Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Reading, as we all know, can be exciting - but what about not reading? What does not-reading feel like?

I think that in order to answer this question, we've got to first examine the relationship between reading and time. Begin with that original message scrawled on clay or bark or whatever: suddenly, instead of having to repeat a description of where the good watering holes are, OOg-Na-Gok can simply point to the map he made and have it speak for him. His experience, once locked inside his chest like a rib, becomes a tool, a thing outside him and therefore free to go about its (meaning his, as OOg presumes) business. So we see that writing, in its original aspect, is very much a technology - meaning very much an invention meant to save us time. 

Good for us! Except that one of the most interesting problems of human experience is that, once we've saved some time, we find ourselves faced with the equally thorny problem of how to spend it. Here, the purely pragmatic aspect of language provides us with no help at all; the misuse of this aspect, however, does. For what if someone (OOg's little brother, say, who is a terrible hunter and on top of that was born without a left ear) got it into his head to draw a map whose lines corresponded to no actual watering hole at all? And what if, freed from an absolute fidelity to a real landscape (though still bound by the mapmaker's desire to convince his readers that what he was showing them was real), this counterfeit mapmaker found himself possessed by an intoxicating freedom? Green lakes, trees of fire - a camp just like theirs, inhabited by a beautiful race of one-eared women! The listeners sit spellbound, hardly noticing as the sun sinks below the horizon. The next night they crowd around the fire to hear more about this mysterious kingdom, so similar to their own and yet so different at the same time...

Time and language are bound up together from birth, like Romulus and Remus or Cain and Abel. Notice how one of those brothers always dies? Well, pay attention to that dagger in language's teeth. Words kill time, close it, box it up and mark it "spent". One of the reason we read is so that there will be a "well" there too. Book-reading is time well spent, not just because it is, but because we've been told it is. Newspaper reading? Internet reading? Back of cereal box reading? Jury's still out.

Into this world of reading, not reading descends like a sickness: a fever or plague or, yes, nauseé sickness of the familiar. Surrounded by books, all the books are wrong, meaning potential wastes of time. Impenetrable disciplines requiring time and devotion, from which we will wake up at the end no more enriched by our effort than we would be if we'd spent it stuffing pillows. Or: these books are good, these books are fine - but the One Book is out there. The book that will change my life, transforming me from a finger-sniffing clerk into a writer who surfs with whales, taking notes, penning masterpieces. It hovers in the darkness, radiating a soft light. Waiting as I waste my life.

Idealism imprisons; should we really be that surprised, then, that so many of the greatest books have been hammers thrown at Stendhal's highway-wandering mirror? Faced with the paralysis of Not Reading, the reader has two choices. He can give up, immolate his library in a sublime auto-da-fé. This is the way of Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Shields. A Reformation, in which our suspicion that God does not really exist in little crackers makes us want to torch the entire edifice, from altar to stained glass to tapestries, and start worshipping in the woods or better, our own basements.

I confess, I am VERY sympathetic to protest; but I've read (and written) too many shitty experiments not to be suspicious of works that lazily discard the trappings of tradition. Destruction is, if you think about it, one of the most difficult projects, and requires a deep formal sense that I frequently suspect may be beyond me. On the other hand, what's left? The Church of Realism? A fundamentally Anglican reduction in ambition and scope, a defeatism that relinquishes Lawrence's "Bright book of life" for provincialism that seems to want, at the end of the day, to simply be left alone? (and yes, James Wood, though you are a beautiful writer, I am asking this question of you, with you (hopefully), not because I reject your definition of realism, but because I want it so badly to be true. And yet, and yet...)

I believe in doubt - I have to, really, or else disqualify myself from the whole thing. Writers are Paracletian, I'm sure, whether their descending angel comes bearing a sword or olive branch. But the question that the Book of Jonah asks is, what do we do while we're waiting for revelation? What do we do when it comes? We all want to be prophets, but few of us want the prophecies we're given. Being in the whale, then, may be one of the ways that we learn how to read our books.

Image: Brian Jungen, Shapeshifter/Partial Cetology, 41 foot long partial whale skeleton made out of plastic deckchairs

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Tell, Don't Show"

....As we've all heard a thousand times. But then witness last Friday, when I regaled my huddled in laws and vaguely-bemused wife with a story of one Tim Tebow, the Anointed and therefore Man Who Had To Die. Reader, I toot not my own horn when I say that they were enraptured...But after the inevitable Passion, and Fall, an inevitable question arose:

"Wait, you like watching football?"

I don't, actually. What I do like, though, is listening - and not to sports, but about them. The habit was ingrained in me early via my father, a lifelong fan who, what with our living in places that had no real televised broadcasts (especially of American sports) had to field endless questions from my brother and me. What was a baseball? Who were the Red Sox? And how could Mo Vaughan - a behemoth whose photograph I'd seen once in a Herald Tribune and feared ever since - possibly secure enough Bostonian orphans to satisfy his monstrous appetite?

