Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal -- I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t -- but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.) But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned -- always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning -- for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness -- a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness -- and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading -- and abandoning.) Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand -- I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book -- but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity -- at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed. I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation -- two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She's inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way -- both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers. Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single -- and, crucially, female -- late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed. I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so -- a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. "Before inventors created engines to take the place of men," he writes, the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx -- these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age. An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it. The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 -- or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction -- who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders...Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen -- really for the first time in any kind of serious way -- to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer -- and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists -- he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.) It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story -- both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style -- about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.” I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length -- we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read. My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows. The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics. Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am. TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book. DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part. TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first. DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books. TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people? DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel -- of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point. TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety. DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy. TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it? DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form -- people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself. TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more? DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led. TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older? DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there. TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe -- the reality of climate change, for instance -- something that preoccupies you as you get older? DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place. TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work? DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since. TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure. DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air. TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book. DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked. [Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]
There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010's Skippy Dies. Because this new novel -- which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity -- really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely -- or maybe not strangely at all -- it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general. There aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements -- string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys -- into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel. Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at. The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss. Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn't think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn't feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn't have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they've raised children and grandchildren. So they're well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies. As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don't read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it's in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don't get me. And now it's like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I'm a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that's it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you've had your moment in the sun. TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that. PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can't write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn't really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you're going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you're quite familiar with these things, because you're just looking at your screen, and thinking “I've got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You're back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There's this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can't quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you're an anxious person. TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art. PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn't want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we've seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It's no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask. TM: Right. That's now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy. PM: That's it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker's success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we're all going, “Okay, that's how it is, and that's fine, as long as I'm on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn't really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he's chosen is one that's designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer. TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we're friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can. PM: Well... TM: I know what you're going to say now. You're going to say there's much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul's not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader... PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I'd started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure -- I was really into Barthes at the time -- who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn't enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn't. TM: Was it that it didn't feel worth doing? PM: That's it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time. TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn't neoliberal enough or something. PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we'd ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you'd taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It's sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino's in it, and he's a writer with writer's block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it. TM: But isn't writer's block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write. PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that's going on. People know what it's like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you're doing nothing but failing. I don't know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing. TM: And yet there's often this weirdly romantic idea of writer's block in fiction and film, where it's seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void. PM: I read Faulkner's The Wild Palms recently. It's not a great book, but there's this terrific last line: "Between grief and nothing, I will take grief." I don't know that that's a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as "a momentary stay against confusion." It's not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul's problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn't care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don't know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don't want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you're faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That's all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why? TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers' need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception. PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. "The meaning monkey," as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don't necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy. TM: It's possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don't necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it's out there, that people are still doing it. PM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn't fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that's the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that's where it's happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that's exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal. TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn't work there ever thinks about. It's a kind of non-Dublin. PM: It's very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it's very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It's an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that's illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it's kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality. TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right? PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we're right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about. TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland's "Great Writers" play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are. PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you're not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they're serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn't care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York. TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea. PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer -- of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years -- that's gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you're putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that's dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they're untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they're telling you the truth -- the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That's something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.
I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam -- which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing. What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! -- or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him -- which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned. I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration. Most of my reading this year -- and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now -- was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming. I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about -- 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick -- the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Looking back over what I wrote on this occasion last year, I see that my first sentence was this: “For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading.” I re-read this now with rueful irony, like Beckett’s Krapp listening to the voices of his younger selves. What the hell did I imagine I knew about not reading in 2012? 2012? Before my wife and I had a son, and the remains of the day became consumed by the rigors of infant-admin -- of feeding and changing and dandling and soothing and wiping and sterilizing? “No, no, no,” I mutter to my former self. “Believe you me, pal, you don’t know shit about not reading. But you’re about to learn. Stick around another few months, then we’ll talk about not reading.” I wouldn’t want that time back, of course -- not, as Krapp would say, with the fire in me now -- but I wish I’d been more appreciative then of how much leisure time I actually had, of how much I was, in fact, at liberty to read. All of which filibustering is by way of saying, I suppose, that my year in reading has been compromised somewhat by my year in living; and yet -- heroically, I feel -- I still managed to consume a fair amount of high-end lit over the last 12 months. Looking back, my interest seems to have run more toward non-fiction than fiction, and the books that had the strongest impact on me tended to come in under that vague rubric. My favorite new book this year was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, which I read when it came out in June. It’s a beautiful and profound book of essayistic reflections on memory, family, grief, travel, and storytelling. The jacket copy (like its author) categorizes it as an anti-memoir, which makes it sound maybe more abstruse than it is, but it’s accurate enough. It begins with Solnit’s brother delivering a gigantic pile of apricots to her home -- a haul from the garden of her Alzheimer’s-suffering mother who has just been placed into care. The fruit sits rotting on her floor, and become a pungent and seeping metaphor for mortality at the center of the book, prompting all sorts of beautiful meditations on time and loss and decay and storytelling. “The object we call a book,” she writes, “is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is in the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.” Solnit’s book is at home in my head now. This summer, I read Janet Malcolm’s new collection Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, which immediately made me realize that I needed to read as much of her as I possibly could. So I went on a minor Malcolm binge -- although “binge” is not nearly the right word for Malcolm: it was more like a rigorous and salutary diet. So I read Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives and The Journalist and the Murderer, and felt much the better for it. Fiction-wise, I was very taken with China Miéville’s The City & the City -- a book which I’d been meaning to read for a couple of years, but which I only got around to when I put it on a course I was teaching. (This, incidentally, is a great way to force yourself to read a book; I’ve found it to be pretty much foolproof over the years.) It’s a sort of speculative police procedural that slyly insinuates itself into your experience of everyday life. It’s set in the two imagined (but vaguely eastern European) cities of Ul Quoma and Besźel. These cities are culturally and economically distinct, but occupy the same geographic space -- are in fact exactly the same city -- a situation that is sustained by a brutally stringent system of laws and surveillance and the diligent disregard -- or “unseeing” -- of the two cities’ residents. Although it’s by no means a satirical fable, the experience of reading it nonetheless provokes a kind of unsettling realization of the ways in which we ignore certain obvious dimensions of the spaces we live in. Another book that really got me was I Await the Devil’s Coming, the confessional diary of the 19-year-old Mary MacLane, written over three months at the turn of the last century (republished this year by Melville House after a near century of, I think, comparative obscurity). In a lot of ways, MacLane is a fairly typical teenage girl -- exasperated by her family and bored insensible by the stultifying life of a small town -- but she is also possessed of an unshakeable conviction in her own genius, a phenomenally snazzy prose style, and an erotic obsession -- at once ironic and sincere -- with the actual devil. It’s funny, troubling, touching, and finally kind of amazing. There are passages on her love of food (porterhouse steak in particular) and her fuming hatred of her family’s toothbrushes that will never leave me. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career. He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic -- and rivetingly plotless -- novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike's writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes). His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project -- some of the results of which can be heard here and here. The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice? Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going? In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means. TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from? NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional -- and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy -- and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection. And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together. TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years? NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past -- or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household -- so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day. I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation -- and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing. TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books -- The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I -- where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address. NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else -- maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened -- although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way. But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones -- and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways -- sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound. TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine. NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it. Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house -- at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city -- the lawn was doing fine on its own. After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics -- for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences. TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process? NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs -- songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy's sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story. Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings -- it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address. TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker? NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp -- what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer. TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world? NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically. TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career -- you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right? NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes -- that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time. I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors -- chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.
