In What Year Does Your Semiautobiographical Masterpiece Take Place?


If there’s one question a young writer dreads, it’s what is your devilishly handsome semiautobiographical masterpiece all about, anyway? But the question this writer dreads even more is the one I got asked the other day at the Wicker Park Renegade Craft Festival: in what year does your masterpiece take place? Because as a writer I long ago had to put the cult of years behind me. 

I can’t finish anything if I spend too much time wondering if Delta Airlines served mixed nuts that had pecans in them in 1863, or if the Delta nut medley didn’t include pecans until 1917. Hive mind, colon, did the airline named Best U.S. airline of 2018 by the Wall Street Journal include pecans in the oriental mix before Chickamauga? And then I get a reply from a camo-hatted Civil War armchair scholar followed-by-no-one-you’re-following who writes, um, Frontier doesn’t serve nuts, and they make me pay thirty bucks to stow my fanny. Am I doing something wrong? For these reasons, I set my debut novel, Jenny in Corona, in the year 2003.14444. And I landed there in no small part from the Aesop Rock lyric: ‘never gave a fuck how far pi went.’ 

There’s a scene in Jenny in Corona … my god it is not even that great of a scene… I spent thousands of hours staring at, or more precisely staring away from, staring off, into the middle-distance, with that constipationary gaze. Writers will know the pinched, squeezy, pushy yet tentative look I’m talking about. It’s the face of the middle-aged man in the Roz Chast cartoon, The Three Ages of Man, when man is “the same age as his doctor.” 

My scene depicts the narrator & protagonist, Tyrone, and his office wife, Krista Kaplan, standing on an East Midtown walkup rooftop, sharing a glass of wine. It would’ve taken Dunham & Konner, the writing team behind the hit HBO series Girls, about twelve minutes to write this scene. And it would’ve ended with Marnie getting gas. But Krista and Ty, sipping their wine, look out on a skyline they will never own. Then they compare the information in their phones. And talk about how much they like texting each other, and about the benefits and negatives of keeping separate business and personal phones. Soon after this thrilling conversation they share, unsurprisingly, a not very exciting kiss. If I were a finer writer, like Tao Lin, they would’ve skipped the wine and ingested psilocybin chocolates instead, then talked for hours around the texture of pineapples. But what year did psilocybin grow its scrumptious gluten-free covering, and for how long have pineapples had textures? And, in 2003.14444, wouldn’t Marnie have been able to manage her gas by vaping cherry-crème-flavored simethicone?

For years and years I sat in the cold early morning dark staring at this brief yet somehow dragging scene about my characters discussing their phones. And then one morning I thought to myself, waiiiit a minute, when does this masterpiece take place? Would they really be texting each other if it kind of took place in 2003?? No they would not! But they could be texting each other if the book took place in 2003.14444! But wait a minute! What does this East Midtown roof smell like? Does it smell like Daisy Buchanan’s voice? What are Krista and Ty wearing? How do I bring to this scene the important elements of fiction! Just let them text like it’s 1999, who cares. Stop being so smart. No one will ever take you seriously if you keep being so smart! I want to stop writing, listen to Rick Springfield, and get excited. I have failed. But the questions will get easier if I keep getting the harder ones wrong. 

Smart or dumb, high-brow or bestseller at City Target, writing a novel means getting things right. “Specks,” Victor Ward searches his privileged space for in the opening chapter of Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama, berating his servants like a wheezing bastard straight outta Thomas Bernhard, annoying, tiny specks, and they don’t look accidental but like they were somehow done by a machine.” Where are all the specks in my masterpiece? Specks! 

