Now in theaters and available to watch instantly at Amazon.
Some one of these years I’m going to finish my review of Listen Up Philip.
I’m getting there. It’s going to need pruning though. It’s on its way to being another patented Mannion movie review that takes longer to read than to watch the movie. Right now it includes an extended riff on the life of a young writer that probably won’t survive the final edit and which includes this bit:
If you’re lucky you’ll have some true believers among your family and friends. They’ll support you and encourage you and love what you do. They’ll cheer your success and cry with you over your failures.
If you’re lucky in another way, someone important to you will be overtly hostile to your dreams and ambitions. They’ll dismiss your work, deny you have the talent or the character or the ability to make your own luck. They’ll make you want to show them and keep on showing them. They’ll drive you on with their doubt.
But most people you care about and who you thought cared about you will be worse than indifferent.
They won’t even notice you’re doing what you’re doing.
It’s the paragraph that begins “If you’re lucky in another way…” that’s the point here. Some young artists are lucky in having people opposed to their becoming an artist who stand in their way or try to. It makes them mad and they channel their anger. It energizes them and makes them determined.
Like I said, this is probably a target of the delete key, but I’ve been re-thinking since I read this passage this morning in The Last Train to Zona Verde, my favorite curmudgeonly travel writer Paul Theroux’s latest travel book about what he’s pretty sure was his final trip to Africa where, he believes, his career as a writer really started, almost fifty years ago, and it may have gotten started there because he was lucky in that other way:
As a young man, I never entertained the idea of death in travel. I had set off for Africa almost fifty years ago with the notion that my life had at last begun, that I was free in this great green continent, liberated from my family and its paternalism just at the time many African countries had liberated themselves from the paternalistic hand of colonialism. And when Africans told me how they had been repressed, confined, belittled, exploited, and infantilized by their colonial overlords, be it Britain, Belgium, Portugal, or France, I thought of my fierce mother saying, “It’s your own damn fault” and “You’re not going anywhere---you have no gumption,” and my father saying, “Get a job---money doesn’t grow on trees” and “Why are you so defiant?” and “Why do you write trash?”
For the record, I was never lucky in that way.
Nancy Pelosi agrees with me. That wasn’t a Republican wave washing through last Tuesday.
I think she agrees with me.
It depends on what she means by a wave.
It depends on what I mean by a wave.
I mean “Something the conventionally wise in the political press corps want to think happened but I think didn’t happen.”
What happened was that in a low-turnout election in states with a lot of Republicans more Republicans didn’t not turn out than Democrats; as a result, Republican candidates got more votes.”
The question is, what do the conventionally wise think happened that I think didn’t? What do they mean by a wave?
What is a wave?
Is it a synonym for landslide?
Is it a reversal of a tide or a shifting of the current current?
Is it a sea change?
Yes to all three, because it’s being used in all three ways by different commentators, although many commentators can’t make up their minds and switch back and forth or intend all three meanings simultaneously, not because their thinking is complex and they’re trying to distinguish between what the wave carried in or carried out or left undisturbed along a variety of shorelines but because their thinking’s confused. Others make a practice of saying everything and anything that comes to mind so that they can be sure they must be right in some way and can weasel out of having been fantastically stupid and wrong if they’re called on it later.
“Sure, I said this fantastically stupid and wrong thing. But if you look closely, you’ll see I also said…”
There’s another way wave is used: to be meaningless.
It’s a pundit’s trick to get past having to explain something and be right.
In the Insider Journalist’s art of instant “analysis” all interpretations of facts are intended to prove the pre-existing narrative. This election was about voters’ disillusionment with President Obama so all the returns everywhere must reflect that. But the returns everywhere don’t show that. They show different things happened in different places. How do you explain that?
You don’t have to. It doesn’t matter. It was a wave.
What happened in Arkansas? A wave.
What happened in Iowa? A wave.
What happened to Martha Coakley in Massachusetts? A wave.
What happened to Mark Warner in Virginia? A wave.
What happened in states where Democrats won? Never mind those states. This was a wave year.
A wave is a cliché, one of those stock phrases journalists and pundits use reflexively thinking they’re shortcuts around complex thoughts but which actually short-circuit thought. Boots on the Ground. Game-changer. Double-down. Wave year. This is what clichés do. They trick us into thinking we’re thinking.
But they sound colorful. They sound poetic. They sound demotic. They sound like they must mean something.
For many consumers of television news and commentary the sound is enough. They’d rather hear something that sounds like a thought than something that requires thought. They don’t want to think; they just want to know. If they hear it on TV it must be true and worth knowing.
Now they know.
“It was a wave.”
And the people saying it on TV like the sound of it too. They like it because they said it. They like the sound of their own voices. A lot of people talk just to hear themselves talk and a lot of those people are attracted to careers as politicians and TV pundits.
Most clichés are metaphors that have gone stale. They’ve been worn out, hollowed out, drained of meaning, by overuse or misuse or by changes in idioms or in the physical world to which they once referred. Metaphors are what we use to connect abstract thoughts to the world in which we live. We need them to help us understand because we are bodied creatures and can only truly understand what our bodies know. The problem is they can be apt but never exact.
The best metaphors connect the physical to the physical.
All the world’s a stage…
Well, no it isn’t.
But, yes, of course, it is.
Metaphors help us deal with ideas as if they are things. They help us see, feel, hear, sense our way toward understanding. But even the best metaphors, the most apt, carry us so far. There comes a point when we have to abandon the metaphor and think.
When we don’t give up a metaphor, when we tie ourselves to its mast and convince ourselves we’ve saved ourselves and the ship from crashing against the rocks of incomprehension, when we treat the comparison as if it’s the same as the abstraction all thought is scuttled and goes down with all hands.