There is something about being the parent of a very small child, a child who has not yet begun to form words, that has exerted a subtle pressure on the way I think about language. In general, my investment in words is heavy and more or less literal, in the sense that they are the means by which I make, at least in theory, my living. Since my son was born six months ago, the first way in which my relationship with words has changed is this: I haven’t been able to get nearly enough of the bastards down on paper. When you work from home, having an infant around the place is not very compatible with getting things done – particularly when the home you’re supposed to be working from is a small apartment with quite thin walls through which the inescapable enticements of mother-and-baby laughter can clearly be heard. I am not making any kind of provocative or original statement here; Cyril Connolly’s stern pronouncement about there being “no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” almost inevitably crops up in discussions of this nature. And although it’s a little dire for my liking, a little absolute, I do think of it with rueful irony every time I try to sit down at my desk, because this desk of mine is located in a tiny guest bedroom, and in order to get at it, I have to pass through a very narrow passageway between wall and bed in which my son’s bulkily literal pram is normally stored. (I don’t know whether the pram per se is preventing me from making good art, but it definitely makes it awkward to maneuver myself into a position to try.) The second way in which my relationship with words has changed is a little more difficult to quantify. (As a topic, on the other hand, it doesn’t necessitate my casting myself in the role of Grumbling Dad Who Can’t Get Any Bloody Work Done.) There are two primary dangers in pursuing this subject: that of pretentiousness and that of mawkishness. (These dangers are not, let’s remember, mutually exclusive: it’s lethally possible to be pretentious and mawkish at the same time – to be mawkishly pretentious or pretentiously mawkish.) And that’s because the subject is actually two subjects: language and early parenthood – specifically the way in which my wordless communications with my six-month-old son have led me to think about language in a slightly different way. As an Irish person, of course, I am technically supposed to have an inbuilt playful suspicion of words. Even now, you see, I am using the language of my country’s former colonizers, and the historical bitterness of dispossession is supposed to leave a lingering aftertaste on my tongue as I speak, a residue of old distrust. We’re all natural born postmodernists here – or so we’re fond of thinking. (Possibly, the above-mentioned dangers of pretentious mawkishness are inherently more of a risk if you happen to be Irish.) But despite all this, I have always been a believer in the power of words to convey meaning, more or less. I would probably not be any kind of writer, or any kind of reader, if I didn’t think that there was at least the possibility of rendering the complexities of emotion and experience comprehensible through conversion into language – into spoken sounds, or sequences of little symbols on paper. They are, for better or worse, our only means of making transmissions, however indistinct, out of our various solitudes; they are basically all we’ve got. Except that they are not all we’ve got, not really. This is something I didn’t know six months ago, but which I know now, because the profoundest, truest communication I’ve ever experienced has been with my son, who can’t yet speak, and who can’t yet understand anything I say to him in words. He’s a little savage; that’s how I think of him – a little wild animal who is only beginning the process of becoming what we call a person, only beginning the long fall into language. And I love this beastliness about him more than anything I’ve ever loved about anyone. I love the way, when he’s lying on his play mat kicking his legs industriously, and I kneel down and bring my face close to his, he’ll grab my ears in his little fists and pull me down towards him and start to bite me, to feast wetly on my nose and my cheeks. (He has no teeth yet, although the first is already on its way; all this will surely become less adorable when the teeth arrive.) I love this whole slobbery, dog-like business because I know – or feel that I know – that this means that he loves me. There is no possibility of his being somehow disingenuous about this, in the way there would be if he were to say it in words. Even if we don’t intend to convey anything but what we seem to mean by them, words are always attended by the watchful phantom of insincerity. But attempting to eat someone’s face – I don’t think it’s possible to do that insincerely. Being a parent has, so far, been a pleasingly animal experience. And we keep thinking of him in this way, his mother and I; we keep telling ourselves what he’s like in animal terms. When he briefly manages to sit upright, and then topples over sideways in the effort to get his socks off his feet and into his mouth, he’s a bear cub. When he gets a hold of his little fluffy toy donkey, say, and bites down on it and shakes his head from side to side, squealing, he’s a puppy. And when he gets angry with me and lashes out at my face with his surprisingly sharp little fingernails, he’s a kitten. There’s something about a six-month-old’s wordless interactions with the world that brings to mind the simple truth that a human is an animal. This morning, as his mother held him and I rubbed some teething gel on his gums, she called him “My little creature,” and I felt the mammalian warmth of that word; and I thought, too, of its origin in Middle English – a thing created, a creation. Words are like that: always going about their own covert business, meaning so much more, and so much less, than we intend by using them. But looking, gesturing, moving, and holding aren’t like that, and they are how he and I mostly communicate. He’s started doing this thing, for instance, where he’ll look at me and shake his head rapidly and then wait for me to reciprocate before he does it again. This is a kind of communication, but I don’t think it means anything as such. It just is what it is – not a way of referring to a thing, but a thing itself. It’s communication as play. His mother talks to him all the time, constantly telling him what she’s doing, what’s going on around him, who everyone is – “Look, it’s Daddy! Daddy’s just come in!” – which is what you’re supposed to do; it’s an overflowing stream of happy chatter, an immersion in the sustaining element of language. I’m not really sure why, but I find that my instinct as a father is to talk to him not in my language, but in his own, which is a wordless vernacular of squeals and bilabial fricatives and gurgles. My instinct, I suppose, is to do what gets a reaction from him, what makes him smile and laugh, and so I have found that I am not above the cheapest of jokes, the goofiest of pratfalls, the silliest of sounds. Pretending to sneeze, for some reason, tends to amuse him greatly, and the longer the buildup the better the reaction. This, I find, is a reliable means of distracting him from his own annoyance if I happen to also be doing something like trying to put a jacket on him, or anything else that involves sleeves – sleeves being one of the more hotly contested matters in his daily dealings with his parents. And I do a late-period Tom Waits impression that always goes down well, but which I have to ration because it’s incredibly hard on the not-very-well-tempered clavier of my vocal chords. (There are only so many times you can belt out the chorus to “God’s Away on Business” before you start fearing you may have permanently damaged something, which is probably just as well given the song’s thematic unsuitability for nursery-based performance, the toxic leak of despair from its words.) He responds most of all to animal growls and yelps, and to movements – to tickling and bouncing and dancing – that don’t mean anything but that they’re happening, and that it’s good that they are. Of all the moments of mute communication we share, the one I love the most right now is when I’m getting his pram out of the boot of the car, and I look through the rear windscreen to where he’s strapped into his rear-facing child seat, and for some reason he’s always thrilled to see me in this precise situation, and there’s always a big smile and an effulgence of delighted recognition in his eyes. There doesn’t need to be any words in a moment like this; I’m not sure if language could add anything to what is being transmitted, to what is being shared. It’s too simple, too elemental, for words to have any bearing upon. There are first words that I look forward to hearing, of course, but for now this happy speechlessness is everything. Image via Flickr
