March 19th: On Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The saddest people I know are also, by no accident, the funniest. Laughter and despair are self-perpetuating, cross-fertilizing reactions to grief. Dave Eggers is not alone in his ability to extract humor from loss, even if his loss is starker than most. What makes Eggers unique is his awareness of the ubiquity of this act. From the start, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius finds Eggers terminally self-conscious. He knows his writing a memoir is inherently narcissistic; he knows his transforming the untimely deaths of his parents into art speaks to a small, sentimental part of himself very different from the firebrand personality he presents. He knows the story he’s about to tell, although superficially true, is, at least in its details, a lie. And yet he tells it nonetheless. He hates his need to be heard, to be known—but this need is still a need, and we are here to fill it.
I loved this book. I—yeah. I’m not sure I have anything else to say. What Eggers accomplishes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is what I want to achieve with my own writing, both in content and in form. I want to be known. I want to be heard. I also want it to be known that I hate myself for having this need. All art is self-performance. We are all hurt people who want other hurt people to listen to and in doing so take into themselves our hurt. We are all hurting people doomed to hurt others in turn. We are all grieving and selfish and precious and lonely and lovely as fuck.
Most of what is write is about suicide. Most of my thoughts are about suicide. I do not want to commit suicide, not really. But I am fascinated by the act of it, the instantaneousness with which all my beauty and all my obsession with my own beauty might be thrown away. I loathe—I resent—I reject the emptiness so abundantly on display in today’s digital age. Every ASMR and commentary and cosplay and beauty and baking channel on YouTube is nothing more and nothing less than the attempt of a narcissist to be known. It is the reality television of the ‘90s and early ‘00s translated to today and taken to the nth degree. It is averageness that imagines itself art. As is this. As is everything you post, share, make. And this is beautiful. And this is abhorrent. And this is okay.
In the fictionalized version of the casting interview that nearly landed him on MTV’s The Real World, Laura, the woman interviewing Eggers, asks, “Why do you want to be on The Real World?
“Because I want everyone to witness my youth,” he says.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?”
And isn’t it?
And aren’t we?
March 20th: On Donnie Darko
I am going to do this movie a disservice. I am going to need to write about this movie again. My freshman year of college, I had a poster of Frank’s head on my dorm room’s wall. (Frank, in case you are unaware, is a figure wearing a rabbit costume, the head of which is a skeletal nightmare.) I cannot now look at Frank without remembering my freshman year, and how lonely and afraid I felt for most of it. I was figuring myself out, and I was terrified; a poster for the film Donnie Darko was therefore the most appropriate decoration I could place upon my wall. It’s a film about the horror of growing up. I have watched it probably ten times, and I will watch it probably ten more before I need to no longer. Donnie Darko is that kind of film.
The film follows the eponymous Donnie Darko, a teenager in 1980s America, as he tries to make sense of his visions of Frank, who prophecies that the world will end in 28 days. It asks both large, existential questions—is there a God? What happens when we die?—as well as questions that belong more acutely to one’s teenage years. Donnie wants to know why the people in his life act so poorly, why so much cruelty and apathy exists in his world. And as he attempts to figure these questions out, he lashes out against these ills. He floods his high school; he burns down the home of Jim Cunningham, a famous religious speaker and secret pedophile. He might not be able to explain away the cruelty writ large in the world, but he does know how he feels about it—and he makes this very clear.
With these sources of angst in mind, the film’s ending, in which Donnie is crushed by the jet engine he narrowly avoids at the start of the film, feels frighteningly prophetic. If you do not find a way out of your own existential loop, the film seems to say, then you are doomed to share his fate. Donnie Darko is a film about the inescapability of fate; more to the point, it’s a film that performs this inescapability, drawing its fans back, asking them to watch it again, to see what—if any—answers they might have missed. I recommend watching it. Wholeheartedly. But don’t say I didn’t warn you when you do.
March 21st: Thirteen Plans I Will Promptly Flake On After the Pandemic Ends
- Date Night: Because safety lies not in numbers, but in a number (one). And because I have almost completely forgotten how to mask my existential despair with deft dunks upon late-night dog-walkers out with their dogs like, “Hey, cute Shiba Inu, loser. Why don’t you go to bed, and hold that precious sphere of fur and love as tightly to your chest as you can?”
- Coffee: Because I have grown rather fond of my Coffee Mate French vanilla creamer, and because I fear the withering gaze of whatever barista has taken the place of (now-PhD-candidate) Nihal as I confess to them my sins.
- Hike: Because a hike requires a level of cardiovascular fitness and geographical orientation that none save Les Stroud possess. Remember him?
- Spin Class: Because I have been staring at a screen, straining my hardest and going absolutely nowhere, for far too long. (Also because I drunk-texted Todd, my instructor, just before Halloween, and I do not know if he has forgotten this regrettable incident. Or if I even want him to be the sort of person to forget.)
- Open Mic Night: Because my jokes work better in an online milieu. And who wants to risk bombing IRL now that Twitter has an edit button, anyway?
