Archive for May 2010
He is sitting behind a guy on the bus to Finsbury Park last week. Said guy is holding his iPhone such that it is easy to read what he is texting, the texts that he receiving. Her message is first and then his:
– still in bed x
– in cab x
The scenarios that would inform such a lie – he is not where he is supposed to be, he is trying to impress her and thinks (or know?) that bus travel isn’t the fastest mode of transit into her deepest deep – proliferate in his mind until they don’t.
Next he tells her that he is being sent to Bradford to cover some murders that happened, x.
He is sitting on a train, riding back from a conference in a small city (pop. 44,000). He is sitting with a young but still quite successful novelist and and another academic, a theorist. He talks to the novelist about reviewery, the vicissitudes of teaching writing, the advances that the latter received, the meeting that he himself is having with a literary agent this week. He, they, ignore the theorist, though later he will feel bad about this.
A couple is sitting in the seats across the aisle. She is reading a magazine, he a novel. Not long into the trip, he drops the book noisily on the table between them, pulls out his phone, and begins to play a game instead.
He wonders whether a) he was bored with the novel b) bothered by the volume of their conversation c) bothered by the content of their conversation.
Earlier, at the conference dinner, he receives advice about dealing with agents from a novelist who would know. She outlined the differences between working with a big agent at a small house and a small agent at a big house. Later she hinted at the possibility of him reviewing her next novel – joked about whether she would or wouldn’t have him sent a copy, and then made a joke about the Canadian fishing village where his mother grew up, which she knew of, had even visited, or so she let on.
At this dinner, he fails to finish his quattro formaggi pizza, or even half of it. He had forgotten that this chain of Italian restaurants was the one where he doesn’t like one of the cheeses on the quattro formaggi.
It is embarrassing, for a man of his size, not to finish – especially in England, where everyone finishes. He is relieved when the wait staff has taken the husk of it away while he is out for a cigarette.
Earlier than that, before the dinner, he worried throughout the conference about his extremely persistent cough. He worried for two reasons – that he was really bothering others in the audience was one reason.
When he meets a Canadian, say at a conference, he feels a need to prove his Canadianess to them, though he has only ever visited the place. Likewise, when he meets a writer of fiction, he needs to do the same – subtly somehow prove that, despite the fact he’s published nothing nor has he tried to publish anything, at least prospectively he is one too.
The fact that he has a Canadian citizenship card does render the former task easier than the later, but both are in their way confidence games, aimed to sell himself as much as his interlocutor on aspects of his identity that are only themselves fictional, even if legally or prospectively true.
A review in The Forward of Joshua Cohen’s forthcoming novel Witz ends on the following note:
At more than 800 pages of involved and unusual reading, “Witz” is a book for those who are prepared to spend the time and effort of a full 40-hour workweek reading a novel. It is a week of work that will be quite unlike any other you’ve ever experienced.
It has taken him at least a full 40-hour workweek to read it, but a work-week entirely conducted after-hours and on buses and trains.
At some point this weekend, he decides that he will work exclusively on his novel and not at all on his scholarly work, this summer. Though this, of course, is a lie.
On Sunday morning, he reads Terry Eagleton’s review of Christopher Hitchens Hitch-22 in The New Statesman. Later, as he buys the book at his local book shop, the woman at the counter jokes about the picture on the cover, that it is a flattering one given what Hitchens looks like now. She uses at one point the word “sexy,” but he misses the rest of the sentence and doesn’t ask her to repeat it.
Later he uses the index to look for references to the graduate seminar that his wife took with Hitchens during the Fall of 2001 and finds just what he is looking for, which confirms one story that he told someone at the conference the day before. Other stories remain unconfirmed.
The night before, upon returning from the conference, he orders both of the young novelist’s novels and discovers, to his surprise, that the young novelist is actually four months older than he is. This is a relief, and explains why this novelist groaned as loud as he did when saw the line on the backcover of Witz: “JOSHUA COHEN was born in 1980 in New Jersey.”
He, like the young novelist, was born in 1976.
Later, when he discovers that a podcast of his conference lecture has been posted on the web, he watches it, calls his wife down to watch it. It’s been a long time since she has seen him lecture, years.