If you didn’t know much about Tim Parks, and you just briefly picked up Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo as you happened to be passing by the Travel Writing display table at your local bookseller, you might be inclined to think of it as exactly the kind of book it isn’t. The cozy-sounding title and the jacket design -- with its fetching pasturescapes, its hazily panoramic Florence skylines -- might lead you to think of it as one of those harmlessly middlebrow lifestyle memoirs that tend to get written about places like Tuscany and Provence. But that, as I say, is exactly the kind of book Italian Ways isn’t. It is a book about traveling by train in Italy, but it’s not that kind of book about traveling by train in Italy. Parks is English, but has lived in Italy for half his life. This doesn’t make him half Italian, of course, but it does make this something that isn’t quite travel writing; it is, in a sense, travel writing about that most familiar and confounding of places: home. And it’s the extent to which he’s never fully at home in the place where his life has mostly happened that makes Italian Ways such an interesting book. (There’s a running joke in Parks’s aggrieved mystification at the ability of all Italians to discern his Englishness before he even opens his mouth.) As I read, I kept thinking about those mildly idiosyncratic areas of experience in a lot of peoples’ lives about which they’re inclined to say they could write a book. (“Seriously, I’m going to write a book some day about all the awkward first dates I’ve been on.” Or: “I could write a book about all the random situations I had to deal with when I worked in that video store.”) Italian Ways seems like a book that might have its roots in that sort of idle notion. Parks lives in Verona, but teaches at a university in Milan, and so, like a lot of Italians, he spends a great deal of time on trains, and has therefore had frequent occasion to reflect upon the oddities, pleasures, and torments that arise out of a daily interaction with Trenitalia, Italy’s state-owned railway operator. Much of the book is given over to minute consideration of the byzantine inefficiencies of the ticketing system, and to the various sorts of tension that can arise between passengers and officials. As the pages mounted, I found myself being increasingly struck by Parks’s ability to relate multiple versions of the same basic situation without it ever becoming boring. There are numerous scenes of conflict here between ticket-checkers and passengers -- including Parks himself -- who have the wrong kind of ticket, or have purchased the right ticket in the wrong way, or have no ticket at all. He is, as he puts it, “fascinated by all the things that can go wrong between ticket bearer and ticket inspector, a relationship that has come to take on almost a metaphysical significance for me.” You’d imagine that a little of this sort of thing would go a long way; but actually, in Parks’s hands, a lot of it goes even further. Part of this has to do with the considerable comic self-possession of his prose, but mainly it's because he’s using a seemingly very narrow scope of experience -- the vicissitudes of the Italian railway commute -- as an aperture through which to view an entire culture. (In this sense, it’s a bit like a macro-level version of the idea that you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, except that it turns out not to be total horseshit.) Reading it is in many ways a claustrophobic experience, in that we are rarely allowed to see the country outside of the stations and carriages; but what gradually becomes apparent is the extent to which Italian culture -- or Parks’s version of it, at any rate -- is exactly what goes on in these stations and carriages. At one point, he tells a group of Italians at a dinner he’s been invited to that he’s writing a book about the railways. They’re uniformly dubious about the notion of anyone wanting to read, let alone write, a book on such a restrictive and unpromising topic. It’s not really a travel book, he tells them, and “not really a book about trains as such.” This qualification only serves to deepen their bafflement, and so he tries to clarify why it is he wants to write about trains: “Well, I’m of the opinion that a culture, a system of” -- I hesitated – “communication, if you like” -- they were looking at me with the wry skepticism with which one does look at foreign professors -- “manifests itself entirely in anything the people of that culture do. Right?” They smiled indulgently. I was their guest after all. “Like this routine Sunday dinner of yours, every week, the same friends on the warm terrace, the things you prepare, the way it’s served, the things you talk about, even the way you invite and tolerate a foreign professore like me. All Italy could be teased out from this if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you’ve laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wineglasses.” It’s this teasing out of a whole culture through the narrowest of apertures that makes Italian Ways something much more than a book about trains (despite the almost obsessive degree to which it is, precisely, a book about trains). About halfway through the book, there’s an elaborate reconstruction of a particularly heated run-in between the author and a capotreno (ticket inspector) on the Verona–Milan line. (“I hesitate to tell the tale,” he writes, “since I come off rather badly, and perhaps the reader feels he has had his fill of capotreni.” This reader was not having such feelings.) In early 2012, Trenitalia had just introduced online ticket purchases for regional trains, a development which had delighted Parks because it meant that he would no longer have to deal with the long lines and temperamental ticket machines that had been such a feature of his 30 years in Italy. For his maiden voyage under this new dispensation, he saves on his laptop the PDF ticket sent to him by Trenitalia, and writes down the booking reference number to give to the capotreno. When the time comes for the inspection, however, the capotreno is having none of it: the ticket needs to be printed for it to count as a ticket. The situation that ensues, enthusiastically observed by every other passenger in the carriage, is as tense as it is funny, and impressively subtle for what in the hands of a less perceptive writer could very easily have been a dull rant about bureaucratic ineptitude. Parks boots up his laptop in order to display the PDF, and then the capotreno insists on walking him through each of the terms and conditions outlined on the bottom of the e-ticket until finally, his lips twisted “in the triumphant smile of bureaucratic Italy celebrating another victory”, they get to the final regulation, which proves him correct. A furious Parks eventually announces that, rather than pay the €50 fine, he will get off the train at the next stop. When his antagonist finally moves on, the college students seated around Parks erupt in a torrent of commiseration and anti-authoritarian solidarity. When the inspector decides to come back and defend himself, Parks loses his composure, and puts the inspector in his place in a crowd-pleasing way that makes him instantly ashamed of himself: “I’ve agreed to get off your train, right? Conversation over. Go inspect tickets. Isn’t that what they pay you for? [...] We don’t want to talk to you. I’ve agreed to get off the train, now basta!” What’s interesting about the scene is the way in which Parks keeps shifting, in real-time, from the perspective of his own frustration to the imagined perspective of his antagonist, whom he carefully ensures emerges as the more sympathetic figure. “I had the feeling he was now seeing all of us as privileged,” he writes, “whereas he came from a more honest, older world where workers had worked long hours and voted Partitio Comunista Italiano and deserved protection from foreigners and electronic tickets.” To make a scene like this into a sort of cultural case study is a reckless gambit, but Parks pulls it off nicely: There was something deeper: this whole culture of ambiguous rules, then heated argument about them without any clear-cut result, seems to serve the purpose of drawing you into a mind-set of vendetta and resentment that saps energy from every other area of life. You become a member of society insofar as you feel hard done by, embattled. Others oppose you, or rally around you, for the entertainment. Almost everyone has some enemy they would like to crush. They become obsessed. They speak constantly about bureaucratic issues [...] To hang on in the train now, so that I could either boast before an appreciative audience that I had outwitted or faced down the inspector, or worse still so that I could plunge into a conflict that would engage my energies for months to come, would be to become more intensely and irretrievably Italian. Parks sees Italian culture with the more or less detached clarity of the outsider, but has spent enough time living in the place to feel justified in critiquing it from within. This liminal stance gives the book an interesting frisson of internal conflict. He doesn’t want to become irretrievably Italian, but at the same time he’s comically resentful of the ways in which his Englishness remains an issue in his everyday dealings with his not-quite compatriots. And despite all Parks’s entertaining kvetching about the excessive chattiness of fellow passengers and the gratuitous complexities of the ticketing system, Italian Ways is unmistakably an expression of love for his adopted country and its people. The close confinement of the train compartment becomes a metaphor for a society, in all the ways it does and does not work. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “in a compartment, you just have to acknowledge each other’s presence, it’s so blindingly obvious that you’re in a group, in the here and now, for the duration of this journey.” And that everyday proximity is the idea at the center of this lovely and clever book: the straightforward and endlessly complicated fact of being among people -- in a carriage, in a conversation, in an argument, in a community.
