Note: My goal at the beginning of this year was to get to a point where I could turn out, if need be, a piece of analysis or criticism or creative nonfiction I could be proud of in less than a day. In order to get to this point, I resolved to write a piece of nonfiction every day. While I did not do this (a novel got in the way; so did life, in the best way), I did accomplish my goal. I feel good about both my prose and the clarity of my thinking. There is room to grow; in five years I will look back and, I hope, wince. But I’m proud of where I am, at least for now.
This being said, I do intend to continue recording my thoughts and feelings about the things I read. I’ll probably be doing it on a monthly basis, though. The rigor of a daily habit, especially when balanced alongside other projects, is unsustainable. A weekly update is also a lot, and is inflexible with regard to longer works. Once a month, though, with each piece being only a paragraph or two long… this I can do.
Without further ado, then: November. So far. (With maybe one or two late October reads thrown in.)
On Louise Gluck’s Proofs and Theories
I grow increasingly impressed by my favorite poets’ prose. Charles Simic’s The Life of Images and Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, both of which I read at the beginning of this year, re-shaped the way I thought about language. But they were also beautiful works, poetic in their own right, and this surprised me. In my mind, there existed a fence between the work and the analysis thereof: a chain-link barrier, lethally electrified, stretching impossibly into the wordless reaches of space. Beauty could leak through—one or two well-turned phrases, artfully teased—a careful harvest of pulled quotes—but this was the sum of the osmosis allowed.
If Simic and Abdurraqib began to remove me of this belief, Gluck has, in her Proofs and Theories, cured me entirely. She speaks about her craft with a technician’s clinicalness, but also a caretaker’s touch. She is unafraid to share her opinions about her fellow artists, but is as unbiased as it’s possible to be in her breaking down of why she does or does not esteem the works they produce. And every sentence with which she does this is, in a word, perfect. Take these eight words, for example, which Gluck chose to introduce a collection of the best American poetry of 1993: “The world is complete without us. Intolerable fact.” I cannot think of a more courageous admission of smallness. I likewise fail to come up with a braver way of conveying this truth. Words, like we, are small things. Basically nothing. Accidents adrift in a vast, indifferent cosmic hum. It’s only through writers like Gluck, who create in the face of this fact, that they, like we, become anything more.
On George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo
Lincoln in the Bardo introduced me to Saunders. I was in my senior year of undergrad, wrapping up a creative writing minor and an English major, and this book showed me how wrong most of my ideas about what made good writing were. Good writing possessed gravity, I thought. And it did so almost exclusively. Good writing was not play.
But the first scene of Lincoln in the Bardo features a man more blueballed than any other, ever: Hans Vollman, veteran ghost, dies with his dick out, quivering on the verge of consummating his recent marriage to his much younger bride. It’s hilarious, and it’s tragic, and it ends with the introduction of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son, upon whose salvation hinges the success of the rest of the novel. “A boy,” Vollman mildly remarks. “A mere lad. Oh dear.” Such improbable juggling—of levity and gravity, of plot and subplot, theme and event—defines Saunders’s oeuvre, and begins to explain his place among the greatest writers living today. I saw someone tweet the other day about Lincoln in the Bardo not being as good as everyone thought. I didn’t reply (I think I’m over social media, more or less?), but if I had, I would have suggested he read it again.
On Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
This was good. Great, probably. I was also, often, bored. A man wakes from a coma, and then spends four hundred pages figuring out who he once was, and now is. I love the concept, but only tolerate the execution. A plot can be moved forward by the analysis of other plots, stealing their momenta like a literary leech, but it cannot consist of analysis and nothing more. Events must come to pass. Nabokov’s Pale Fire (of which I will shortly speak) does something similar to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, but with significantly more success, and I think it’s because of the former’s preponderance of events. Both Eco and Nabokov are lucid, poetic polymaths; in this instance, though, only Nabokov seems to have set out to excite. Things happen in Pale Fire. Things happen in Eco’s work, too, but these moments are few and far between. They are also boring, largely. Pale Fire features a king, an assassin, an obsession. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is about a boy growing up.
On David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs
I do this about once a year. I read the right (or wrong) thing, and it reduces me—instantly, completely—to an avatar of its author’s beliefs. I first read (as one does) John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction my junior year of undergrad, then for a second time last year, and each time I was left feeling like I’d figured it out. Sentences were a labor of love. Fiction was the stuff of life—scene, event, specifics, evocation of the five senses, genuine sentiment. That there might be other elements at play—structure, namely; that precise balance between plot and theme, interiority and action, backstory and plot—was not a consideration. Gardner was God, and God knew all.
