Archive for July 2010
America does, however, brim with raw material. Not so much material raw material or even the processed stuff anymore, but the story stuff that they we endlessly generate. Hard to work on one’s own when surrounded by such stuff. Barnes and Noble right now, and mistaken for “Ethan” while waiting in the coffee line. “Ethan” turns out to be her blind date, some sort of eHarmony generated pick. But no, “Ethan,” I’m not.
She looks softly disappointed when he actually shows. But as it turns out the Harmony that’s been e’ed is the fact that they are both into “spirituality.” Hard to discern exactly what brand – as my American readers know, but perhaps not the Brits, we’re not talking Xtianity here. Or rather, we’re talking about what happens to Xtianity when god gets sublimated (what a thing to sublimate, huh?) into amorphous mojo or golden sunbeams or whatever, normative ethics into conventional methods of “self-actualization,” and so on.
Can’t help but listen. She picked the table next to mine as if she wanted to, as if she wanted me to listen. Perhaps she knows that I’m a spiritualist too of a very particular, and particularly self-annoying and not all that redemptive sort. Sometimes I wish I had some sort of press badge that entitled me to record stuff like this. “Would you mind if I just left this tape deck to run here on your table. Here, let me move your soy latte. Yes, here’s my pass from the International Union of Barnes and Noble Flaneurs.”
She is discussing a “presentation on vibes” that she just attended, and the “tarot group” that she was at last night. He is dying here – he’s faking the new age-ness that seems to have been requisite for this meet. He has nothing to say save for the list of schools that he attended, the boring job that he does doing “video work,” and the fact that he’s not really interested (or so he says) in watching the finals of the World Cup this afternoon.
Though he’d like to be a therapist, as he majored in psychology, he’s still “assessing his situation” he guesses. She attempts to circle the conversation back to some place. He plunges deep and backward, to a summer spent in France during high school, the friends that he left behind there. She is ia lawyer, with a prosperous job – just lonely here having moved at the wrong time.
Education, employment (over / under), travel, where one chooses to live in the nearly identical sprawl sprouts around here, the other places – themselves basically identical to this one, with only slight variations in weather and political climate – where one lived before and might well live again. You can see the structural void that amorphous esoteric “spirituality” fits in, the roles that it serves in these negotiations – those both with oneself and with others.
So the tale of the tape: under-narrativization on his part vs. over-narrativization on hers. The coffee machine rumbles at key points as if to underscore, behind all of this, something indeterminate. She checks the time on her phone, “can’t be late for my thing,” and then they start the final push toward failure and separation: the discussion of the virtues and faults of various mobile phone companies, AT&T vs. Verizon….
UPDATE: I am clearly being cruised by a guy sitting a few tables over, cattycorner. I look up from the laptop, his eyes lift to meet mine. Over and again, automatically. The coffeehouses of Barnes and Noble are clearly one of the most interesting and interestingly emblematic places in America. I’ve long thought about writing something about them – one of those publisher friendly books (bet I can think of just the publisher, at least if they did anything other than publish out of print classics in third-choice translation!) where, in the midst of personal crisis and looking to get back to my (suburban, part-autodidactical) intellectual and social roots I rent a car and spend an evening typing / reading / talking at each and every in-store coffee outlet in America. It’s a place that one goes when one wants more than what’s otherwise around place like this, but where one is unlikely to find much more than lattes and computer magazines and the company of the more interesting variety of lonely types, the lonely types just like you…. Ah, but it’s a bit too Alain de Botton to pass my rigorous muster, isn’t it?
He can hardly wait to get up to his room to watch his movie! There are movies that you can watch on the computer, and sometimes the car chimes with a ring that’s so beautifully engineered as to make him wonder why he ever developed doubts in the future.
He overhears, woman to woman: “Big news! I got my first paying customer this week!” The other claps. “Fifteen hours work. Fifteen hours work for one-thousand dollars! I picked out her entire wardrobe, right down to the underwear and accessories. She’s so busy, with the business, that she says she just doesn’t have time. And so my first paying customer!” The other asks a question about her sweater and she replies, “Yeah, Anne Taylor.”
He is not sure that he has any use any longer for the New York Times email updates. Over the years, he has subscribed to them and unsubscribed from them only to subscribe again. They are an index of a certain mood, and as such are unbearable once that mood has slipped away.
A woman sits at the next table listening to a tutorial on her new iPhone. He listens too, percolating in anger.