She leaves him to it after a few minutes, clearly put off by his fascination with the video, the rapt attention that he pays, there at the kitchen table, to himself.
He takes decongestants for the cough to no avail – the cough persists. In addition, he has a strange, sore spot on his head, the back of his head. Sore to the touch, but the source of the pain is underneath the skin, between the scalp and the skull. He beat hypochondria, and beat it conclusively, years and years ago. But beating hypochondria brings its own dangers and with them its own even deeper fears.
He is reading Witz in the living room while he wife looks up options on sabbaticalhomes.com for the summer, for their daughter’s summer break. Six weeks, from mid-July to the end of August. There are people eager to rent a place like his in London, people with kids, people willing to take care of cats, but no one with a place for rent in New York. He wonders if they should go to a European city instead, and she agrees that since they are here, they really should at least think about that. But Italy would be too hot, and so would Spain, and Paris they’ve done, and Germany is boring, and they’ve just been to Amsterdam. And he hasn’t been to the new Yankee Stadium, though he promised he’d never in his life go there, a year or so ago.
Someone has a place available in Maplewood, New Jersey, located just at the base of South Mountain. A strange siren song sings itself in his heart, but no, for chrissake, come on. He suggests staying with his grandmother, in Nova Scotia, in the fishing village. Think about the babysitting.
On the train back from the conference, the novelist mentions that he and his girlfriend spent six months in Buenos Aires while he finished his second novel. When he and his wife were in Buenos Aires, just after the devaluation, they joked about buying an apartment with their credit card, putting down a downpayment anyway, but there was grad school to return to, work to return to.
Later he thinks that he is not sure there was a better time than when they were in Buenos Aires, and wonders if they shouldn’t in fact go back for those six weeks.
He sends his father, who has never seen him teach, a link to the podcast of him lecturing. He anticipates receiving a message back telling him that he read too quickly, way too quickly, as his father once took a public speaking course with William F. Buckley’s brother which seemed to have only two takeaway points: 1) Speak very slowly. 2) Print your speach with no more than 40-50 words per page.
But he is wrong, that’s not what he gets in return. Rather, an hour later he receives an email from his father featuring a podcast starring an engineer from BP, explaining the efforts the corporation is taking to seal the leak in the Gulf. No reference, none at all, to his lecture in his father’s email.
This surprises him for only about seven seconds, which is perhaps the time that it takes for things that are obvious and inevitable to unseat things that are wished for but impossible.
This is also the reason why this post – its form, its content, both together – exists.
Earlier, Sunday afternoon, he discusses all of the above, except of course for the things that would happen later, with his wife as they walk with the children into town to get some lunch. His older daughter assumes that her parents are fighting – pouts, fits, cries, and then demands that only her mother take her to lunch and that he father “go to work, because he has a lot of things to do at work.”
Things spin a bit, his mind fills with anxiety, anger, guilt all at once. He is silent and away for the first ten minutes of lunch and then returns, tries to speak.
Jesus man. Marked more than 100 exams this week and thankfully received the backslapping and general thanks I deserve for doing so, tonight up late writing a paper (on Ian McEwan’s Saturday no less – trust me, it’s not complementary) that I have to give in another part of England at 2 PM tomorrow (in 10 hours!), and there’s a review of a massive novel due Monday, and another review copy for yet another paper is sitting here on the table staring at me. Have lots of things to say on here, but there’s been literally not a bit of time… Here’s to the hope that things slow down soonish rather than laterish….
But it’s good finally to get something into prose on the McEwan novel. I’ve been talking about this idea I have about it forever… Unfortunately, because I’m super tired, that prose won’t see paper until I type the conclusion on the train tomorrow and find a local print shop to put it all onto A4….
Funny thing is that a fellow blogger is convening my panel. Can’t tell if he knows who I am or not. Small, small world this is, and all the people worth knowing have sites….
Crowded bus on the way home last night and ended up sitting next to a young guy reading a proper novel. That is to say a yellowed Penguin paperback, something that’s been around for a bit. I have no doubt that “50p” was written in pencil on the inside front cover of the thing. Beautiful in its way.
One of the nice things about North London is that this sort of thing happens quite a bit. But whenever it does, last night included, I have a strange feeling. I try to glance over to the page, see if I can tell the text from the small sample available to me in the next seat. A character name, a recognized scene – even a sense that I recognize the style. And as I do, there’s that strange feeling again.