I would dearly love to be able to start this piece by saying that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book ever written. It’d be a real lapel-grabber, for one thing, an opening gambit the casual Millions reader would find it hard to walk away from. And for all I know, it might well be true to say such a thing. Because here’s how funny it is: It’s funnier than A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s funnier than Money or Lucky Jim. It’s funnier than any of the product that any of your modern literary LOL-traffickers (your Lipsytes, your Shteyngarts) have put on the street. It beats Shalom Auslander to a bloody, chuckling pulp with his own funny-bone. And it is, let me tell you, immeasurably funnier than however funny you insist on finding Fifty Shades of Grey. The reason I can’t confidently say that it’s the funniest book ever written is that I haven’t read every book ever written. What I can confidently say is that The Poor Mouth is the funniest book by Flann O’Brien (or Myles na gCopaleen, or any other joker in the shuffling deck of pseudonyms Brian O’Nolan wrote under). And if this makes it, by default, the funniest book ever written, then all well and good; but it is certainly the funniest book I’ve ever read. And I’ve read it maybe five or six times at this point: first as a teenager, then again as an undergraduate when I was supposed to be reading other much less funny things, and then again another couple of times while writing a Masters thesis – a terrific wheeze of a Borges/O’Brien comparative reading. And I’ve just now revisited it afresh, partly to reassure myself before writing this piece that it is just as funny as I remember it being. (It is, albeit with the slight caveat that it’s possibly even funnier.) The first time I read it, I was in school, and I remember being confounded by two facts: 1) That it was originally published in 1941 and 2) That it first appeared in Irish as An Béal Bocht. And if there was one thing that was less funny than anything written before, say, 1975, it was anything that was written in Irish. To fully understand this, I think you would probably need to have some first-hand experience of the Irish educational system. This is a country in which every student between the ages of five and eighteen is taught Irish for several hours a week, and yet it is also, mysteriously, a country in which relatively few adults are capable of holding a conversation in the language in anything but the most stilted, self-consciously ironic pidgin. (After almost a decade and a half of daily instruction in the spoken and written forms of what is officially my country’s first language, just about the only complete Irish sentence I myself can now speak translates as follows: “May I please have permission to go to the toilet, Teacher?” I don’t think I’m especially unusual in this regard, although I’m aware my ability to forget things I’ve learned is exceptional.) I don’t want to get into this too deeply here, except to say that part of this has to do with a kind of morbid cultural circularity: the reason so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms is because so few people speak Irish outside of classrooms, and that there would therefore be few people to speak it to if they did. Also, very little literature gets written in Irish, partly because (for the reasons outlined above), relatively few people are capable of writing it, and also because, if they did, the readership for it would be correspondingly small. And so the stuff that gets taught in schools tends to be a combination of (as I remember it) unremarkable contemporary poetry and psychotropically dull peasant memoir. The great canonical presence in the latter genre is a book called Peig, the autobiography of an outstandingly ancient Blasket island woman named Peig Sayers, which was dictated to a Dublin schoolteacher and published in 1936. Successive generations of Irish students were forced not just to read this exegesis of poverty and misfortune – over and over and over – but to memorize large chunks of it, later to be disgorged and explicated at the intellectual gun-point of state examination. The memoir begins with Peig outlining what a rigorously shitty time she had of it growing up in rural Ireland in the late 19th century, and this unhappy existence is narrated with a signature flatness of tone that is maintained throughout the whole grim exercise: My people had little property: all the land they possessed was the grass of two cows. They hadn’t much pleasure out of life: there was always some misfortune down on them that kept them low. I had a pair of brothers who lived — Sean and Pádraig; there was also my sister Máire. As a result of never-ending flailing of misfortune my father and mother moved from the parish of Ventry to Dunquin; for them this proved to be a case of going from bad to worse, for they didn’t prosper in Dunquin no more than they did in Ventry. For a teenager, of course, the only appropriate reaction to this stuff is the most inappropriate one, somewhere between stupefaction and manic amusement. As real and as comparatively recent as the history of grinding poverty and oppression in Ireland is, it’s still hard to read this with a straight face – particularly if, as a youth, you had to commit great thick blocks of it to memory. There’s something about the improbable combination of sober causality and delirious wretchedness (“As a result of the never-ending flailing of misfortune”; “a case of going from bad to worse”) that comes on like an outright petition for heartless juvenile ridicule. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as Nell puts it in Beckett’s Endgame. We should take this point seriously, coming as it does from an old woman who has no legs and lives in a dustbin. Beckett’s contemporary Flann O’Brien understood this, too: unhappiness is the comic goldmine from which he extracts The Poor Mouth’s raw material. He is parodying Irish language books like Peig and, in particular, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s memoir An t-Oileánach (The Islander); but in a broader sense, he’s ridiculing the forces of cultural nationalism that promoted these books as exemplars of an idealized and essentialized form of Irishness: rural, uneducated, poor, priest-fearing, and truly, superbly Gaelic. O’Brien’s narrator, Bonaparte O’Coonassa, is not so much a person as a humanoid suffering-receptacle, a cruel reductio ad absurdium of the “noble savage” ideal of rural Irishness promoted by Yeats and the largely Anglo-Irish and Dublin-based literary revival movement. A lot of the book’s funniness comes from its absurdly stiff language (which reflects an equally stiff original Irish), but that language is a perfect means of conveying a drastically overdetermined determinism – a sort of hysterical stoicism which seems characteristically and paradoxically Irish. The book’s comedic logic is roughly as follows: to be Irish is to be poor and miserable, and so anything but the most extreme poverty and misery falls short of authentic Irish experience. The hardship into which Bonaparte is born, out on the desperate western edge of Europe, is seen as neither more nor less than the regrettable but unavoidable condition of Irishness, an accepted fate of boiled potatoes and perpetual rainfall. “It has,” as he puts it, “always been the destiny of the true Gaels (if the books be credible) to live in a small, lime-white house in the corner of the glen as you go eastwards along the road and that must be the explanation that when I reached this life there was no good habitation for me but the reverse in all truth.” Like many of the best comedians of prose, O’Brien is a master of studied repetition. Again and again, unhappy situations are met with total resignation, with a fatalism so extreme that it invariably proceeds directly to its ultimate conclusion: death. Early on, Bonaparte tells us about a seemingly intractable situation whereby his family’s pig Ambrose, with whom they shared their tiny