On Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties
I’ve been listening to a lot of Car Seat Headrest lately, and I’ve landed on two theories as to why. The first is that Will Toledo, the band’s (now thirty-something!) frontman, is a master of structure. A student of music, he’s able to synthesize stylistic influences as disparate as classic rock and contemporary pop, spool out a chaotic thirteen-minute dirge and tight two-hundred-second single with equal success. If his nineties emo sensibilities are most apparent—think Modest Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, a dash of early Death Cab—they share Toledo’s soundscape with a spectrum of impulses that, rather than serving as competition, only augment them. In a lesser musician’s hands, the result of atom-smashing together ‘70s rock and ‘90s emo and the bedroom pop of the twenty-teens would be dissonant nonsense; only owing to Toledo’s firm grasp upon genre(s), his mastery of theory, does it become art.
Second—and more importantly, as I’ll argue—I’ve listened to so much Car Seat Headrest in the last two months because, for all Toledo’s songwriting chops, he remains, at heart, a terminally young man. While Toledo’s knowledge is evident, it’s not what makes Car Seat great. My favorite of their albums, 2011’s Twin Fantasy, sounds and reads like an album written by a teenager. And that’s because it is: Toledo, when he wrote and recorded it, was nineteen. He was in love with a much older man; Twin Fantasy was his way of turning ache into art. Over its ten songs, he alternately croons and screams, aches and celebrates, lashes out and retreats. Songs like “Bodys” and “Cute Thing” catch him dancy and riff-driven, shouting over electric guitars; songs like “High to Death” and “Famous Prophets (Stars),” by contrast, find him anhedonic, mumbling, scarcely audible above background samples. The album is less a love story than a schizophrenic’s imagining of one. Joy is here, and in abundance—but so too are despair, and anger, and grief. The structure of the song is only the skeleton, the necessary chassis for its soul. Where each finds its center is where its center no longer holds, where the verse-chorus-verse structure dissolves, where the stage-dressing is stripped away. Twice in Twin Fantasy—in “Beach Life-in-Death” and “Famous Prophets (Stars),” its two longest songs—the album collapses upon itself, returning to its six-word core: “The ocean washed over your grave.” In the end, the lack that Toledo laments shall pass. Theory is necessary; in the end, though, all that remains is the emotion to which it gave (and to which it gives) rise. I come for the build-up; I come back for the decay.
The Sense of an Ending, which, in 2011, at last won Julian Barnes his Booker, nails the first of the two things Car Seat does so well. The novel is a slim thing, a precise 150 pages; it’s divided into halves, the second of which doubles in length the first. And this is intentional: the novel is a study of memory, a meditation upon the ways in which we pervert it, slanting it to shape our needs. Tony Webster, its narrator, had, in his teenage years, a friend, Adrian Finn. An ex-girlfriend of Tony’s, one Veronica Ford, went on to date Adrian; Tony, in an impulsive act of post-pubescent vindication, sent a vitriolic letter to the pair; some months later, Adrian killed himself, slitting his wrists in a bathtub while the water cooled. This is the entire story, more or less. And it takes up only the novel’s first third. The rest of our time is spent in Tony’s mind, caught in his Ouroboric train of thought as he revisits his past acts, alternately denying and confirming his guilt. It’s a quiet, controlled tale, and this is purposeful; very rarely is memory (as it is in, say, Memento, or The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) a cinematic act.
What it lacks is the thing Carmen Maria Machado’s 2017 collection Her Body and Other Parties also lacks, although for different reasons. As Barnes is to the form of the novel, Machado is to the short story. The first of the collection’s tales, “The Husband Stitch,” is as traditional as magical realism gets; “Especially Heinous,” my favorite of the eight, takes the story-as-a-list subgenre and elevates it to its Platonic ideal. Nowhere does Machado strike us as being uncertain; she knows exactly what she wants to talk about—masochism, chauvinism, eating disorders, autofiction—and she knows how to talk about it. Even in a story like “The Resident,” which wanders in a way its companions do not, one never doubts the teller. This is a tale about Art, capital A, and its demands on the artist, lower-case a. It’s a story about the tug-of-war between ambition and contentment, art and life, mania and sanity—and Machado nails it. Unarguably. My problem (and it’s a big one) is that she never lets go of the reins. Not for a moment does she sacrifice control in the pursuit of a deeper, more frightening feeling. It’s the same impasse Barnes comes to in The Sense of an Ending, and it’s the barrier Car Seat bursts through in almost every entry into their discography.
The final thing I read this week, C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, while predating its bedfellows by a solid half-century, was my favorite of the three. Machado’s sentences are better, yes; Barnes’s story is more cunningly told. But C.S. Lewis, as he always does, writes with an abandon I cannot deny. For the bulk of the demon Screwtape’s letters, which he addresses to his nephew Wormwood, whose task it is to draft his human charge into Satan’s army, he exhibits a mastery of rhetoric that is, quite literally, inhuman. He is charming; he is frightening; he is gentle. And yet—and yet. At moments, this guise drops, revealing for a moment the demon he is, the abyss behind the mask. Nowhere does this happen more overtly than about two-thirds of the way through the sequence, when Screwtape works himself into a barely-coherent fury, lamenting Wormwood’s ineffectual efforts at conversion while simultaneously asserting the inevitability of Hell’s victory. “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end,” he predicts. Shortly afterward, he turns into a centipede, whereupon his intern, Toadpipe, takes over, finishing the letter. “In the heat of composition I find that I have inadvertently allowed myself to assume the form of a large centipede. I am accordingly dictating the rest to my secretary.” Hell will win, yes. But not yet. For now, the best it can do is incoherent fury. Which Lewis, as he needs to, allows.
This is the kind of thing I’m talking about when I speak of sacrificing control. Perhaps my favorite short story ever, Kelly Link’s “The Lesson,” reaches its peak with the following lines: “The boy is loved. The loved one suffers. All loved ones suffer. Love is not enough to prevent this. Love is not enough. The thing that you wished for. Was this it?” Gone is the reticence, the careful release of sentiment. It is all feeling, all at once, and we are awash in it. This is what Car Seat Headrest does in every song, and which my favorite works—Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things—do by their end. Catharsis takes work, but it’s worth it. It’s everything, but in the moment, when the moment comes, it’s almost nothing. It’s an absence of articulation. It’s a breakdown of sound. It’s the same words, over and over and over again. And then it’s no words at all.