The closest that I can come to a clear description is that it is a proprietorial sense that I am having. This guy is, unknown to him, in my shop. I spend my entire life with these yellowing Penguins – marking exams, writing essays and lectures, working on my own stuff.
My father worked for a food company when I was growing up and whenever he and I were in the appropriate aisle of the supermarket, we’d stop and watch the customers as they negotiated the cookie and cracker aisle, see what they chose, what their kids wanted, what they lifted and put back and what they bought two of. Thankfully, this wasn’t some sort of marketing exercise – he wasn’t gathering intelligence. Rather, from what I can tell, he was enjoying watching people enjoy the fruits of his own labor – indirect labor, nearly as indirect as mine when it comes to the kid reading the paperback on the bus. The circuits that ran from his office work to the baked and packaged box of cookies on the shelf were nearly as complex as those that run from my teaching and newspaper writing to the novel purchased at the charity shop and read intently on the upper deck of the W3 in Finsbury Park.
1. Amidst bouts of very adult sadness, the kids’ pictures and drawings and things that hang on the refrigerator are at once a beacon of hope and a source of torment: Just join the dots to complete this picture of a super sunflower and a beautiful butterfly. A sort of simple and joyful structural support of the world, where it starts, but one that is bound to rust and crumble into the anxiety and even psychopathology that is adulthood.
And then a grimmer sense that I am getting even this wrong.
2. At the National Gallery this afternoon, stopped by the Van Goghs to look again at this for a bit:
Am falling in love, at an only somewhat careful distance, with the brilliant bêtise of Van Gogh and his work. Leaving aside the humble craftsman, humble chair, but would a humble craftsman ever paint himself as a humble chair? question implicit in this painting, I am keep laughing to myself about the portrait of the artist as his packet of pipe tobacco thing, as that seems to be the ultimate joke of the piece. There is a strange erotic component to it too, a cockeyed metonymics of sexual parts on display, except they don’t work quite right (in short, you put the female stuff inside the phallic thing and smoke it…) Whatever – brilliantly fucked up painting, and I only wish that the gift shop had had one for sale so that I could display it in my office in a gesture of angry post-bourgeois glee.
3. My own kitchen table and chairs don’t fit the space they’re in. We bought them for the previous house, which was much bigger, and even had a lovely breakfast room along side the dining area. It was a beautiful house, and I remember it fondly, even though I’m not a better homes and gardens sort of guy and have a bit of a perverse streak when it comes to my own living spaces. But somehow the current arrangement, the fact that one of the chairs is pinned to the wall by the table, as there’s no room for it to fit otherwise, pleases me. I will never allow the table to be replaced, not while we live here.
4. In lieu of Van Gogh’s Chair, I purchased for my daughter a print of his Sunflowers:
I thought to tell her the story about VVG hanging these in his guest bedroom for Gaughin, but realized I didn’t want to tell her the rest of the story of their friendship and how it turned out, and so we left it at the Sunflowers themselves.
5. We were at the National Gallery for a lovely thing they put on for kids every Sunday morning. Because we have, to different degrees, exceded many of the probables and likelies encoded in us by our respective upbringings, we both get a kick out of the fact that our kids go to a thing at the National Gallery in London on some Sunday mornings. (I first visited an art museum was I was fifteen.)
6. It is 3 AM and the International Herald Tribune just dropped through the mail slot. Something disturbing and alluring at once about being up so early and hearing it hit the floor.
7. On the way with all of the kids and the parents to look at the painting that we were all going to look at together at the National Gallery, we passed Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake….
… which T.J. Clark wrote an interesting, but more than slightly compulsive, book about, which I started but did not finish. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that it was in the National Gallery. But we had been warned by our handler not to dawdle and look on our way to the painting of the day, and so I let it be.
8. The painting that the guide chose to talk to the kids about today was an odd one: Drouet’s Madame de Pompadour at her Tambour Frame. Meh. I think the selection principle at play has one main determinant: there has to be a doggie, or animal of some sort, involved:
At one point, one of the kids asked if she was the queen. The guide only half-nervously answered No, not quite. She was more like the kings, um, special friend, right parents? Softly nervous adult laughter was laughed and I thought to myself Laugh softly, like a nervous adult. This is the time for nervous adult laughter, softly.