The need to get so many things right makes you do stupid shit. Like when I google what direction does traffic go on Second Avenue in Manhattan, New York City? Things my father knows and his father knew before him. Things I’ve known my entire life. This kind of Second Avenue Guessing can get really humiliating on a personal level. For young authors of a certain age, this Great Big Failure as a novelist—boiling a crumpet in 1619 that wasn’t boilable until 1667—is what I call the Jack Berger Scrunchy Effect, from the hit HBO series Sex in the City. In this banger of an episode, Carrie likes the nice swarthy boy Jack Berger a whole lot, but in Jack’s hardcover novel, the lady puts up her hair with a scrunchy. Carrie does not approve. Jack is a complete failure. Even though Jack wears the pantheon of monochrome button-downs designed exclusively for the serious young male novelist, he will never grow up to own as many slaves as Tolstoy. 

I wink at Jack Berger’s failure in Jenny in Corona. By writing, in a better scene than the comparing our phones scene, that Krista Kaplan rests a Dooney & Bourke bag on her knees, which is, if you read my book, and learn the kind of character Krista becomes, simply ridiculous. No doubt Jack Berger’s harebrained twist took years off my life, ripped pages from my soul. In this life, over the last seventy years or so, I’ve watched this episode so many times. But from what medium did I receive its message in 2003.14444? Did I watch it on VHS? DVD? Blu-Ray? Was it streaming? Did my brother-in-law help me steal it through the circuits in one of his many video game consoles? Did I steal it from the Yorkville or Jackson Heights branches of the NYPL where I sat in the basement reading rightwing nudniks like William F. Buckley and Vladimir Nabokov, biting the nails off my dumbass linguistic responsibility. Or, years later, did I raise up the complete Sex and the City from an Afrocentric towel on 8th Street, and when the kind man said he didn’t have change of a dollar did I say, well, no worries, no worries at all, you just keep the seventy-five cents because these twenty DVDs are worth way more than a Washington quarter and I am a great tipper. And what direction does the traffic flow on 8th Street?

I am fortunate to know more than a handful of gifted writers who master the year. Best-Sound-Mixing-for-every-Oscars-Oscar-has-bartered-an-award-for-sound-mixing. And there’s that magical scene in the film adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, when James Leer recounts, in ABC order, what year each and every movie star died of pills. Just the other day, at the Renegade Craft Festival, Jerry Brennan was describing his historical novel Resistance to a prospective buyer. Hearing him say the word Luftwaffe, I thought to myself: Jerry knows what year it is. It’s wonderful listening to writers name the year with the thing, the year with the place. I’ve always envied them. But I am skeptical. I am skeptical that what America needs right now is the Christian calendar. I think my mind works. Just not in this way. Emily Dickinson put herself on Yankee wax as a ‘nobody’ in 1891. Is that even true? Were women allowed to be ‘nobodies’ in 1891? It’s not like you can forget what year it is, so why do you have to remember. Sometimes when I’m on a history-reading spree, I get, like, a really good sense of years and even months with years. Golly, I say to myself on a Red Line train, it all went downhill for the Ottoman Empire on that cold March morning of 1273. Last year I read a ton of books about the Vietnam War. I wanted to find out if the Vietnam War-era was worse than our era. The answer would amaze you. And I came away feeling very confident about years. Things were quite bad in 1960-something. Things were very bad in 1965. Things were very very bad in 1966, v.v.v. bad in 1967, and so on. As you know the Vietnam war is an and so on. In the Dewey Decimal system, the Vietnam War throws bombs right before Race Relations. But my Vietnam War was last year. I don’t remember any of that stuff now. If you asked 2019 Stu the major events in the Vietnam War over the harsh jungle winter of 1967, Stu would proudly answer, The Battle for Gettysburg. 

Comment is discontinuity. Who cares if Meryl is wearing, in the hit HBO series Big Little Lies, a red coat in this scene, a mauve coat in the other? What I want to know is why someone as status conscious as Reese drives what I think is a Buick Enclave, because for sure Reese & Adam Scott’s dual income can buy a little bit better than an entry luxury 3-row crossover. I mean the Enclave is the same vehicle (aside from styling and features) as the Chevy Traverse, but Reese wouldn’t get caught killing Nicole Kidman’s husband in a Chevy. I mean maybe the Acura MDX or Mazda CX-9, which are also the same cars as the Enclave, but not a Chevy. 