An older guy says “red wine for me” and his younger wife says “make it a big one.”
Crossing the street, he hears a scream, really a yell. He thinks, first, “The surplus of our industries shouts at passing buses from street corners” and then, as he crosses another street, “Our industry’s surplus shouts at buses from our corners” and then, much later, “The future like the past. Sometimes moreso, sometimes less so.”
He can’t understand what his daughter says on the phone. Most of his side of the conversation revolves around asking her to repeat what she just said.
Later, reading Bookforum in the backseat of the car until he gets woozy, his mother asks “What do you call a PhD in physiotherapy?” He responds “a PhD in physiotherapy.” Later he is asked several times if he has ever been to this particular chain restaurant. Each time, unfailingly, he responds in the affirmative.
They seem happy enough, the people playing golf.
On the TV, someone says “One thousand of these are being offered exclusively to the viewers of this network.”
A life lived with only the most casual relationships. The people who serve you various drinks, the people who sell you various items, some of them on a daily basis. The people who work on airplanes and who work in airline terminals. The people on the phone. This life somehow balanced awkwardly, verging even on imminent collapse, with the increasing mandate to “up-sell.” He is offered credit cards and membership cards and other special offers and opportunities to make donations to local charities. His drinks go from small to medium and then to large, though he refuses the option of a shot of flavor, hazelnut maybe.
Mid-range relationships: Doctors and therapists. Long-distance friends. The colleagues he doesn’t really talk to. Parents.
His father says “Boston really blew it signing this guy” and then “You know I don’t know half the players on either Boston or Tampa Bay” and then “Oh, Longoria got picked off.” He tears another page out of Bookforum.
He handles, earlier, an iPad in the Apple Store. Just as one tipped off as to a catastrophic terrorist attack would ready in his mind the phrase like a Hollywood movie! he has readied It looks and feels like the future! Though he’s had the opportunity to handle one before, he has put it off as long as possible – put it off until today. He nearly purchases one just to have something to think about for awhile – like an irresponsible person in a personal crisis would purchase a pet. He pictures himself, his future, laying in bed reading ebooks and watching movies and then realizes that his future feels less metal and glass and ebooks and more cigarette butts and paper cups and humidity both inside and out.
His father says, “The course was designed by Arnold Palmer. That’s why it doesn’t have any fairways near the greens. Arnold Palmer believed, at least at one point, that you should be able to make the green in one.”
He notices that the road in has been built on a berm and then he sees the tiny stream. He pictures first a flat and flooded road and then the building of the berm with fill.
1. Sitting outside at a cafe in Chapel Hill, where I’ve been sent (or is it taken) for a bit, Chapel Hill I mean not the cafe. The guy next to me in the smoking section outside is sitting with laptop open and a book positioned between his chest and the keyboard, taking notes.
2. What would it take to get back to work? It’s not of course as if I don’t do any – I imagine that I’m still, despite it all, in about the ninetieth percentile or so amongst academics, even if idiosyncratically so. The reviewery keeps falling from the skies of London, and I keep my deadlines or almost do. And for awhile there I was adding 2000 words per day to the novel, but even that was entre some very wavy lignes. I did 1900 today at a mall-lodged Barnes and Noble, after buying the Glen Beck novel with great embarrassment, all ready to explain that I want to write it up, negatively of course, for some very important foreign magazines. (Long readership prize if you can explain in comments what my angle for a comment piece – not a review obviously – on this book might be…)
3. Colleagues write and say that they like or even love the blog. Especially the darker bits. Ah hem. Don’t encourage me. What a slim membrane stretched between life writing and living to life write. (A question for a Barthes translator working on a text Barthes never wrote, or maybe even some that he did: why are the terms available in English for, um, creative writing (see?) so horrendously whimsical sounding or constrictively unabstract, just as our sex talk inebriatedly veers from the gutter to the sexual health clinic without stopping in the realm of the lovely and/or poetic?)
4. Want to stay here writing but my father will worry that I’m out drinking if I do. I won’t be able to finish this at their place, though, even though I’ve discovered today the snus. Not like I’m kissing anyone while I’m here, just in case you were worried…
4a. There’s a great bit in that new thing about Wallace by David Lipsky where, while on a plane, the former taunts the latter about his ability to enjoy nicotine enjoyment because of his dipping. Even better is the fact that he makes up an excuse for the flight attendant about having a plastic allergy so that she’ll give him a styrofoam cup rather than a clear plastic one, which would gross his fellow passengers out. I’d quote it if I were at home rather than sitting outside of Caribou Coffee in Chapel Hill.