9. Later at lunch, my daughter asked us what we were going to be when we grew up (thanks, kid) and we turned the question on her. She asked, in turn, what we thought she would be and my wife said I think that you might be a doctor who helps people, because you’re very good at helping people, which made my daughter happy. I did not tell her that I thought, and secretly hoped, that she would end up an artist, going to art school and the like, like all of those no good hipsters that I rage at, generally sotto voce, daily.
10. I am supposed to be teaching her how to read as the utterly-to-be-expected-to-happen happened: one of the other kids in her class has emerged as a reading prodigy. Son of the only other academic parents in the group, the kid is basically reading his parents’ monographs at night to put himself to sleep.
I think instead I want to teach her to do something that I absolutely cannot do, like draw.
I do not want her to go into the business that I am in. At all. Any of the businesses that I am in.
11. Much is left out, but what strangely honest posts these are, my Sunday (or immediately post-Sunday) numbers. I actually go back and edit out inaccuracies and half-truths. For instance, above I had originally written that I told her the story about Van Gogh and Gaughin, except for the end, but this was untrue and so I changed it, as I told her nothing on this point.
12. What happened after we returned from the museum and lunch, and after we stopped for groceries, I cannot say. Things got very bad in a rather amorphous way, and then I slept, and now I am writing, which makes me feel better, though not as much as the sleep did.
13. Things that nearly made me cry this weekend… I mean palpably have the tears come up only to be forced back down through force of will and masculine embarrassment:
– Sunday, as we prepared to enter the gallery, the guide warned the children not to touch any paintings, and then warned the parents to ensure that the children did not touch any of the paintings.
– Saturday, at her school fair, my daughter found on the used toy table at Barbie doll missing her top. It was the sort of Barbie that comes with the clothes attached, and this one was missing her top. She begged us to buy it for her (40p) and we did and then there was the sight of her gripping it and stroking its blonde hair and showing her friends that she had a new Barbie.
– Other things, some of which I can remember, some of which I can’t.
14. Despite the fact that the logorrhea that is fueling this post should be as worrying as the affectual state that preceded it, it almost impossible to see it that way, to believe that that is so. One takes the mania when it comes, seeks the mania when it is gone, would pay any price just to keep it here rather than slip into its psycho-chemical dialectical partner.
15. On the way to the Van Goghs my daughter stopped us at Carracci’s Christ Appearing to Saint Peter on the Appian Way:
Strange picture, based on the apocryphal Peter-in-Rome stuff. But my daughter is fascinated by Jesus (stupid UK state school system introduces her to the story, has her draw pictures of Bible scenes and the like… America is rarely secular, but when it is, thank god, it is truly secular…) and wanted to know what is happening and so we told her:
You know that the man with the cross, Jesus, got in trouble with people and was killed. The man on the right, who was Jesus’s friend, pretended not to know him afterward. Three times people came up to him and asked him, “Do you know this Jesus guy?” And each time he said no, so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. And now, in the picture, he’s having a bad dream about it because he’s feeling guilty.
My wife said the dream part, and I corrected her. Not quite a dream, but still. We moved on…
16. Amazing how fast, when I am in a state like this one, that my imagistic vocabulary, metaphoric tendencies, and general narrative sensibility turns back to the Roman Catholicism that I long ago abandoned. Everything goes Heaven and Hell, venerated images, and a sense of femininity / sexuality organized by constantly collapsing binary oppositions.
Sometimes I wonder if I am one of the last people (in my part of the world) to truly go through the experience of Catholic education – education considered quite broadly. Could this even happen here and today? I am glad that I won’t find out from my own daughters.
17. I am reading a big new novel for a review, something that you’ll likely be hearing about in a few weeks, especially if you’re American and interested in such things. I am disappointed with it – it tries for manic lyricism and ends up with what to me seems more like Joycean pastiche. This in turn is nudging me to rethink Joyce himself, the bloodlessness of his self-conscious verbal play.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am – have always been – trying to write. Actually, as you can see, I am constantly writing. But very little of it passes muster – my muster, not anyone else’s as I never send it out. I do not send it out. But lately it is becoming more clear to me what it is that I have found to be lacking in the stuff that I do… Something like the opposite of bloodlessness, something like the lurid. I have cast my lot with the artists of precision, and would never give that up to fall into the other camp. But still, between the hard folds of rigorous self-consciousness, I’d want there to be something organic, animal, leaking or even in spots spurting through.