Clichés are all that’s left floating to wash up on shore.
From In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman:
But our private conversations, between father and son, are free of the disingenuous concessions of dinner parties. Metaphors their place, he says, but never as explanations, never as substitutes for the thing itself, which is the only thing that can turn on the lights or leave us in the dark. His suspicion of metaphors recognizes that our proclivity toward them probably springs from our very nature, which is given to analogize, to link one thing with another, and to make whole the disparate. But exercising this instinct is not the same as giving an explanation.
It was a wave.
It wasn’t a wave.
I had a friend in grad school who decided one day that all the short stories she wrote had as a guiding principle Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As the son of a physicist, I felt an obligation to point out that Einstein probably didn’t use “relativity” to mean what she seemed to think he had. She wasn’t convinced and I didn’t press the point because I couldn’t because I knew I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was said that when Einstein first published his theory only a handful of other scientists truly understood it and if I’d been alive then I wouldn’t have been one of them. But ever since I’ve wondered if my friend thought her fiction could be expressed as a mathematical argument. I hope I didn’t wonder it for the first time out loud to her.
Reason I’m reminded of my friend and her theory of relative fiction is I just read this:
My father is too generous a man to actually roll his eyes when he’s invariably asked at dinner parties asked at dinner parties what his work is about. Give a sense, a flavor of what it’s about, is what they him to do. Being a civil and courteous man, perhaps believing that it probably doesn’t matter, a flavor is what he supplied---or at least what his dinner guests believe they’ve been given. And he will listen as well, smiling warmly, as a guest invokes---as a theoretical physicist’s guest will do---Einstein’s theory of relativity as metaphor for some proposition in the social sciences. Relativity, my father will hear, demonstrates such and such (in some field as far removed from science as everything but science). My father will remember but will never mention what Einstein came to wish after long suffering to hear the abuses to which the mere heading of his theory had been put, as if to invoke the name of the theory was to import all the authority of the ancient and timeless lambdas, epsilons, and deltas of a beautiful mathematical argument.Einstein wished to hell that he’d called it the theory of invariance, which is to say, he wished he’d given it a name whose meaning was exactly the opposite of relativity and which, he said, would have been just as accurate.
I hope I smiled warmly at my friend, but I probably smirked. I was not always a civil and courteous young man.
The quote is from In The Light of What We Know, a novel by Zia Haider Rahmen.
Tuesday. October 21, 2014.
My students are blogging maniacs. Tonight after class one of the maniacs came up to me to talk. He’s the maniac’s maniac. I usually assign three blog posts to write each week, due by noon on the following Monday, the day before our next class meeting. Give normal students that sort of deadline and you’d expect forty-eight blog posts popping up in your feed reader at 11:59 Monday morning. Most of these maniacs get their assignments done by Friday. This maniac is almost always the first to get his posted. And he’s not just the first with the first. He’s the first with all three. And usually by the next day, if not that night.
Like I said. A maniac.
I love it.
Anyway, tonight he wanted to talk about how he could improve his blogging overall.
Slow down, I said.
You’ve got time, take it.
You’re not a political blogger. Fast reactions and quick turnarounds are imperatives for political bloggers. For political bloggers, getting out in front of an issue of the moment is necessary or you risk irrelevance. And blogs aren’t the best platforms for that anymore, anyway.
I’m not trying to turn students into political bloggers. I’m not trying to turn them into any particular sort of bloggers at all, except smart ones. The stated goal of the course is to get them using a variety of social media platforms to join the professional conversations taking place in their chosen fields of study that have moved out from the classroom, the lab, the office, the studio, the conference room, and the dig site into the ether and onto the web. Their blogs are one platform. My job is to guide them in their wanderings across the internet.
I hope along the way I’m teaching them some things about how to write well, in general and for the web in particular, and how to think, period. Sherlock Holmes is our spirit guide on that second point.
So the only students I’d expect to be blogging about politics and therefore posting at a fast and furious clip in order to keep up with the issue du jour would be political science majors who intend to run for office someday or work for politicians or particular causes and journalism majors who plan to cover politics as their jobs and as it happens there are no political science majors in this class and only three journalism majors and one is interested in international finance, one is a photojournalist, and the other is already at work editing a student-run magazine mostly devoted to pop culture. There are two scientists, a sociologist, a future lawyer, a couple of marketing and advertising majors, a language arts and literature major, someone who is on her way to becoming a writer although I’m not sure she knows it yet, and three film majors, one of whom is the maniac’s maniac.
Still, the ability to write fast and post immediately is useful for any sort of blogger. No matter what your field, there will be issues and events that you’ll need to respond to in real time or in fairly short order, at least. The maniac’s maniac has this ability and I don’t want to advise him to make changes that will cause him to get in his own way. But, even so, it’s not enough to be able to write fast. You have to write well and that means more than turning a clever phrase. You have to show you’ve thought through what you’re writing about. Your thinking has to be coherent in order for your writing to be coherent.
This student’s posts show the virtues of being able to get it all down in one go. They’re charged with the energy of his conviction, his excitement and enthusiasm, and his determination to make his point. And he can turn a clever phrase.
But they also often feel rushed because they were. Sentences break down, go vague, repeat themselves, fill space without moving his points forward. Grammar and usage sometimes go by the wayside. Words aren’t chosen as carefully as they should be. Sometimes he uses the not quite right word and sometimes he uses the wrong word entirely. His first few sentences, sometimes his first couple of paragraphs are warm-ups. You can see how he’s writing just to get himself going. His engine’s running hot but he’s not in gear and his wheels are just spinning. Then something pops and he’s off to races. But he takes turns too fast, fails to keep his eye on the traffic, loses control, fishtailing and three-sixtying for whole laps.