Our city central computer, the central critical apparatus in our time (he means Twitter) is an engine of explanation for why everyone is flying the wrong spaceship. The aliens from Independence Day, which arrived in that dreaded July of 1996, are no longer, like locusts, going from planet to planet. Every day now, the aliens have arrived on earth, and the aliens are not moving on. This earth is as real as a Chinese fortune cookie, in English, with lottery numbers, I’m finished; with lottery numbers, I’m finished. Because it takes a long time to publish a book. Years are not really a problem if your book has an historical setting, say, it takes place during the lofty downtown arts scene on the cusp of the 1980s when a cult leader waltzes into a Warren Street railcar diner holding a Ouija board that belonged to the waitresses’ late grandfather, a real estate developer who just so happened to build this goddammed town on top of a slave graveyard. If you’re writing that book you can get a lot more right. But no book will ever get everything right. The pages on the cutting room floor are often the most precise pages, and that’s the reason they end up there. One shouldn’t bring long odds to self-imposed humiliations but leave humiliations where they belong: table stakes during visits to your overworked in-network therapist who would like you to try a little bit harder to know yourself. If you are graced to write in the smashed Shakespearian present, you will concuss. Things are going to happen that are not allowed to happen. Technology is going to function that had no function before. Setting your loosely connected short stories during that languorous late summer of 2001? Give your characters the space and time to relax. Just observe them walking around. Eating fruit. But then also let them decompress from the horrors of 9/11 by venting about it on TikTok. Your book might end up an imaginary blunt with real pineapple flavor in it. 

All over White, I seem to recall the now seemingly retired Brett Easton Ellis being super proud of himself for emplacing the incorrect yet more gay National lyric into his novel Imperial Bedrooms, a masterful text with a structure harder than the rock diamonding in Cameron Frye’s ass. As if he were the first fellow to make a National lyric even more gay. Inserting the correct tune has always been the equator around Ellis’ sphere. Hell, a writer needs equators. If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, I would offer Roz Chast’s first age of man: be younger than your doctor. 

Of course you must, and you will, gaze off into the constipationary middle-distance and ask yourself now what color is this fine young lady’s hair? Oh red, that’s right. Might she have, perhaps, a peg leg? What is a peg leg? What could I put on her body? What year is it? Ah, just the other day, at the normcore Wicker Park Renegade Craft Festival, I espied a West Virginia-shaped scar on an insanely rich woman’s impossibly flat stomach. What if I gave my plebian character that baroness’s eternal imperfection? It could work. I want to stop writing, listen to Poison, and talk dirty to myself. How freaking weird but also sadly predictable that Wicker Park now has City Target. Because you know at least Target never had to stop selling guns, like Walmart, because they never sold guns in the first place. Or wait, I should google that. Did Target ever sell firearms to responsible hobbyists? I will never be a righter, haha, I will always be a wronger. What does the air smell like right now? No, not in this room, in my book. Does the air smell, or is the air perhaps scented? Perchance the cashmere woody smell on mom’s Glade twist-up, that lost its cashmere woody scent way back in 2004 yet still rests atop mom’s toilet? Hive mind, colon, did Glade make the cashmere woody scent in 2004? Nobody is ever going to read my loosely connected short stories! Irregardless, I must explain how the air smells or I am finished. If I don’t describe the dancing plebian red head as having spiraling reddish hair springing and scrawled out high above her ears, and remind the reader that as a young fawn it flowed down past her patrician belly scar which is in the shape of the white working class we’ve left behind, no one in Brooklyn will say my book is as equally engrossing as equally engrossing books!!!

Morrissey croons, in his charming goy slant, there’s always someone with a big nose who knows. Don’t let that haza be you. Bake your cake. There is no year. Always the conclusion on Moby Dick in Dylan’s Nobel lecture: everything is mixed in. 


Stuart Ross is a writer living in Chicago. His novel Jenny in Corona is available from Tortoise Books.

Photo: Curtis Macnewton/Unsplash

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