hovel, developed some disease or other that caused him to emit an intolerable stench, while at the same time growing so fat that he couldn’t be got out the door. His mother’s reaction to this situation is simply to accept that they’re all going to die from the stench, and that they therefore might as well get on with it. “If that’s the way it is,” she says, “then ‘tis that way and it is hard to get away from what’s in store for us.” Individual hardships or injustices are never seen as distinct problems to be considered with a view to their potential solution; they are always aspects of a living damnation, mere epiphenomena of “the fate of the Gaels.” It’s a mindset that’s both profoundly anti-individualist and cosmically submissive. The cause of suffering isn’t British colonialism: it’s destiny. On Bonaparte’s first day of school, his teacher beats him senseless with an oar for not being able to speak English, and to impress upon him the fact that his name is no longer Bonaparte O’Coonnassa, but “Jams O’Donnell” – a generically anglicized title the same schoolmaster gives to every single child under his tutelage. When Bonaparte takes the matter up with his mother later that day, she explains that this is simply the way of things. The justice or injustice of the situation doesn’t come into it: Don’t you understand that it’s Gaels that live in this side of the country and that they can’t escape from fate? It was always said and written that every Gaelic youngster is hit on his first school day because he doesn’t understand English and the foreign form of his name and that no one has any respect for him because he’s Gaelic to the marrow. There’s no other business going on in school that day but punishment and revenge and the same fooling about Jams O’Donnell. Alas! I don’t think that there’ll ever be any good settlement for the Gaels but only hardship for them always. The assumption that nothing can be done about it, though, doesn’t mean that ceaseless meditation and talk about the suffering of the Gaels is not absolutely central to the proper business of Gaelicism. True Irishness is to be found in the constant reflection on the condition of Irishness. (This is still very much a characteristic of contemporary Irish culture, by the way, but that’s probably another day’s work.) O’Brien’s characters think and talk about little else. Bonaparte, at one point, recalls an afternoon when he was “reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them)” when his grandfather comes in looking even more decrepit and disheveled than usual. – Welcome, my good man! I said gently, and also may health and longevity be yours! I’ve just been thinking of the pitiable situation of the Gaels at present and also that they’re not all in the same state; I perceive that you yourself are in a worse situation than any Gael since the commencement of Gaelicism. It appears that you’re bereft of vigour? – I am, said he. – You’re worried? – I am. – And is it the way, said I, that new hardships and new calamities are in store for the Gaels and a new overthrow is destined for the little green country which is the native land of both of us? O’Brien uses the term “Gael” and its various derivatives so frequently throughout the book that the very idea of “Gaelicism” quickly begins to look like the absurdity it is. This reaches a bizarre culmination in the book’s central comic set-piece, where Bonaparte recalls a Feis (festival of Gaelic language and culture) organized by his grandfather to raise money for an Irish-speaking university. The festival is, naturally, an exhaustively miserable affair, characterized by extremes of hunger and incredibly shit weather. (“The morning of the feis,” Bonaparte recalls, “was cold and stormy without halt or respite from the nocturnal downpour. We had all arisen at cockcrow and had partaken of potatoes before daybreak.”) Some random Gael is elected President of the Feis, and opens the whole wretched observance with a speech of near perfectly insular Gaelicism: If we’re truly Gaelic, we must constantly discuss the question of the Gaelic revival and the question of Gaelicism. There is no use in having Gaelic, if we converse in it on non-Gaelic topics. He who speaks Gaelic but fails to discuss the language question is not truly Gaelic in his heart; such conduct is of no benefit to Gaelicism because he only jeers at Gaelic and reviles the Gaels. There is nothing in this life so nice and so Gaelic as truly true Gaelic Gaels who speak in true Gaelic Gaelic about the truly Gaelic language. This is followed by more speeches of equal or greater Gaelicism, to the point where a number of Gaels “collapsed from hunger and from the strain of listening while one fellow died most Gaelically in the midst of the assembly.” From a combination of malnutrition and exhaustion, several more lives are lost in the dancing that follows. O’Brien’s reputation as a novelist rests largely on the postmodern absurdism of The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds, with their mind-bending meta-trickery and audacious surrealism. But the essence of his genius was, I think, to be found in his extraordinary mastery of tone, in his skillful manipulation of a kind of uncannily mannered monotony. Repetition and redundancy are absolutely crucial to the comic effect of his prose, and it’s in The Poor Mouth that these effects are most ruthlessly pursued, not least because they are crucial elements of the kind of story he’s parodying here – a life of unswerving and idealized tedium, in which basically the only viable foodstuff is the potato. (Breakfast is memorably referred to as “the time for morning-potatoes.”) There’s a feverish flatness to the narrative tone throughout, a crazed restraint, and a steady accumulation of comic pressure that is like nothing else I’ve ever read. Bonaparte’s recollection of his first experience with alcohol – in the form of poitín, which is of course the potato fermented to the point of near-lethality – is one of the stronger examples of this in the book. It’s also, I think, probably the greatest of O’Brien’s many great comic riffs: If the bare truth be told, I did not prosper very well. My senses went astray, evidently. Misadventure fell on my misfortune, a further misadventure fell on that misadventure and before long the misadventures were falling thickly on the first misfortune and on myself. Then a shower of misfortunes fell on the misadventures, heavy misadventures fell on the misfortunes after that and finally one great brown misadventure came upon everything, quenching the light and stopping the course of life. The effort to identify the comic operations of any given piece of writing – what its technology consists of, how its moving parts fit together – is essentially a mug’s game. There’s a hell of a lot to be said for just accepting that something is funny because it makes you laugh. But there’s something about the flawlessness of this passage’s mechanism that makes me want to take it apart and lay out its components. Obviously, repetition is the primary engine here – just the sounds of the words “misadventure” and “misfortune” in such close succession is powerfully amusing. And, as with the spookily O’Brien-esque passage above from Peig, there’s the mix of sober causality and delirious wretchedness. Accumulation and enumeration is, as always with this writer, an irresistible comic force. But I think the real stroke of genius here – the element that really elevates it to the level of the sublime – is how he keeps going well past the point where the joke has done its job. The funniest word here, in other words – the word that always tips me over into literal LOLing whenever I read it – is “Then ...” And maybe this is funny precisely for the least funny of reasons: because misery and misadventure rarely stop at the point where their work is done. Even when misfortune – or life, or history – has already made its irrefutable point, there’s never anything to prevent it taking a quick breath and starting a new sentence: “Then ...” Image via Wikimedia Commons