(I don’t remember if I warned him to avoid driving metaphors into the ground.)
But when I told him he needs to slow down, I didn’t mean he should stop writing fast. I meant he should not post fast. Write the way you’re doing, bang out your posts, but hold off on posting at least one of them for a few days. Let it sit, don’t think about it, and then go back and read it over to see how it reads.
Chances are, I said, you’ll find things that need fixing.
After you’ve done this for a while (a few hundred posts down the line, I didn’t say), it’ll become reflexive, a kind of writing muscle memory. You’ll revise as you write without having to interrupt yourself and stop writing to think about it.
He seemed to get this, and promised to try it out. One thing worried him though.
One of the reasons he likes to pound out his posts one after another at one sitting is he has a habit of letting time get away from him. And he’s obsessive and a bit of a perfectionist. He has a lot of work to do this semester (Of course he does, He’s an honors student. They’ve all piled the work on top of themselves.) and he knows himself well enough to know that if he lets himself get wrapped up in one project, he won’t leave himself time to do three others. He wanted to know how much time I thought he should allot to the writing of a single post.
How long does it take you to write a post, he asked.
Too long, I said.
At least, far longer than I wish it did.
Far longer than it used to, that’s for sure.
I used to be like him, a blogging maniac, able to bang out post after post in a single sitting. Two, three, even four posts, bang, bang, bang. And these would be Mannion-length posts.
How much time would I sit there then?
Couple of hours, I said. I wouldn’t let myself spend much more than that amount of time at the keyboard.
He was impressed, but wanted to know what happened.
I got old, I said. And nodded at my cane which was propped up in a corner.
I can’t sit still the way I used to be able to, I said.
Hurts too much.
And this is the fact, which you probably know from my whining about it. I used to be able to write from any position. Sitting at a desk, at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair in the living room, with my feet up on the railing out on the porch; standing up; walking around---wrote large chunks of some good posts while making my way between exhibits at the Museum of Natural History or moving from room to room at the Clinton Global Initiative---stretched out on the floor. Nowdays I have to sit and can only manage to write in fifteen minute bursts before pain forces me out of the chair and I have to take a long break until things stop hurting enough that I can return to the keyboard.
I didn’t go into the details with him. He understood right away. His father has the same problem. I steered the conversation away from me and toward Ernest Hemingway, who---I asked him if he knew---had to write standing up because of his many aches and pains. Towards the end, and possibly bringing about the end, he couldn’t write at all. He hurt too much in too many places to sit or stand.
He should have learned to dictate, but he was having a hard time concentrating and probably felt he couldn’t focus enough.
And that’s how we left it, with the maniac setting off to bang out his posts but planning to post only two right away, saving the third for later revising, and the implicit and vain comparison between Hemingway and me left hanging in the air.
Here’s the thing.
I didn’t tell him the whole truth.
Yes, it hurts to sit at the computer. But I actually began to slow down and even cut back on the blogging a couple of years before my back began troubling me.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened. It probably began at some point early in President Obama’s first term but I date it to the fall of 2011 when it truly sank in that I am not anywhere near as smart as he is.
When I wrote about this last month, many people thought I was saying that people shouldn’t criticize the President because he’s such a smart guy.
Smart guys can be wrong.
There’s a whole book about this.
What I was saying was that I felt I needed to be a smarter guy in order for my criticisms to carry the weight I think they should.
Dumb criticism is more useless than no criticism.
And suddenly I felt dumb.
And once I’d faced up to that about myself, I began to see all the ways I was being dumb.
What I despised and condemned in Right Wing pundits and bloggers I was guilty of myself: Orc logic, opinion-mongering, confirmation bias, attraction bias, parroting of received liberal conventional wisdoms, seeming to root for bad things to happen in order to be able to say I told you so, a habit of thinking I knew stuff I hadn’t actually looked into for myself, demanding that other people’s political views somehow validate my own and in so doing validate me and confirm that I was smarter, wiser, and more moral than thou. I did a lot of casting of stones and praying at the front of the temple.
I relied too much on my memory. I trusted too much in my ability to turn a phrase. And I was vain. I prided myself on being a smart guy who knew lots of stuff.
When I realized I was guilty of all those blogging and writing sins and that I couldn’t resist the temptations, I decided the next best thing would be to reduce the opportunities for temptation by not blogging so much about politics, by not blogging so much at all.
So there it is.
Once upon a time I was a blogging maniac.
A blogging maniac’s blogging maniac.
Then it hit me.
I could write that fast because I thought I was smart.
Back to reading Updike. As if I need the heartbreak. Picking up in 1961. Updike’s 29. He’s finishing up The Centaur and has just finished a summer teaching creative writing at Harvard. He was a pretty good teacher. He liked it. Liked his students. At the end of the gig he vowed to never do it again.
Twenty years later he told an interviewer why.
“Teaching takes a lot of energy. It uses somehow the very brain cells that you should be writing with.”
This would have been about the time I was changing my headings from playwriting to fiction and working out how to set my course for Iowa. I wish I’d come across it and taken the warning. You’d think three years later I’d have figured it out for myself when I was teaching my own summer writing workshop. But I wrote like a demon that summer in that light and airy apartment below yours and Donna’s on Dubuque Street, at the most perfect desk for writing I’ve ever had, under the window with no view except into the leaves and branches of tree I never identified because it was only beginning to dawn on me trees came in more than maple and pine, in that light. I wrote a novella that I knew was no good but I didn’t care. I was having a ball.
So it wasn’t until I was teaching at Ball State that I figured it out.
But unlike Updike I kept at it.
Because the New Yorker wasn’t begging me for stories and paying me a couple thousand dollars a pop.
Which should’ve been a clue.