4b. Snus requires no spitting at all. I tried it today and confess here on my confessional blog that I looked in the mirror to see if you could tell I had it in. Not to hide it from my parents, no, but rather with the thought that I might pop one in during long grad seminars. (Again – DFW prize if you mark the subtext in comments…)
5. I try to explain to my father why I have to write here and not there, now and not before or later, and under these conditions and not those, by saying that it’s like baseball – ticky, idiosyncratic, strewn with homespun and ad hoc mythologies and auto-gnomisms.
6. There are bugs walking around this sitting area that are so big that if I saw them in London they’d be mice, if not rats.
7. The fifth point was supposed to conclude on a different word, but I simply couldn’t remember it. It’s there but it’s simply not coming. The sensation of having a word but being not quite able to reach it, pull it out of the back of the mind. The fantasized geographies and topologies of the brain that one develops when this happens. Saw a horrible picture in the paper of a US soldier who had a third of his head blown away but somehow survived. One can’t help but wonder if certain words, turns of phrase, are missing. I imagine they are, along with much else, despite the redundancies and double wiring built into the system.
8. An engulfing, overwhelming fear of being alone and the way that the blog solves this so tantalizingly incompletely.
9. Horrible what enabled me to start writing this post. Fearful that it happens like that, terrifying my inability to learn easy lessons.
10. Is it America that makes me unable to write this in the third person that I normally take up in these?
11. A.O. Scott a few months ago in the NYT on Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and the meme of “Generation X’s Midlife Crisis” in general:
Note the sudden swerve from world-historical grandiosity to consumerist banality; the attempt to camouflage sincere confusion with winking insouciance; the obsession with generalizing a personal experience.
While the terms on offer here seem intimately familiar to me, and likely to you if you read this blog, I on the other hand don’t fit the Gen X mold, at all, that Scott describes elsewhere in the piece. The slackerdom, the insolent refusal to grow up! I went straight from undergrad (where I took 39 separate courses while everyone else took 32, five per term except the first, while everyone else took four), went straight into my PhD, got my first tenure track job at 28, had my first kid at 28, got my second job at a more prestigious place and abroad at 32, had my second kid at 32, and hopefully (cross your fingers, or don’t at this point) will have two books out in 2011, at the age of 34. I am the purest child of meritocratic striving that you’ll ever meet, and now, sure, it’s starting to look a bit Greenberg at a premature age. Anyway…
11a. I was carded today buying cigarettes. The age to buy them is 18! What flattery. And the girl who did it said I never would have guessed you were that age. I wanted to respond, but didn’t, Well give it a few more years of this.
12. There’s a two-table outdoor smoking area at this cafe. I am seated in one of the tables. (The guy with the book is long since gone – actually he left last night. I’ve been writing this post for a long time now, albeit in the same place. Long enough that I actually remembered, earlier today in the shower, the word mentioned in 7, but it’s departed again. Stupid untrainable brain folds!) Just now, two young girls were seated at the next table. One of them said the phrase quotatation marks, then described herself in laughter as really really stupid, I just said “quotatation marks”!, and then caught my eye as I looked over. She must have thought this was a flirtatious move, on both of our parts. I was actually thinking, when I looked over, yes, you’re really stupid. Ah, the American South! Ah Southern girls!
13. Oh to be in London now etc.
14. What a malignancy this writing trade is. The psychopathology of house comparison, car comparison, that hovers like a fog over my parents’ community is nothing compared to New York Times Book Review anxiety, the anxiety that comes of seeing how smartly funny the start of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is.
15. A cockroach just ran up to my left foot. It’s getting near time to leave. I’m sure they have a different word for what that is, here in the South. Undoubtedly it’s a June Bug or something. But, reader, we know… A giant fucking cockroach.
16. If America is a nation of children, its sobriety renders it very adult compared to England. If England is a nation of adults, its inebriation renders it ominously childlike compared to America. And here I am, drinking coffee in the heat, about to roll home in a ridiculous car listening to satellite radio, worried that one of those June Bugs got into my bag, reeking of smoke but with mints in my pocket…
17. And there, as if on cue, are the fireworks…. Pictures of golf courses to be posted tomorrow or at least soon…