Anyway, Bullshit Jobs did this to me. David Graeber is furious, and for good reason, and so, again, am I. In this world, the jobs that earn their holders the most money aren’t jobs at all. We’re talking here about bankers, financial analysts, assistant administrative supervisors, managing consultants of paper-pushing, curriculum advisors, academic strategists. They are fictions. They are, if not pernicious, then a colossal waste of resources and energy and time. We live in a world that fetishizes work, and therefore invents well-compensating nonsense in order to get itself off. The anthropologist concludes the introduction in the key of a manifesto: “I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization. There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves.” I agree. There are other things wrong with what we’ve done, and do (climate change, namely, which a wholesale reduction in bullshit, and thus our collective weekly working hours, would just so happen to begin to fix); take your pick. But the phenomenon of bullshit jobs that Graeber so searingly picks apart is a good place to start.
On Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
It took me longer than it should have to figure out what was going on, but when I did—man. Boy, oh boy. It’s difficult to forget that Nabokov was among the greatest to ever do it, but it’s easy to forget the reason why. Because it’s not that his prose is poetic (it is), or that his ideas are remarkably original (they are). Rather, it’s the symbiosis of these abilities, the inseparability of one from the other, that defines Nabokov’s work. In a sentence, Pale Fire follows Charles Kinbote, a recently hired professor in the town of New Wye, as he comments upon the final poem, the eponymous “Pale Fire,” of his once-colleague, John Shade. As the novel progresses, though, it quickly becomes clear that Kinbote is more than he says he is, and that his relationship with Shade was more than mere friendship. The way that this becomes clear, though, is less through the novel’s events than through Kinbote’s narration of them. The story does not merely contain language; it is the language itself. Kinbote reveals himself through his commentary on Shade’s themes, his digressions into the history of his native Zembla, his hyper-fixation on elements of “Pale Fire” as trivial as a syllable of a word. Language is the secret main character of all Nabokov’s work (Lolita is smut in a lesser hand), but nowhere more than here.
On The Best American Short Stories of the Century (edited by John Updike)
This one took me a while. One century, two World Wars, multiple cultural upheavals, fifty-ish stories (I admit to skipping five), almost eight hundred pages. I began with two goals in mind, and ended up accomplishing three.
The first was to analyze the structure of each text through a simplified version of the lens Sandra Scofield recommends in her book on craft The Last Draft. In this, she defines the different purposes a passage can have, then breaks these down into a number of subcategories. From these, I’ve internalized five: exposition, scene, sequence, fragment, and interiority. There are overlaps in these groups, and many writers blend each element so subtly and completely as to render them almost indistinguishable, but these are the building blocks of fiction. By annotating each story in this way, I intended to render this distinction subconscious, thereby improving my own craft. In this regard, I believe I succeeded. Knowing when to employ a sequence of scenes instead of a single, more detailed event; knowing when to omit exposition when a well-chosen fragment will do—this is a matter of hard-won intuition. This is a skill at which it will take me decades to get to where I want to be. All I’m able to do now is say which is which, and to head into revision with this distinction in mind. I am also better equipped to say which of these modes I prefer: sequences, to me, are more fun than scenes; an evocative fragment does the job of pages of exposition. This is a fine place to be.
The second was to figure out what it was about certain stories that made them come alive. In this aspect I was less successful. Every story in the anthology is, in its own way, extraordinary. But only ten or so out of the fifty-odd here included are stories I’d read again. How is this possible? These stories are the best of the best of the best (as Updike himself notes, they have been selected four times over: first for publication, then for the longlist for that year’s anthology, then for the anthology itself, then for the century’s; if you wish, you can break the process down even further, all of which only serves to increase these stories’ repute). And yet I found myself skimming, glassy-eyed, more often than I care to admit. This is a paradox whose impossibility summons up ghosts of the refrain all creative writing workshops learn to most fear: can it be that “relatability” (shudders) truly is the pivot upon which a story’s success swings? But even a cursory review of my favorites from the anthology disproves this suspicion: Lawrence Sargent Hall’s “The Ledge” features a sailor whose masculine hubris leads to his and his son’s doom; Updike’s own “Gesturing” is about the painful poignancy of a divorce; Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too” is about the inability of a bitter person to square her pettiness with the indifference of death.
So what is it, then, if it’s not the degree to which I see myself in these scenes? The best answer I can give is to compare these stories to songs. Because the songs that make me want to write—not necessarily my favorite songs, although these two categories significantly overlap—all culminate in a moment of collapse. (I am, in fact, making a playlist of these songs as we speak. At last count, it stands at nearly eight hours long. It is titled “The Hole in the Heart of the Pit of the World.” No, I don’t know what this means, either. All I know is that my partner and I will probably be the only ones to ever listen to it. The rest of the world must content itself with its echoes.) Their bridges lead to nowhere. The structure that is carefully built in their first halves is instantly ripped away. And it’s in this gulf that we arrive at catharsis. Or at the absence thereof. In both cases, in a word: truth.
The third, unexpected gift of this anthology: joy. I didn’t love every story, but the ones I did—yeah. I loved them. A lot. Pam Houston’s “The Best Girlfriend You Never Had,” the selection that closes out the anthology, might be in my top ten stories, ever. As much as I’m ready to move on to lighter reading, I’ll miss these stories’ weight.