I. THE RACCOON
When I read lists of Bests and Favorites and What Assertively Was, I think of a line from William Blake, who did not release any new work in 2015. Of Jesus Christ, Blake proclaimed: “He is the only God. And so am I. And so are you.”
Books don’t survive in the petri dish. They live in the context of where we are spatially and consciously. To read is to search: it seems an inherently hopeful act. All the sweeter then that some of the most avid readers I know look to the untrained eye like curmudgeons. A teenager recently told me that whenever she enters a bookstore, she wants to hug all the funny-looking old men who are inevitably in it. “How old is old?” I asked.
To read is to believe that the epiphanic moment – or hell, pleasure? – awaits around the bend of just one more page. I like to ask people where and when they read, and likewise ask writers where and when they work. It becomes a game of Clue, and of concoction: “My boyfriend’s sister, in the Billiards Room, with Otessa Moshfegh.” We seek not only guidance from literature, but to envelop our own story around one that’s already happened. To decide what it was that the book wanted to tell us. There’s my Fates and Furies, and your Fates and Furies (the one that happened to you), and a third Fates and Furies born of sitting at the bar and hashing out whether either of us bears resemblance to those hubristic characters and their dashed dreams. None of which may have much to do with author Lauren Groff’s own private Fates and Furies: in her home, her mind, her countless hours of hard work, and in her life as a hopeful reader.
Toward the end of Groff’s prior novel Arcadia, a young man watches a raccoon steal a sliver of soap from a windowsill. “Though the creature surrenders the soap,” writes Groff, “it curls its lips and reveals its black teeth, and Bit can’t tell whether it is smiling or showing its fear.” At times while reading books this year, I felt like that raccoon. During moments of beauty and empathetic recognition, was I smiling or showing my fear? Renata Adler with her back against the wall (a neurotic who has the unfortunate burden of being correct!) in every office and war zone that encompasses After the Tall Timber. Maggie Nelson worrying that writing itself is but a “gravestone marking the forsaking of wildness” in The Argonauts. Vacationers who wish their foreign hotel had a more romantic name in Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s Lovers on All Saints’ Day. These are my people. As are the couple of unlikely farmers in Lucia Berlin’s story “Bluebonnets” from A Manual for Cleaning Women, containing this one-two punch that haunted me for the rest of this year:
“What was love? Maria asked herself, watching the clean lines of his face as he slept. What’s to keep the two of us from doing it, loving.”
When Adler deems her crucifixion of Pauline Kael a battle not against hyperbolic film criticism, but an “an awful frenzy” on behalf of all “prose and the relation between writers and readers”, or renders her exhaustive impalements of the New Yorker and the mea culpas of Times editor Bill Keller (“Bureaucracy at its best”), I both smile and show my fear. Fear that it is so difficult to write unpopular, unforgiving assessments of a fellow human, especially a peer. Fear that such harsh judgments, even when correct, are bad for one’s blood pressure. Fear that we are ditching the Renata Adlers of tomorrow out on the periphery in our endless desire to be Liked (to be a Favorite!), and to then monetize our Likeability. Perhaps those sweaty moments in which we can’t tell whether we’re smiling or showing fear are worth more than we know.
II. REINVENTING YOUR LIFE
My therapist asked me to read two books this year. The first was Stephen King’s On Writing, which I finished in one day while waiting in a Jury Duty bullpen. The second was a book on schema theory entitled Reinventing Your Life, by doctors Jeffrey E. Young and Janet S. Klesko. The book sports a hideous cover (Yellow, periwinkle, white, and magenta?) and a subtitle (“The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again”) that sounds suspiciously Trumpish. I was embarrassed to be seen Reinventing myself in public. It is mercilessly unavailable as an eBook that could have been cloaked inside a phone. On the subway I’d bend completed pages all the way around the paperback cover, in case I ran into any attractive people with dignity.