18. Two versions of the Christian lurid are contained to two relatively recent and similarly controversial films about Christ. The corporeal materiality of The Passion of the Christ and the limbic romantic (sur)realism of The Last Temptation of Christ. Obviously I’m talking more about the latter, as applied to my own work, but who knows – maybe there’s something I need to sort out on this point.
It now seems to me that one could sort each of the paintings posted above into one of the two categories, with only a bit of stretching.
18. Watching Linha de Passe last night, I found myself wishing that I had a brother, or even brothers. But perhaps if I had a brother, or brothers, and they were likeminded or at least sympathetic, perhaps I’d send all this stuff to him or them instead of writing it out on here in letters to all of you.
Stupid only-child fantasy of fraternal intimacy! I’m sure it almost never happens!
19. I am working on a story, something like a primitive or proto version of this aggregate fiction stuff that I keep going on about. There probably are more subtle and thus better ways to get at the aggregate, but one way that suggests itself rather insistently is to let architecture do the work. That is to say, you can find places where the individual subject and the mass of subjects blur and become complex in certain architectural situations, where the interior experience remains at once distinct and idiosyncratic but perhaps predictably so.
I had my start thinking about the aggregate in fiction after writing about it outside of fiction and then teaching Don DeLillo’s Underworld in an MA seminar. In particular, the following passage from the first section, set at the Polo Grounds, stood out to me:
Men passing in and out of the toilets, men zipping their flies as they turn from the trough and other men approaching the long receptacle, thinking where they want to stand and next to whom and not next to whom, and the old ballpark’s reek and mold are consolidated here, generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.
The thing I am working on at the moment is something like this, extended into a (somewhat) progressive narrative. But it is set not in a men’s room but, to borrow from Dante, lo passo che non lasciò mai persona viva – the hellmouth.
20. I suppose one simple and stupid way to put it is that just as VVG took pastelish Impressionism and rendered it lurid and generally off-kilter, that’s sort of what I’d like to do with prose fiction. You take the rational but insipid phenomenology of the sophisticated standard issue, but then do it over it fucked up dense colors and on inappropriate themes, often with inappropriate focus and focalization.
It’s not completely clear to me what the aggregate has to do with the lurid.
The best part is I have only the dimmest sense of why I would want to do this. Which seems, intuitionally, a good thing, but also a bit frightening.
21. What balls I have, or something else, to write this way about writing, on here and like this. Interesting to note that if you had me in person, whether my best day or my worst, whether drunk or sober, whether we were lifelong intimates or airport-intersecting contingents, I promise that you’d never in a million years hear me talk like this, have me tell you any of this.
Further, I will push the button to post this, and then I will have a cigarette and think of twenty other things I meant to say…
A Hollywood stuck in an endless circle of remakes, unable to conceive of novel characters or situations, meets and is mangled up with a world stuck in what promises to be perpetual economic crisis, ceaselessly recycling its heroes into vilains and back again.
The only way, it seems, that you can tell that time is passing at all is by the size and shape of the mobile phones.
How do you know when you are one? You start rolling a cigarette while sitting in the pub with the academics who have paid you (£250!) to come talk to their students. When your handler asks you if you want to go outside to have a cigarette, you are able to reply for all to hear “No actually I just want to go, period.” And then you do. No excuses offered, even though there are likely good ones available.
But there’s a sadder truth to this sort of gig, and it is related to the cash figure I named in the previous paragraph. Twenty minutes later, you return, because you’d forgotten your package of rolling tobacco (£2.75) on the pub table. You retrieve it, make a politically incorrect joke about it, and then leave again.
UPDATE: My wife just accused me of being mean in this post. Really wasn’t my intent. It is a bit funny I think, but mostly this is an anecdotal exercise in the sociology of literature at present day. In what other field, nowadays, would you find such a conjunction of events?