James Lasdun’s new book, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, is a memoir about an experience that is in fact still ongoing. In 2003, he taught a course in creative writing at a college in New York. His most gifted student was an Iranian-born woman in her early 30s, who was writing a novel based on her family’s experiences living in Iran under the shah. In 2005, the woman – whom he calls “Nasreen” – emailed Lasdun to announce that she had finished a draft of her book; although he was too busy to read it at the time, he was confident enough in her talent to recommend her to his agent. They emailed back and forth, and an online friendship began to develop. Nasreen’s correspondence began to intensify, however – to become stranger and more aggressively seductive – and so Lasdun, a happily married man, ceased to respond. The book is an exploration of the effects of this relationship turning sour, as Nasreen continued to hound him online, her emails becoming increasingly hate-filled and anti-Semitic. A major aspect of her psychological guerrilla warfare involved direct attacks on his reputation, accusing him online (in Wikipedia entries, Amazon reviews, in comment sections of his articles) of sexual harassment and plagiarism. Give Me Everything You Have is a harrowing account of what it’s like to have someone expend a great deal of time and energy on the project of damaging your life for no immediately obvious reason. It’s also a beautifully written and digressively essayistic exploration of anti-Semitism, travel, literature, and the mysteriously ramifying effects people have on each other. The Millions: The thing I was most impressed by in the book is the way you read this situation, this awful ongoing situation of being stalked and harassed, from a variety of conceptual viewpoints. In particular, the way in which you arrange this reading around a cluster of literary texts – TinTin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Plath’s poetry and so on. Was this something you intended to do from the beginning, or did it just sort of come about as you worked your way into the subject? James Lasdun: I didn’t plan very much, partly because the book didn’t exactly begin its life as a book. It began as an attempt to write a sort of neutral document that I would be able to post somewhere in my defense. It began as a strange sort of personal necessity. And then in the course of doing that I began to see that it wasn’t going to work in that way, because it kept looking as if it was written by a crazy person. But then, I began to feel that there was a more interesting thing to be written. And I just sort of plunged into it and wrote it without plotting and planning. I think I felt quite early on that I would be wanting to pursue some ideas that would enlarge the resonance in some way, and one of those directions was going to be through some things I had read that were very close to me. I think anyone who writes and reads always keeps a few texts in their heads through which they read the world, and read what’s happening to them. Gawain has always been something that I’ve had in my mind, and I knew that I was going to be writing about a particular kind of psychological combat, and that I might be able to find a way of telling my story through that story. And I started doing that and found it kind of interesting to do. From there, other literary interests of mine began to cohere around it. TM: Let me just return to what you said about the book starting out as a document of self-defense. That’s a very fascinating beginning for a literary work to have. JL: Yeah. At a certain point I felt I was going to need to create this kind of document, because she was contacting employers, and people were coming to me and saying “what the hell is this all about?” And it’s such a bizarre story, and such a kind of uncomfortable one to have to tell people, that I felt that if I set it down and posted it on my website, then I could direct people to it. It turns out to be very difficult to write a sort of defense of yourself for general consumption when in general people aren’t accusing you of anything. So if you present them with a defense of yourself, it already looks like you’re nuts. When I first tried to get the police involved, I could tell that they just weren’t convinced, that they just thought I was crazy. But I felt that it had become incredibly damaging to me, and it had accumulated over time, with her writing to my boss and things like that. I felt very, very vulnerable, and very much in need of this kind of document. But it turned out that I just couldn’t write it in that way. And another part of it was that I was completely unable to write anything else, because this situation was just absolutely consuming me. It doesn’t anymore to that extent, even though it’s somewhat ongoing, but it did for a long period. To the point where I couldn’t write anything else. So I thought I might as well go at it. TM: So in a sense you had to write this book in order to clear a path for other subjects? JL: Well, yes, in way. But really, I wasn’t even thinking about moving on. Literally all I could think about was the situation I was in. It really had absolutely invaded my consciousness. And that in a way, the way it took over my head, was almost as bad as the sense of damage that I felt was going on in the outside world. I’d never experienced these things that you hear about, with people who suffer from post-traumatic stress, where you actually can’t control your thoughts in any way at all, and you can’t stop yourself from thinking about something. I just became very obsessive, in a way that I’m not usually by temperament. And I did find when I started writing about it that I was very quickly improving on that front, that I was able to feel less consumed by it, just in normal daily life. But I don’t even know what I was thinking at the beginning, as to whether this book would be even publishable, or whether I would want to publish it. Initially just to write was what interested me. It wasn’t something that I told my publishers I was doing, or asked them for an advance or a contract or anything like that. I just wrote it. I wrote a draft quite quickly, a much longer draft than what was eventually published. And I just cut and cut and sort of found what I felt was a book that would express what I wanted to express, but also mean something to other people. I mean, it was all very private stuff, very personal, and so there was a question of how interested other people are going to be in your own problems. And I wanted it to have a balance of telling the story as it was – because I do think it’s inherently dramatic, and so weird. I knew that that would be the spine of it. But I felt that it also needed to be as resonant as it could be, and that seemed to lead me to write about all kinds of things that interested me. Literary texts, but also political things, cultural things, personal experience, memory, travel and things like that. I’d never written any extended non-fiction before, and never thought of myself as that kind of writer, but I found that I’ve enjoyed doing it. If “enjoy” is an appropriate word to use there. It’s opened up possibilities in terms of how to write. TM: I was wondering whether you thought about turning this material into fiction. Because it struck me while I was reading that, as a novel, it would be much more problematic. That this material would seem much more ethically dicey if it were presented in the form of fiction. JL: Well, as a fiction writer, I was always going to be turning that over in my mind. And some of the fiction I was working on, or trying to work on, was headed in the direction of being a fictionalized version of what was going on. But as you say, it was all wrong. It wasn’t the right way of dealing with it. Also I was still in the thick of the experience. This isn’t a book that comes out of emotion recollected in tranquility or anything like that. This was written right from the thick of the experience, which