So I learned about sports through a medium that I've been told since is defunct: the oral tradition. It didn't stop there, either. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of a long car ride, during which my dad was subjected to a veritable inquisition on the mysterious world of "Star Wars" (a movie he was sure we'd love). Less a start-to-finish retelling than a sort of encyclopedic Q&A (a story "in pieces", a la Calvino's Invisible Cities or Shklovsky's Sentimental Journey) the universe he created on that and subsequent drives remains one of my ur-texts, vivid and unrepeatable. Its digressive, deceptively-casual shape has remained in my brain ever since, knotted by loci of what still seem unbearable fascination. Han Solo, for example: was he a Jedi, or part of the Empire? Good or Bad? But what side of the Force was he on?! I give my dad infinite credit for refusing to give into my zeal for categorization. It made the story better - for even then I recognized that in a universe of super-powerful creatures, it was exactly Solo's slipperiness made him unique, and uniquely powerful.

Nowadays, I still love a good paraphrase, no matter what form it takes. I devour reviews; ditto previews, to which I have an embarrassing addiction. I hate playing video games, but love watching people play them (or talk or write about playing them). I read about sports without any desire to watch them. All predilections, I'm afraid, that are ridiculously easy to punch holes in (consumerist! American!) - but then what if there's something interesting going on here, too? What if what I'm really searching for when I ask someone to tell me about it is not an end to the conversation, but a return to that backseat of my family Volvo ("olvo" after the V fell off), with a loved face explaining the world to me one question at a time?

All this may have nothing to do with anything... On the other hand, take a second to think about how my father's storytelling differs from the kind that apprentice writers are generally told to practice today. Ruled as it is by Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor, contemporary American writing bows before the "eye" - not the real eye (abused constantly by tiny print and pulsing screens), but by the metaphorical organ of literary cliche. Writers are exhorted to "show", "make the reader see it", "notice" - all wonderful pieces of advice, of course. But I wonder if they don't occlude the world, occasionally, by making their words too unbearably clear? "What happens next?" we ask, and wait rapturously for the answer. Do we need to see it? Sometimes yes, sure, we do. But then remember Henry James (one of O'Connor's favorite writers), or Henry Green (who was blind), or Hermann Broch (who...uh...didn't own a TV). Think of Nabokov himself, whose noticings, though vivid, are always strategic and, I guarantee you, much rarer than you remember. "Showing" is an essential spice: but the meat of storytelling is telling. The human mind loves to put things together and this is why a book, among other things, is a big bag of legos. A generous writer understands that the best stories inevitably leave their readers feeling that the best, or most important, or just most interesting parts have been left unshown.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why We Walk

Listening to the mellifluous Stephen Metcalf on this week's Culture Gabfest (1/18), I was struck by his final "endorsement" of poems/passages. All three had to do with walking and looking; specifically, with the imaginative/empathic act of seeing something/someone and "inhabiting" them via a sort of brief non-Vulcan mind-meld. Metcalf asked for a genre tag to describe this grouping - a question that seemed interesting to me, since only a few minutes earlier he'd mentioned an article by one of the great literary walkers/lookers, Walter Benjamin (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - SM's off the cuff paraphrase is, I should mention, concise and elegant, meaning it made sense of an article that I've read and baffled over multiple times).

Benjamin's stock seems to be particularly high right now. Nearly all the year's best of fiction lists were topped by either Teju Cole's Open City or Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station: two books that I haven't read, but which seem to be, among other things, walk novels. The second of these is frequently compared to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge, the first to the German pan-fictionist W.G. Sebald, who himself rivals Bolano in his secret-saucitude among my friends who like writing and reading. In the same way, I don't know a person in grad school who doesn't worship the very dog-poop on Benjamin's shoes (actually, to be fair I don't know a person in grad school, period. Unless you count nurses. Which I do. Even though they don't usually read a lot of Benjamin). 

But to return to SM's genre-begging: I'd say that the mini-genre all these works belong to is, simply, the walk. Pioneers would include the American transcendentalists, English romantic poets, intra-war Germans (and Swiss - can't forget Walser here, not just for his name but for his long short story "The Walk"), Russians at all times (my favorite Russian saying: "When late for work, walk slower"), the French when they're feeling piqued (Baudelaire: a great theorist of flaneurie and the grain of sand hidden in most of Benjamin's best pearls) and of course Guy Davenport. After Dav, walking as an actual pursuit withers, at an inverse rate to the blossoming of its literature, until finally we get to the internet, which, if you're feeling generous, could be seen as an epic, breezy, and occasionally frustrating-walk that everyone with a computer is taking together. Hence, I believe, this discovery of walking. 

Do I like to walk, I mean me, personally, as a person with a body? Yes I do. At the same time, I am terrified of walking. Something is always at stake - time, for example. The wager is that sharp attention is enough and that the world is so suffused with meaning (or available to our meaning-makingness) that even the most out of the way detour will end up redeeming what we've spent on it (and if you don't like the mixture of spiritual and economic language here, please take it up with Emerson, also a great walker). Another way to say this is that the walker has faith, which is one of the reason why timid, conservative people like writers are so drawn to walking: not because we're naturally good at it, but because we recognize in it a set of skills that we are somehow deficient in.