I had also never read Stephen King, because I thought that he was for stupid people who needed spooooooky things to happen in order to keep denying the teeeeeeeedium of exiiiiiistence. To my surprise, King’s views on his craft are swift and entertaining: On Writing has great things to teach us about how to knock out a first draft, how to edit, what does and doesn’t matter when purchasing a writing desk, pacing a story, and how booze plays into all of these decisions. Reinventing Your Life, meanwhile, is not exactly To the Lighthouse in its nuance. Published in 1993, it describes a surprising number of patients growing worried that their semi-hard partying and troubled relationships with their parents will somehow will result in contracting AIDS. Yet in small doses, with concerted inventory of one’s own Virginia Woolf-shaped demons, it is a book of sound insight. (Turns out that my schemas to work on are Failure and Entitlement. Yay!)
What I am proposing, loyal countryfolk, is that we could all benefit from reading more things that are square and un-Brooklyn in their presentation. These were two books that I didn’t want to read, because I thought that I was too cool to read them. I wanted to go smoke cigarettes and discuss Clarice Lispector behind the dumpster with the other cool kids. Instead I slugged through two decidedly anti-hip books that were of genuine help to me in completing a draft of my own manuscript, for a novel that I thought I was too cool to ever stop writing. At the end of September, I printed out 287 pages and brought them with me on a plane ride to Tulum. Covering them in red revision ink made the jet go faster. Perhaps you’d like to read said manuscript? We can meet behind the dumpster.
III. LIKE DISASTER
It’s spring, and I’m suddenly single in Williamsburg, eating three lunches every Sunday while walking around alone, looking for answers. In trying to understand whether I deserved to be loved for who I am right now, I read poetry. At times in stores, and quite often for free on The Poetry Foundation’s website. I don’t know who or what The Poetry Foundation is, but I will kiss the toe jam off its founders’ feet for their pro-bono instillation of all the feelings I’ve caught this year.
When you’re lonesome – especially the self-imposed varietal – you’ll try anything once. I first looked for affirmation of romantic love in the work of Philip Larkin, which proved a bit like looking for your car keys in the middle of the ocean. Coleridge has some good lines on the matter: he wrote “What comes from the heart goes to the heart” a hundred and fifty years before McCartney hit on “The love you take is equal to the love you make.” St. Augustine sticks the landing in two lines: “O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there.” Your person wanted you, while you strived to be anything but you.
Yet it was a jam from Elizabeth Bishop’s 1977 collection Geography III that did me in and made me weep like a raccoon separated from his soap. That poem – called “One Art” – starts like this:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
And ends like this:
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I cried again just copy-pasting the motherfucker! What is it that we fill with the intent to be lost? (“What’s to keep the two of us from doing it, loving.”) The poem’s conclusion is a venn diagram for the broken-hearted writer: even with the knowledge that time heals all wounds, great work is born from recognizing and mining your past strife, in the replication of drama on the page.
Bishop’s final assertion – her command to (Write it!) like disaster – sounds to me like the molten brunt of all the personal essays that I read this year, including this one here and now. All the I(s) and Me(s) and Bae(s). Many of the essayists who moved me this year – Ta-Nehisi Coates, Beca Grimm, Leah Finnegan, Margo Jefferson, Alexandra Molotkow, Casey Rocheteau, Pilot Viruet, Jenny Zhang – gave generously of themselves, challenging and defying that which I thought I knew well enough as a self-appointed “nice guy” and Good German: race, class, gender, other writers, health, friendship. They taught me to spend all day walking around with their work, disagreeing with it until I reached the Parade Grounds at Prospect Park and realized that these people are not me, and are all the more vital because of it. They tackled momentous, difficult, often bleak concerns by being people with whom you want to spend time. I hope that they keep telling the truth, so that I can keep muttering their words to myself (and occasional companions!) on long walks.
And so the items discussed throughout these musings were my Favorites of 2015. And so am I. And so are you.