is a rather strange thing to be doing. And I realized pretty early on that it had to be absolutely truthful. And one of the things that I was aware of was that it might be impossible to publish because of that. And I knew that what I produced, that no publisher would publish it without having it okayed by their legal department. TM: And you must, throughout the process, have had misgivings, in terms of whether publishing it would exacerbate the situation. This must have been a troubling question for you. JL: Yes, well the question of whether it would exacerbate the situation – I felt that the situation could not get any worse. I mean, I’d been threatened with death; she was basically threatening to kill me, threatening my children, and I didn’t know how much worse it could get than that. When someone does that, they’ve pushed things as far as they can go. So I felt at that point that the more public I could make this, the safer I would be in fact. I suppose there were times in between my having finished and it coming out, where she’d gone relatively quiet. She does go quiet for periods. And I would sort of think, well, why am I risking stirring up another round of this unpleasantness. And then suddenly out of the blue she would start up again, more violent and more terrifying than ever. And I would think, well, I’m glad I am doing it, because I need to do it. So that’s really where I’m at. You know, it is ongoing, and she has become even worse and now the whole matter has entered a new chapter. It’s in the hands of the hate crimes unit of the NYPD. They’re still not able to do all that much about it, but she has been visited by cops. She’s sort of graduated to phone stuff. So in terms of whether of it would exacerbate the situation, my feeling was it was already as bad as it could be. Being threatened is... I’ve never been threatened before, and it is so deeply unpleasant. You so want to do something about it. TM: Were you troubled by issues around the ethics of writing about this topic in the first place? JL: I talk about this a little bit in the book. I’ve never seen a book that’s quite like it, in terms of being about a real situation, with real people, that has not yet resolved itself, and that involves using emails. The book wouldn’t have worked unless I could use the emails verbatim, and I deliberately didn’t find out whether that would be okay or not until I finished the book, because I didn’t want to do a book that couldn’t use the emails, and if it turned out that wasn’t going to be possible, then I was resigned that I just wouldn’t publish the book. I don’t feel personally ethically compromised in any way at all. Partly because this is not an attack on her. I’m not pursuing any kind of vendetta; in fact I bend over backwards to try to understand the situation from her point of view. I acknowledge that she was someone who really interested me. I really admired her writing, and wanted to encourage her. I liked her. I was interested in being in touch with her, and all the rest of it. It’s not in any way me attacking her. Her words are very damning, but those are her words. TM: I should say that, from a reader’s perspective, it’s very clear how concerned you are with being as evenhanded and unsensational as possible in trying to come to some understanding of why this person is tormenting you in this way. In fact, one of the things I found most interesting about the book is the fact that at its center are two novelists who are, in different ways, trying to create each other as characters. “Nasreen” is very much trying to shape you into a sinister, exploitative figure in the public eye, and you’re trying to understand her actions, to make her make sense as a character. If the book were fiction, this would be a very clever and perhaps excessively convoluted metafictional conceit. JL: I think that’s a very good description of it. It’s a story about two fiction writers trying to understand each other, and creating characters out of each other. And one of the main themes of it is the idea of what we are in other peoples’ minds, the constructs people make of each other. What I made of her, what she made of me. And that just seemed to be so much a theme of the whole thing, and the question of reputation is very bound up in that. That’s another sort of layer of one’s identity, and it’s one that can’t really be controlled; it’s in the hands of other people. And yet it is oneself. But it has become weirdly vulnerable again, I think, in the age of the internet. But yes, I think you’re right. And again that would have made it impossibly slippery for treatment in a work of fiction. TM: For me the question that the book turns on is the question of why this is happening at all. And you allude at a few points to this almost Shakespearean question of motiveless malice. Do you feel that you got closer to answering that, or is it still a mystery? JL: That was a big question that I was exploring, and I didn’t expect to come up with a simple answer. But in the process of that exploration, I had to deal with the question of what I might have brought to the experience. Because when something this extreme and prolonged happens to you, rightly or wrongly the mind looks for reasons. It’s very hard to believe it’s just a random occurrence, something that goes on for this long and so takes over your life, you just instinctively try to understand it in the context of your whole life. And so I was interested in analyzing my own role in it to the extent that I felt that I had one. And one of the things that I came up with that I hadn’t really thought about until I started writing about it was the effect of my silence on her. For me, that had just been what I needed to do, was stop answering her emails. I didn’t make the decision that I was going to stop answering her forever. It just sort of became impossible to start writing back again, because once they started getting obsessive they never let up, and then they turned to hate mail and then there was no question of responding. But I only ever experienced that one-sidedly, in the sense that I just wasn’t answering; I wasn’t thinking about the effect of my not answering. I wasn’t thinking about the effects of silence on someone who is obsessed with you, and with whom you have been in contact. So I was sort of interested in that. And I tried to approach the question of her motive from various different angles, but it could only ever be conjectural and speculative. I didn’t really have much of a model for this book, but to some extent I think Freud’s case histories and his analyses of historic figures like Leonardo and Moses were the closest thing to a literary model for me. You look at an experience, you try to kind of take account of every single detail that you can recall, and you look at it and feel your way into it, and test it for all sorts of associations, whatever resonances you can draw out of it, and you build your document like that. So that was another tack that I took. But you’re right, in the end I don’t supply any explanation. And obviously there’s the whole question of mental illness, and to what extent that answers it. And personally... Well, I don’t know. You know, I can’t pretend to be able to psychiatrically diagnose someone. TM: Right, yes. And I think what’s most unsettling about the book is this sense that there is no explanation. The book makes it clear that really all that’s necessary for someone to make your life a misery is for them to want that badly enough. That’s all that’s needed. The Internet facilitates this, makes it so much more viable a possibility. And that’s frightening, the idea that all that’s needed is the will. JL: Yeah, the will and the Internet. That’s a pretty deadly combination. But I mean, there’s mystery that’s total, and there’s mystery that’s informed by whatever little light one can bring to bear on it. And I hope by the end the book, the sense of unanswerable mystery is somewhat enriched or informed by these other things. But it is, ultimately, unanswerable.