- Belated Birthday: Because I have forgotten not only how old you are, but who you are at all. I would text you an apology, but I forget if our relationship was close enough to require a text, or if it was more of a Facebook message kind of thing.
- Improv: Because 2020 was an entire year of yes, and, and I can take no more yes’s, let alone and’s. To Sandra, our troupe’s fearless leader: I am so, so sorry. May Punchline Spelunkers carry on in my stead.
- Other Belated Birthday: Because you posted something on May 19th, 2020 that rendered you unforgivable, in my eyes. You know who you are, just as you know what you posted. Consider yourself canceled, Chris.
- Camping Trip With the Boys: Because mosquitoes are going to both begin and spread the next one of these, and I refuse to be patient zero.
- Bar: Because striking up and continuing a conversation without the comforting failsafes of purportedly spotty WiFi and decreasingly comedic backgrounds strikes me, optimistically, as a Sisyphean task.
- D&D Session: Because last Tuesday, my orc necromancer, Yessup Jessup, died in the swamps of Galen’s Fifth District, and I am still creating my new character. (It’s going well. Their name is Urk Fellatio, and they kick so much elvish ass.)
- My Own Belated Birthday: Because time, to quote Einstein, is an illusion. A trick, played by an uncreative and vindictive god. And I, for one, refuse to play the fool.
- Bowling: Honestly, aside from the entire notion of sticking one’s sweaty, greasy fingers into the same holes into which another’s fingers quite recently plunged, bowling sounds pretty fun. When did you say, again? Wednesday? Nine? Half-off shots?
March 22nd: On Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day
It’s always a curious experience, visiting an author’s earlier works after having already read the stories of their later career. Refinement, after all, is not always synonymous with quality; a writer’s debut often surpasses any work they later produce. While this is not the case with Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (his second collection, Tales of Falling and Flying, represents a more-than-worthy followup), I cannot help but feel that something was lost in the intervening years. If Tales represents Loory at the peak of his off-kilter, fabulist powers, Stories finds him in the process of discovering these powers. The result of this exploration is a collection that makes up for consistency with variety. These are tales in which the characters are not the only ones figuring things out—the creator of these characters is figuring things out, too. And this is not a bad thing, more often than not. Uncertainty can get a writer in trouble, yes. But it can also result in conclusions of the most miraculous kind, which is what Loory delivers in his first collection, again and again and again.
Against a backdrop of far weirder examples (there appear, in Loory’s first collection, both a story about a sentient hat and one about a talking, decapitated head), my two favorite stories are two of Loory’s tropiest. The first, “UFO: a Love Story,” traces the arc of a small-town romance and the alien invasions that disrupt it; the second, “The Sea Monster,” demonstrates what happens when a sailor, apparently drowned, inexplicably reappears in the fishing village in which he lives. Each story is about belief (or the lack thereof), and what happens when this belief conflicts with the belief of another. In “UFO,” the boy’s belief is borne out; he and the girl he loves are, in fact, singular. They board a UFO, fly off into a Happily Ever After among the stars, and are never seen again. In “The Sea Monster,” by contrast, the sailor fails to convince his fellow citizens of his innocence. As a result, he is hanged, and as a result of this unjust execution, the townspeople responsible soon meet a similarly grim fate.
Taken together, the stories embody my main thematic takeaway from Stories, which is this: belief is a powerful force. Belief can destroy; it can also save. In “UFO: a Love Story,” it does both. In “The Sea Monster,” it only accomplishes the former. Belief is what makes the highs of Stories’ stories higher than those of Tales. Belief, too, is what makes its lows lower.
Loory’s first collection is one in which his magic, although potent, doesn’t always work. When it does, though, when it does—the experience is like nothing else.
March 23rd: Submitted somewhere! Fingers crossed!
March 24th: What a Barista Says vs. What They Mean: A Handy Translation Guide
Baristas are mysteries. They look like us, they talk like us, but they are not us. If you, like me, are one who has requested that a drink be remade, or who has spilled their drink at the very moment the transaction appears complete, then you know the terrifying unknowability of which I speak. Do they really mean that your latte-detonating gaff is “no big deal,” or that remaking your medium cold brew with a shot of espresso and a pump of sugar-free hazelnut and a splash of coconut milk is “no problem at all”? No, they do not. But neither do they desire to boil you alive in a pot of strong Colombian, which is what I think you think they mean, having thought as much myself.
After over two years of gathering intel among the cloistered ranks of our espresso-peddling brethren, I have compiled a list of their most frequent codes, and done my best to translate these phrases into the common tongue. You can find a sample of these translations below. May they serve you well.
What they say: “Hey!”
What they mean: “Another morning on this dying space rock, comrade. How, pray tell, might I help you endure today’s incarnation of our mortal hell?”
What they say: “Oh, you know, hanging in there.”