Card 1 of 4
Pretend it doesn’t matter what the subject discussed in the following passage is. Pretend it doesn’t matter where it’s from or who wrote it. Pretend you don’t care what point is being made or where the argument is tending. Now read it paying attention to the writer’s use of “who”.
4. Some of this goes to how the federal government is structured. The various agencies are staffed by civil servants who the president has fairly little power over. But they're led by political appointees who the president often knows well and trusts deeply. The result can be that rather than blaming political appointees responsible for the failures of the bureaucracies they run White Houses sometimes blame bureaucracies for the failures of their political appointees.
“Who” is used twice, and both times it’s used wrong.
Here's the thing. I hate “whom”. Even when it’s used correctly, I hate it. It should be banished from everyone’s writing or at least used as seldom as possible, and that’s easy to do.
The handbooks and manuals of style say that who is a subject and whom an object. Who is doing something. Whom is having things done unto him/her/them. But there’s another way to test without having to remember and apply rules you learned in freshman comp.
Use your ear.
Try this. The way to tell if you should use “who” or “whom” is to read a sentence or passage over without either. If it scans, then it should be “whom”. But if it scans without the whom, then you don’t need the whom, so just leave it out.
Card 2 of 3
Wrong: The various agencies are staffed by civil servants who the president has fairly little power over.
Correct: The various agencies are staffed by civil servants whom the president has fairly little power over.
Even more correct: The various agencies are staffed by civil servants over whom the president has fairly little power.
Better than just correct: The various agencies are staffed by civil servants the president has fairly little power over.
Card 3 of 4
Wrong. But they're led by political appointees who the president often knows well and trusts deeply.
Correct. But they're led by political appointees whom the president often knows well and trusts deeply.
Better than just correct. But they're led by political appointees the president often knows well and trusts deeply.
What makes the last sentence in each example “better” is that they are better expressions of colloquial American English. That is, they sound more like the way people actually talk. We rarely use “whom” in conversation and not because we tend to use “who” wrong, but because we tend to just leave it out. Nobody says “meet the person whom I’m going to marry.” We say “meet the person I’m going to marry.” That’s Mannion’s First Rule of Writing: Read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound like somebody talking---if it doesn’t sound like you talking---fix it so it does.” There are caveats and qualifications, but that’s basically it. Good writing sounds like one side of a good conversation.
(Editor’s note: I’m generalizing, of course. Every now and then there’ll come a sentence in which whom is required. When that happens, it’s good to know the rules.)
Card 4 of 4
Some of you have guessed from the Card x of n joke here where my example passage is from and maybe even who wrote it. (It’s obvious to whom it refers.) It’s from Vox and it’s by Ezra Klein. But I don’t mean to be singling either Vox or Ezra out. I just happened to read the post this morning before I had my coffee. Everybody makes this mistake. Ezra handed me a good example to add to the sermon I deliver to my students every semester.
So, no knock on Vox or Klein, except the general one about all political “analysis” that comes out of Washington.
It’s almost all terrible writing.
It’s not just that normal people don’t talk like that.
Normal people don’t think like that.
But that’s another card.
Copy of J. Michael Lennon’s Norman Mailer: A Double Life arrived yesterday. Seven hundred and sixty-three pages of text to confront. (A hundred pages of notes!) But as far behind as I’ve fallen in my other reading and book reviewing, I’m wading in. I owe it to Mailer.
Mailer’s far from one of my favorite writers. I don’t dislike his work. Much of it’s brilliant, and you simply cannot make even a stab at understanding life in these United States until you’ve read The Executioner's Song. But I never took him to heart. I even can’t say I have a literary opinion about Mailer one way or another. That would be like saying I have a literary opinion about the Brooklyn Bridge or hurricanes. All my consciously intellectual life Mailer has just been there, a monument and a force of nature. He first came to my attention as a public figure rather than as a writer, more of a celebrity than an artist or even the public intellectual he was. He was on my TV long before he was on my bookshelf, and on TV he usually came across as a nut or a clown. Scratch that. He was usually portrayed as a nut or a clown. For a long time all I knew of his reputation as a writer was that he’d somehow “failed” as novelist. He was a Hemingway wannabe, aping the worst qualities of his hero, unable to get past his own gigantic ego to sit down and write anything but paeans to his own genius. Then there was his eroticization of violence and his raging misogyny.
I’m not going to get into the Jack Abbott fiasco, except to note that at the time it was used as an example of everything that was “wrong” with Mailer, while few noted it all began with an act of generosity on Mailer’s part. I remember it as another of many warnings that Mailer wasn’t somebody to take seriously except as an enemy of the intellectually and artistically righteous.
As if there was such a thing.
Oh, and he’d stabbed his wife.
All this was happening during the years when I was deciding I was going to be a writer, and the effect on me was that I didn’t read his stuff at a time when it might have had some influence on my development as a writer. It didn’t help that in the year I was setting off for grad school he published his first true novel in over a decade.
John Updike had won the Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit is Rich the year before. William Kennedy won it the year after for Ironweed. Saul Bellow was winding down his career with The Dean’s December, and Philip Roth was in the middle of re-assessing and redirecting his with the Zuckerman cycle. And Norman Mailer had written a 700 page doorstop on the liberating joys of anal rape.
Reincarnation figured in it in some lunatic way too.
Anyway, that’s what I remember of the reviews. I’m just telling you what I remember, not what I know to be what was going on.
By the way. I knew only one person at the Writers Workshop who’d read Ancient Evenings. A woman who grew up on a farm outside Paducah, Kentucky and went back there after earning her MFA. She claimed it was her favorite contemporary novel and she kept it on her desk to dip into for inspiration.