Learn about our newest title, The Pioneer Detectives The Millions turns 10 years old this year, and to celebrate, we're trying something new. The Millions Originals will give our talented writers a platform to publish as ebooks longer, magazine-quality pieces that will explore a variety of unusual and interesting topics. They cost just $1.99 and provide a jolt of entertainment that we hope will be worth much more than the price. Our ebooks will generally run about 15,000 words (a good deal longer than most magazine articles, but not nearly as long as a book). So please, hop on over here to learn a bit more about our first title and to buy it from the ebookstore of your choice. Or, read on for an excerpt, if you still need convincing. To kick off our new series, Dublin-based staff writer Mark O'Connell has penned an exploration of the Internet-era obsession with terrible art - bad YouTube pop songs, Tommy Wiseau's The Room, and that endless stream of "Worst Things Ever" that invades your inboxes, newsfeeds, and Twitter streams. What, exactly, draws us to these futile attempts at making songs, movies, and art? What are the essential ingredients that render a ridiculous failure sublime? More importantly, what does our seemingly insatiable appetite say about our aesthetic impulses? In setting out to answer these questions, O'Connell uncovers the historical context for our affinity for terrible art, tracing it back to Shakespeare and discovering the early 20th-century novelist who was dinner-party fodder for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Read on for the first chapter of The Millions' first ebook original, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. - C. Max Magee, editor, The Millions * * * 1. Behold the Monkey In the Sanctuary of Mercy church in the town of Borja, in northern Spain, there used to be a fresco by the 19th-century painter Elías García Martínez. It was a fairly standard Ecce Homo scene, portraying the scourged Christ—the crown of thorns, the expression of serene forgiveness—in the moments before crucifixion. No one much cared about this fresco. It was the unremarkable work of a minor painter, of little or no interest to art historians, and the priests and parishioners of the Sanctuary of Mercy clearly didn’t hold it in especially high regard either. Until recently, Martínez’s fresco was in a state of severe decline, with most of the paint having rubbed off around the middle of Christ’s torso and some pretty serious chipping and flaking going on toward the right-hand side of His face. Because no one else had bothered to do anything about it, and because the church seemed uninterested in commissioning a professional restoration, an 81-year-old parishioner named Cecilia Giménez decided to take matters into her own hands. She had lived in Borja and worshiped at Sanctuary of Mercy all her life; even if the fresco was not a parish priority, she saw artistic and devotional value in it and was upset to see it fall into disrepair. She did her best with her limited talents, but the restoration attempt was not successful, and the fresco looked considerably worse by the time she was through. The attempt was so badly botched, in fact, that she wound up becoming internationally famous because of it. For a while there, Cecilia Giménez was probably the most talked-about artist in the world. Chances are you’ve seen the result of her work, in which Martínez’s Christ is transfigured into what looks like a beady-eyed baboon wearing an ushanka. It very quickly became an iconic image; the Spanish took to calling it Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey), while in the English-speaking world it became known simply as “the Jesus fresco.” For much of the late summer and early autumn of 2012, you couldn’t go online or open a newspaper without seeing it. People were obsessed not just with the aesthetic monstrosity of the restoration itself but with the idea of the devout and well-intentioned octogenarian who had created it. Twitter timelines filled with jokes about Giménez and links to articles about her, and tribute Tumblrs featured smudgily simian faces gimmicked onto the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Van Gogh’s self-portraits, Warhol’s Marilyn, Michelangelo’s David, Munch’s The Scream. The Financial Times, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and Libération all covered the story of the restoration. The chief art critic for The New Statesman skittishly considered its supreme incompetence on Sky News. And here was the poor woman herself, grilled by television journalists, poignantly insisting that she had the full permission of the parish priest and that, anyway, she hadn’t finished the retouch yet; she had been called away mid-job to go on a trip with her son. (“When I got back, the whole village was there, and I couldn’t defend myself! I said, ‘Let me finish it,’ and they said not to touch it!”). More than 23,000 people signed an online petition to have the piece preserved in its current, profanely post-Giménez form. In a more or less textbook illustration of postmodern irony, the Church of the Face-palm Fresco became a site of tourist pilgrimage, a sacred location beyond the event horizon where ridicule becomes veneration. “The truth,” as one local small-business owner put it in a television-news interview, “is that we should be thanking her because of how much it has helped catering trade in the town. We were having economic problems, and now, thanks to this woman, we are recovering.” Anyone who had read Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise would have found it difficult not to think of the famous scene in which Jack Gladney (professor of Hitler Studies) and his colleague Murray Siskind drive out into the New England countryside to visit a tourist attraction known as “the Most Photographed Barn in America.” They stand back from the crowd of tourists, observing them as they take photographs of a building that is noteworthy solely for the frequency with which people like themselves take photographs of it. In the epigrammatically deadpan idiom of DeLillo’s characters, Murray refers to the scene as “a religious experience in a way, like all tourism.” They are, as he puts it, “taking pictures of taking pictures.” What was being enacted here, in the little town of Borja, was a kind of exponentially ironic pilgrimage. The object of fetishization was not so much the icon as the very act of fetishization itself—of participating in, and contributing to, the fame of the thing being venerated. More troubling, though, was the fact that this involuted self-regard was also characteristic of the precise way in which Cecilia Giménez herself had become famous. The consideration of her fame, in other words, was itself a major element of that fame. The woman herself became caught up in the seething vortex of our cultural self-fascination. * * * The Face-palm Fresco Affair is a definitive example of our obsession with a particular kind of bad art. Its watchword is “Epic Fail”—the collective cry of elated online schadenfreude that greets each new disastrous attempt to create art or entertainment. The success, through captivating dreadfulness, of R. Kelly’s R&B opera buffa Trapped in the Closet. The brief but intense fame of the impressively atrocious American Idol contestant William Hung. The meme mother lode that was Insane Clown Posse’s attempt to illuminate the wonder of everyday “Miracles” (“Fuckin’ magnets: how do they work?”). The Irish mother-daughter-and-son country trio Crystal Swing, whose viral success with their transcendently lame and somehow insidiously creepy video for “He Drinks Tequila” saw them appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show without any apparent awareness that they were an object of fun. Every day brings some new fantastic artistic outrage, some new Greatest Worst Thing Ever. There is now an entire echelon of viral celebrity populated by people—your Crystal Swings, your Giménezes—who have become known for their resounding failures. I suspect that had the Spanish fresco simply been the anonymous work of an unknown guerrilla retoucher—if there wasn’t a body to be seen to undergo the indignity of the slapstick—the story would not have been nearly as compelling to nearly as many people. The personal element is crucial, and this is what accounts for the paradoxically humanistic and cruel constitution of the Epic Fail. It is predicated not just on the appreciation of the failed artwork but also on the aesthetic fetish for a particular misalignment of confidence and competence. We insist, in our judgments, on a sort of cultural habeas corpus. We don’t just want to look at the horribly disfigured Jesus fresco or listen to the horribly misfired effort at a pop song; we want to look at the person who thought they were talented enough to pull these things off in the first place. And I think part of our perverse attraction to these people and to the bad art they make is a particular sort of authenticity. Vigilant self-consciousness is both a primary component and a primary product of our online culture; an entire generation of Westerners (i.e., mine) has become preoccupied with the curation of permanent exhibitions of the self. We hate ourselves for the inauthenticity of these exhibitions, even if we wouldn’t have it any other way. And so the Epic Fail is, among other things, a paradoxical ritual whereby a pure strain of un-self-consciousness is globally venerated and ridiculed. To watch an interview with Cecilia Giménez is to glimpse the strange and flamboyant cruelty of this phenomenon. The scale, the intensity, and the bewildering modernity of the attention that has been imposed upon her is something by which she is very clearly mortified—an essentially Catholic term, this. Soon after the restoration attempt went viral, she retreated behind closed doors and took to her bed, in the grip of a sustained anxiety attack. According to her family, they were having trouble getting her to eat anything. Perhaps, then, it’s worth thinking about what is truly emblematic of our contemporary culture here—and where the real Epic Fail actually is. Is it the smudged, monkey-faced Jesus and the exultantly amused response it provoked, or is it the debilitating case of viral celebrity now afflicting a frail old lady who just wanted to do some small good deed for her church? Special thanks to our pals at Byliner who helped us turn our idea into an ebook. Click here to buy the book from the ebookstore of your choice for $1.99.