What they mean: “Earlier today, just after we opened, a woman came in. She was old, maybe in her eighties, and she spoke with an Eastern European accent I couldn’t quite place. Like Baba Yaga, but from Brooklyn. I asked her how she was, and she said, ‘Improbably.’ To better answer your question, then: this. Improbably is how I am.”
What they say: “All good!”
What they mean: “Do not apologize for knowing what you want. Never apologize for this, friend. We are born into a postlapsarian world not knowing what we want, only that we want. That you are able to assert, with unshakeable certainty, that you desire your cappuccino bone-dry, oat milk, two extra shots of espresso, a sprinkle of nutmeg on top—who am I to express annoyance at such terrific specificity? I am getting paid, am I not? Even if this pay is not great?”
What they say: “So we can’t make a mocha black, but…”
What they mean: “A mocha, by definition, is this: espresso, chocolate (whether in powder or syrup form), steamed milk. Milk, you beautiful, uncaffeinated soul. To make a mocha black is to deny its very being. May the coffee gods forever curse every corporate bastard at Dunkin’ or Starbucks HQ who ever allowed you to persist in your ignorance. A mocha, ontologically speaking, requires milk.”
What they say: “Good morning!”
What they mean: “I beg of you, brother: believe that today will belong to us. Believe that I will make your latte perfectly smooth, trace a rosetta in the frothed soy upon its surface just so. Am I happy? No. But I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of yours.”
What they say: “Long time no see!”
What they mean: “In your time abroad, I have served uncaffeinated ignoramuses of the most somniferous, deplorable sort. Oh, how I have missed you, dearest espresso sister of my soul.”
What they say: “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.”
What they mean: “A confession, bean companion: for a moment, I considered gripping you in a sort of over-the-counter chokehold, and lowering your nose (as one might, say, the schnoz of a disobedient schnauzer) into your mess. Never again, I imagined, would you step into my shop, exhaust me even more deeply with your clumsiness. And yet I did not. What is another accident, when an accident is all anything in this unlikely existence is?”
What they say: “Personally, I’m not a ‘sweet drink’ kind of guy, but the caramel vanilla crème brûlée latte is pretty popular.”
What they mean: “In the 4th century BCE, Diogenes forsook the pleasures of the flesh for a simpler life, one free from the hedonism and corruption he saw in society. I am not saying that this is the only path to truth, but that it is one of many. If the caramel vanilla crème brûlée latte represents a small part of your truth, then live it, by God. Live it.”
What they say: “Nope, no coffee here!”
What they mean: “In an alternate universe, this shop does not stand on the corner of 8th and Market. There is no 8th, and there is no Market, and the revitalizing effects of the fruits of coffea arabica were never discovered. In an alternate universe, the calibration of dark energy is such that all existence has long ago collapsed into a black hole, thereby rendering impossible the scene we now occupy: you joking with me, me joking back, smiling in spite of the nothingness that awaits both of us sooner than we are willing to admit. Yes, there is coffee within this establishment. And yes, I will deliver it unto you posthaste.”
What they say: “No problem! People get confused at the difference all the time.”
What they mean: “A cappuccino consists of foamed milk—in Italian, cappuccino, the diminutive of cappuccio, means “little hood,” referred to the caul of froth that forms at the drink’s head—but a latte is steamed milk, and in Italian means, “Free us from this unending daily grind. Permit us to go forth, brother of the bean, with thee at my side.”
March 25th: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin
Earlier this year, I wrote of the power of language to carry a story in the absence of plot. While I still believe in this truth, Vladimir Nabokov’s thirteen novel, Pnin, puts this thesis to the test. Because I enjoyed large swathes of Pnin: the scenes of Timofey Pnin, the eponymous professor, bumbling his way through his employment at Waindell College prove particularly delightful, and the arc of Pnin’s relationship with his ex-wife, Liza Wind, strikes in me a surprisingly melancholic note. And yet even these sections of the novel would be drab, uninspiring affairs if not for Nabokov’s prose.
I read somewhere (who am I kidding: it was Wikipedia; “somewhere” is always, unless noted otherwise, Wikipedia) that Pnin, which preceded Nabokov’s more famous Lolita, was actually written concurrently with the latter work. After finishing Pnin, this makes a lot of sense, and places the earlier work in a context that elevates it in my estimation. Nothing much happens in the novel, after all. Pnin is a character that remains largely unchanged. He begins the story as a congenial, comedic, basically decent man; he ends the story the same, if somewhat saddened by the way his world has changed. In this way, he acts as a counterweight to Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, balancing out his perverse, brooding machinations with his own unexceptional, unimpeachable goodness.
Pnin is not a novel I will read again. It’s a novel, in fact, I would probably regret reading, if not for Nabokov’s prose. I want my characters to question, to suffer, to change. And I think Nabokov wants this, too—and thus Lolita—but that he also sees the value in a quieter tale. At the center of Pnin is a subtle sort of ache. It’s a novel that rarely moves forward, that is almost always too busy looking back. It’s not the kind of novel I like, at least not at this stage of my life. But perhaps I one day will.