I didn’t read it. Still haven’t. Probably won’t ever at this point. But when I say I didn’t read Mailer’s stuff in my salad days, I mean his fiction. For reasons I can’t remember, while I was giving his fiction the skip, I made a point of reading his journalism. Over a period bridging high school and college, I read The Armies of the Night, Of A Fire on the Moon, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and The Fight. (I read The Executioner’s Song later, in my thirties.) I liked all of them but they didn’t inspire me to check out his novels. So based on the small percentage of his prodigious output I knew, I thought of Mailer not as a novelist---except as a mostly failed one---but as a journalist, a fine one, although not as fun to read as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.
Mailer didn’t see the distinction. He wanted it all to be taken as all of a piece, the novels, the journalism, the essays, the speeches, the interviews, the attempts at poetry, probably the movies too. And it wasn’t until I’d failed as a novelist myself---no consoling quotation marks around failed for me---and taken up blogging, that I began to see his point and appreciate it.
So you could say that what I owe Mailer is the solace of being able to see what I do here as being as literary and creative a pursuit as my filed away novels and multiply rejected short stories. I can tell myself that I didn’t give up being a writer to become a blogger. I just changed genres and found a new platform. I can take a pride in the sort of writing I do here I wouldn’t have thought any self-respecting creative writer could or should take back when I was young and green and arrogant enough to feel dismissive towards Norman Mailer.
I’m not very far into the A Double Life. Mailer’s at Harvard and already he’s a writer, in his heart and in fact, prolific and driven even at seventeen. At this point, he seems on his way to becoming Philip Roth, ten years before Roth himself started getting around to it, a chronicler of the second generation Jewish immigrant experience, and I wish he’d written his own Goodbye, Columbus before moving on, just to know what he’d have made of his dapper, English-accented gambler father. I wonder why he didn’t. Did the War change his direction? Was it as I was led to believe back in the day that sudden and spectacular and too early fame derailed him? Guess I’ll find out. I’m enjoying the book but I’d keep going even if I wasn’t. Like I said, I feel I owe it to Mailer.
But, see, what I owe him is due to something more than a possibly constructed literary influence. It’s a little more direct. Due to another act of generosity on his part.
Before Jack Henry Abbott, there was another beginning writer Mailer helped get started.
In 1972, a student at Frostburg State College in Maryland sent Mailer a copy of an article he’d written for the college paper about Mailer’s infamous appearance on The Dick Cavett Show with Gore Vidal. Mailer was impressed. Impressed enough to write to the editor of the Village Voice recommending he give the kid a job.
You know that if you’ve read James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out.
You probably know me, know this blog anyway, because thirty-odd years later Jim linked to one of my posts on his blog.
Jim was a precocious talent and it’s probable he’d have worked his way to where he is or somewhere very close by without Mailer’s help. But it’s hard for me not to see it this way. I’m here because Jim is where he is and he’s where he is because of Mailer.
Over at the New Yorker, Richard Brody's wondering the same thing I wondered, why Mailer never wrote his own Goodbye, Columbus, although Brody thinks that Mailer's "failure" as a novelist is due to his never having mined his Brooklyn roots for his fiction. Read The Novel That Norman Mailer Didn't Write.
Also at the New Yorker, also by Brody, Norman Mailer at the Movies.
David Copperfield, the main character and narrator of David Copperfield, the novel, written by Charles Dickens but ostensibly the autobiography of the aforesaid David Copperfield, character and narrator and, it's revealed, famous novelist, begins David Copperfield, again, the novel, with what amounts to practically an apology:
"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
...as if he's warning us that he's not responsible for the story he's about to tell, which he isn't, since he's a character in that story being manipulated as much as every other character by the real human being writing the story. Dickens could be routinely and almost offhandedly meta. He was always present inside his own fictions and breaking through the fourth wall as the storyteller. He never let his readers forget they were being told a story, which is to say, that what they were reading was made up, a work of imagination, not real.
Dickens wasn't strictly speaking a realist.
He was a Dickens-ist.
But never mind.
Almost immediately those pages show that David Copperfield, the character and narrator, is not going to turn out to be the hero of his own life (or book) and that station will be held by somebody but not just anybody else. His eccentric fairy godmother, his formidable Aunt Betsey, bustles her way onto the scene, blesses the infant David in his crib in the very strangest and most roundabout way a fairy godmother has ever blessed a child she will protect until they all live happily ever after, and bustles out but not without putting her stamp on the story with such force that her presence is felt for the next two hundred pages while she is gone from the book.
David Copperfield was one of the first of Dickens' books I read and I read it at a very critical time, when it was guaranteed to make too great an impression, during Christmas break my freshman year of college. From that first reading (I've read it five or six times since. I've lost count.) I learned three things.
Dickens should always be read at Christmastime.
Realism is over-rated. Real is what a novelist starts with, the way a painter starts with a glance at the scenery or a glimpse of an interesting face.
A first person narrator should not be the hero of his own story if that story is going to be something other and better than one long brag, whine, or exercise in narcissistic self-directed psychotherapeutic excuse-making.
The first person narrators of many detective novels have to be the heroes of their stories for technical and conventional reasons, but...
Nick Carraway is not the hero of The Great Gatsby. Ishmael is not the hero of Moby-Dick. Jack Crabb isn't the hero of Little Big Man . Huck Finn is far from being his own hero or, if he is, he sure doesn't think of himself that way. Heroes and villains are Tom Sawyer 's department, the stuff of Tom's daydreams and games, and Tom's interference in Huck's story, when Tom assigns himself and Huck the roles of heroes, almost gets Jim killed.
Except for Augie March, Saul Bellows' first person narrators are practically the villains of their books.
Holden Caulfield isn't exactly the hero of Catcher in the Rye, but he thinks rather highly of himself compared to every other character in the novel except Phoebe, who is his ideal not his heroine, and that's why few readers over the age of eighteen can stand him. You have to be as adolescent as Holden to appreciate the virtues he attributes to himself.
In case you haven't guessed, I read Catcher in the Rye around the same time I read David Copperfield and Salinger lost out to Dickens.
But, getting back to Dickens, Pip isn't his own hero in Great Expectations. Almost the opposite. He is the object of his own intense self-criticism and self-satire.
The job of a first person narrator, I long ago decided, is to provide a personal, intimate, emotionally engaged but naturally limited point of view. There are things first person narrators just can't know from the outset and things they will never know. Crucial information is denied them and they have to spend their stories trying to figure things out and they don't always manage to do that. Huck has to work to get to know, understand, and sympathize with Jim. Nick has to work to gain insight into Gatsby. Ishmael never figures out Ahab.
And because there are things first person narrators can't know, there are things they miss and misinterpret and just get plain wrong. Their reliability is always in doubt.
Also, because they are characters in their own stories with volition and motivations of their own, they can have reason to be deliberately unreliable. They can try to make themselves look good. They can try to make themselves look bad. They can embellish. They can leave things out. They can lie. The fun might even be in knowing they're lying, as is the case with Aaron Burr in Gore Vidal's Burr, or in our not being sure just how much of what they're telling us is the truth, as it is with Jack Crabb.
Ariel Zinsky, the narrator of Ilan Mochari's debut novel, Zinsky the Obscure, is a young man looking back on the first thirty years of his not very event-filled or joy-filled life, searching for evidence that his being alive was worth the bother to himself, at least, if to no one else, and for a reason to keep bothering for another thirty.
Don't think, though, that Zinsky the Obscure is an extended riff on Hamlet's To be or not to be speech. It's simply an honestly and objectively attempted toting up and balancing off of losses and gains in a manner befitting the autobiography of an accountant.
Zinsky is the loving and devoted but selfish, because he's emotionally defensive and withdrawn, with good reason, son of a somewhat eccentric English teacher mother raising him on her own in genteel poverty after her divorce from his charismatic but physically abusive father. Which is what defines Zinsky and his life, the secret beatings his father gave him when he was a little boy whenever custodial visits forced them into each other's company.
Naturally, this has traumatized Zinsky and left him with a lifetime burden of shame and guilt, as if the beatings and his father's rage were his fault ---Mochari does an excellent job of portraying the manipulativeness of the abuser---but he developed his coping mechanisms early and he sticks with them throughout the novel, which are to keep himself aloof from strangers in case they might guess his secret, repress his own feelings so they can't be hurt, and scale back his expectations for happiness to the point of thinking that a good day is a day on which nothing too terrible happens. Since he's a pathological homebody---home is where the heart is for most people. For Zinsky home is where no one can touch you.---and he's taught himself never to take any physical or emotional risks, this has become the routine of his life, one dull, lonely but not too terrible day after another, the high points of which are, after he reaches puberty, his extended sessions of masturbation.
Zinsky the Obscure is the story of how an isolated, lonely, alienated, unhappy, and self-loathing young man becomes in slow stages and through very little effort of his own slightly less isolated, lonely , unhappy, and self-loathing.
As you might guess then, Zinsky is not the hero of his own story, which is a plus, I guess, although it might have been fun to read a story in which a character as lacking in heroic qualities as Zinsky is forced by circumstance into playing the role of hero.
He's not his own villain either. Zinsky is even more lacking in villainous qualities than he is in heroic ones. He's, generally, a decent-hearted, well-meaning guy, just ineffectual. A six foot eight inch tall, one hundred and fifty pound, prematurely bald nebbish with one not very overwhelming desire in life.
Not love. Not romance. Not passion. Not even erotic thrill. Just the release that comes from ejaculating into something more attractive and responsive than his own hand.
I should mention, although you've probably guessed, that Zinsky's masturbatory habits feature regularly in the novel and you might want to clear a place for it in that special section of your bookshelf next to Portnoy's Complaint and John McGahern’s The Dark.
As a narrator, Zinsky doesn't brag, although sometimes he comes perversely close to bragging that he has nothing to brag about. He doesn't whine; he just doesn't have much good news to report. He doesn't go in for the sort of intensive self-analysis that leads to psychotherapeutic catharsis, mainly because he's too self-protective, but partly because he bores himself. For the same reasons, he avoids self-criticism of the kind Pip subjects himself to nor is he the object of self-satire---he would need a sense of humor for that.
Possibly not the best choice for the narrator of a 342 page novel, a humorless, passive, self-obsessed, emotionally attenuated Peter Pan who can't fly, fight pirates, tame crocodiles, dance with Indians, flirt with mermaids, or bring himself to believe in fairies.
Zinsky is the kind of character you'd expect the world to gang up on just to make him wake up and pay attention.
For the most part, the world is as uninterested in Zinsky as he is in it.
What Zinsky the character is to Zinsky the narrator is an object of obsessive study. He is his main subject, practically his only subject. He stares into his past as ruthlessly as a teenager stares into a mirror determined to count every single one of his pimples. Zinsky the Obscure is a series of self-portraits by an artist who has made a vanity out of his lack of vanity. Here you see me in all my unattractive foolishness, he declares. Here I am at five sheepishly eating a McDonalds Happy Meal, effectively accepting a bribe from my father to not tell anyone how he beats me. Here I am at fifteen losing all my hair all at once for no medically explicable reason. Here I am as a teenager working in a grocery store and getting a co-worker fired as a result of my naive sense of right and wrong. Here I am in college failing at math but somehow passing my accounting classes. Here I am learning too late to make a career out of it or play on any school team that I'm pretty good at basketball. Here I am waiting tables in Boston. Here I am engaging in anal sex for the first time. Here I am getting caught masturbating by my mother. Here I am at twenty-eight on the day my girlfriend, one of three women who let me sleep with them despite my persistent charmlessness, told me she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby and marry me and I decided to be a selfish dick about it.
What's a novelist to do with this as his main character? Where's a novel to go with this as its point of view?
Well, if Zinsky was your creation, one thing you could do is give him a vivid and active inner life, and, amazingly, Zinsky has one. It revolves around the sport he is physically and, for that matter, psychologically least suited to play, football. Zinsky, the failed mathematician and dissatisfied accounting major, realizes that football is as much a game of numbers as baseball and this insight leads to his becoming to football what Bill James was to baseball, the best analyst and best judge of talent the game has ever seen. His one and only passion and source of joy turns out to be his one and only area of real competence and this happy coincidence spurs him to the only independent and positive action in his life.
He begins to write and publish The Quintessential Guide to the NFL Draft, which although it comes close to bankrupting him at the outset, becomes indispensible to coaches, agents, and fantasy football leaguers across the nation and sets him on the road to fame and fortune. It also leads him into adventures, of sorts. He has to commit burglaries and hack into other people's computers to get the Guide up and going. But his narrative focus remains on the surface. He tells us a lot about the business side of running the Guide but he doesn't let us see the love and imagination working together to get the Guide written. The numbers he gives us are his production costs not the numbers he uses to evaluate players. We don't see him watching a game, so we don't see what he sees when he's either at work or just enjoying the play on the field. He is indifferent to and disconnected from his ever increasing number of rabid football fan readers, so he doesn't have to share his feelings and insights with us via them. He doesn't rhapsodize about any favorite players. He doesn't tell stories about great games of the past or, as you'd expect of such an obsessive, go deep into the details analyzing a specific series of downs or single play. He doesn't even apologize for liking the Jets over the Giants.
The sections of the novel dealing with the Guide turn out to be continuations of Zinsky's preferred Here I am doing this, now here I am doing the thing that followed from that mode of storytelling. The most interesting, vital, and attractive thing about him---regardless of how you feel about football, a great passion is always attractive---is presented purely as a money making enterprise. Zinsky might as well have opened a dry cleaners. In fact, it might have been better for the book if he had because he wouldn't have been able to hide from his customers and employees or if he did it would have been funny.
So, having written your way around your narrator's inner life and given away your chance to show him as imaginatively active and engaged with at least the world inside his own head, what's your next move?
You could throw him into a plot in which he is forced out the door and to act against his instincts, wishes, and self-interest. The cops could arrive during one of his breaking and entering adventures. Obsessed fans of the Guide could invade his life and make an unwilling celebrity of him. The Football Establishment could decide, as the Baseball Establishment did with Bill James, that he's an enemy and set out to shut him and the Guide down.
I think it's clear Mochari chose not to go this route.
You could, then, put him in the company of characters who are his opposites, active, outward going, emotionally engaged, looking to find happiness or escape trouble or cause problems.
In short, you could write more of a social novel instead of a purely autobiographical one.
This isn't a strategy Dickens adopted just for David Copperfield. It was his whole reason for being as a storyteller. The constant collisions of all sorts and conditions, of types and stereotypes, of men and women and monsters and grotesques, of virtue and vice, of good and evil, in public and private but always in a crowd, is the source of most of the action and all of the plots from Pickwick through Drood.
No matter how alone and forgotten David is as a boy or how wrapped up in himself he sometimes gets as a young man, the crowd impresses itself upon his consciousness and ignites his imagination.
You're probably thinking it's unfair to compare a young writer's first novel to the greatest novel of the greatest English novelist writing in his prime, and ordinarily I'd agree. But Mochari himself invites the comparisons. Actually, he insists on the comparisons.
The full title of Dickens’ novel (and David’s autobiography) is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account).
Zinksy the Obscure is Molchari’s title for his novel. Zinksy’s title for his autobiography, announced in large letters on a page of its own at the beginning of the book, is The Personal History and Experience and Observation of Ariel Zinsky, An Only Child From New Hyde Park, Long Island.
Note the missing note of self-deprecation in Zinsky’s title.
As if that isn’t enough, Molchari opens with an intentionally shocking epigraph taken from David Copperfield and then essentially closes the book by letting Zinsky quote another passage from Copperfield to explain his thoughts and feelings as his story comes to an end without any apparent awareness that he's a thirty year old man claiming the feelings of a very small boy as his own.
David Copperfield plays two supporting roles in his own life story. First, he's a child from a fairy tale lost in the woods, then he is the juvenile love interest in a more realistic satire. But his main job is to become the writer capable of writing this book. And he shows us how this happens by showing his emotional and imaginative involvement with the host of other characters he gets entangled with. David is preternaturally self-aware, which is why he's so reliable when relating his own feelings. But he's even more aware of others and more interested in them. Some of that awareness is that of the older novelist imposing it upon scenes in which he's portraying himself as a lonely and neglected little boy and then as a self-absorbed adolescent and young man at times when he couldn't have been expected to have been paying much attention to anyone other than himself. But on some level he must have been taking it all in or else his adult self wouldn't have the memories from which to work.
Throughout the novel, there's an ironic contrast between what the young David thought was going on and what his older, writer self now knows was happening.
There is no contrast between the younger and older Zinskys.
Zinsky sees a lot, remembers a lot, and re-imagines none of it. He can't work his way back into his own past to "see" what he failed to see at times when he was too caught up in himself because he's still that caught up in himself. As a result, he can only report the past as if it's the present. There is no difference between Zinsky the narrator and Zinsky the character at different stages in his growing up. Zinsky at thirty seems pretty much the same person he was at fifteen.
Despite all this, there is one key and redeeming way Zinsky is forced to be more like David Copperfield. As much as he would like to, he can't get away from the crowd.
No matter how determined Zinsky is to be left alone, he keeps encountering other characters even more determined not to leave him that way. His father, his girlfriends, his step-sister, and, most importantly, his mother force their way into his life and make him pay attention to them and the larger world in which they thrive. And although Zinsky is nowhere near as capable as David Copperfield of imagining his way into the heads of others, he is observant and meticulous. He gets his facts straight and he's fair, even at his own expense. He's a good reporter.
Everything Zinsky does, every place he lives, works, or visits, everyone he meets are precisely and persuasively described. We may not get an intimate sense of what makes particular characters tick, but we do get the sense of knowing what they are like. And what we know about what Zinsky's mother Barbara is like is enough to tell us that, unlike her son, she is heroic.
She's not the heroine of Zinsky's life, at least not as directly as Aunt Betsey is the heroine of David's. But she’s the heroine of her own. A tragic heroine.
Barbara is a talented and dedicated teacher who could have been a great teacher if she'd felt free to be more ambitious. But she's devoted herself to raising her strange, socially incompetent, baffling child. Zinsky is lonely by choice. Barbara is lonely by necessity and it's not only to protect Zinsky. Plenty of men who would marry her, some of whom she might even like to marry, come and go as Zinsky is growing up, but she maintains her independence for the sake of caution and self-preservation.
Having made one disastrous choice in a first husband, she doesn't trust herself not to make another.
Zinsky sees what she's going through. He recognizes her decisions are costing her in ways he can only guess at. And that's just it. He can only guess because he can't imagine his way into her heart and head. As devoted as they are to each other and dependent on each other’s company, Zinsky and his mother remain essentially strangers. It takes him the whole novel to appreciate her sufferings and her small triumphs and by the time he does it's too late, which is a second tragedy in its own right, and it's what makes Zinsky the Obscure a sad and moving story despite its obtuse and irksome narrator.
More than the romantic adventures and misadventures, more than any late night conversations about books and writing, more than anything read or said in the workshops, more than the arguments friendly and not so friendly at the bars after class, more than that day in class when, armed with a gift from Uncle Merlin just arrived in the mail, I jumped on the seminar table and, after declaring him a fugitive from intergalactic justice, zapped Ron Hansen with my brand-new toy ray gun which lit up red and yellow and made satisfyingly loud buzzing and humming noises, and then ran from the room shouting that the Federation had been avenged, and more even than any actual writing I did, my time at the Iowa Writers Workshop is defined in my memory by the image of my typewriter sitting in a circle of light on my makeshift desk in my bedroom in the house I shared with six other grad students on the street where Flannery O'Connor lived when she was at the Workshop forty years before. It’s eight or nine o’clock on a Friday night. I’ve just come upstairs with a cup of coffee or can of Pepsi, ready to spend the next three hours pounding away to earn the reward of catching up with friends at whatever watering hole they’d be watering at around midnight.
I loved that time. I loved that typewriter. It had been with me forever, my eighth grade graduation gift from Mom and Pop Mannion. The world was still very young then. PC’s were appearing on desktops all over the country and a few of my friends and classmates had them. Some of my friends made use of the University’s computer labs. But for the most part all the writing done in Iowa City was done on typewriters. We typed out our stories and our poems and our letters home and it’s a wonder all the windows in town didn’t rattle day and night from the vibration and noise.
I’m not nostalgic for typewriters. I was a slow and inexpert typist and I never had enough Liquid Paper on hand. Desktop computers and then laptops were godsends. But I still wish I had a working typewriter, just for the fun of it. Because they are fun to write on. They make noise. They encourage violence in art, like action painting. Using them made writing feel like real work. Mark Twain used a typewriter. Hemingway used a typewriter. Clark Kent used a typewriter.
And that answers a question I’ve long had.
If Tom Hanks and I met, would we be friends?
Yes. You bet. We would.
As long as we talked of nothing else but typewriters.
Remingtons from the 1930s go THICK THICK. Midcentury Royals sound like a voice repeating the word CHALK. CHALK. CHALK CHALK. Even the typewriters made for the dawning jet age (small enough to fit on the fold-down trays of the first 707s), like the Smith Corona Skyriter and the design masterpieces by Olivetti, go FITT FITT FITT like bullets from James Bond’s silenced Walther PPK. Composing on a Groma, exported to the West from a Communist country that no longer exists, is the sound of work, hard work. Close your eyes as you touch-type and you are a blacksmith shaping sentences hot out of the forge of your mind.
Try this experiment: on your laptop, type out the opening line of “Moby Dick” and it sounds like callmeishmael. Now do the same on a 1950s Olympia (need one? I’ve got a couple) and behold: CALL! ME! ISHMAEL! Use your iPad to make a to-do list and no one would even notice, not that anyone should. But type it on an old Triumph, Voss or Cole Steel and the world will know you have an agenda: LUGGAGE TAGS! EXTENSION CORDS! CALL EMMA!
You will need to make space for a typewriter and surrender the easy luxury of the DELETE key, but what you sacrifice in accuracy will be made up in panache. Don’t bother with correcting tape, white-out or erasable onionskin paper. There is no shame in type-overs or XXXXXXiing out a word so mistyped that spell-check could not decipher it. Such blemishes will become the personality of your typing equal to the legibility, or lack thereof, of your penmanship.
Read about Hanks’ love for typewriters and his collection of them in his op-ed for the New York Times, I am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That?
I’m thinking of starting a jar like people have swear jars into which they pay themselves a quarter every time they cuss. I’ll pay myself every time I use the words “in fact” in a post.
Made three dollars off today’s post so far. Still editing…