April 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Second Book Slump: On Readerís Block

There’s a great scene in Caitlin Macy’s Fundamentals of Play where it becomes clear that the blond, old-money siblings slinking around their airy beach house are actually not the sharpest tools in the shed, that they are actually kind of inbred, that their bland features that seemed to meet a beauty ideal moments before are evidence instead of a biological error, of a lack. I haven’t read the book in what feels like a lifetime, so I don’t remember all of the details. Just that it was a satisfying, itch-scratching debut novel, juicy but not too junky, with enough moments of real writing in it to hook you. Like most of the mainstream American novels that I occasionally like -- Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Alice Sebald’s The Lovely Bones (yes, I liked it), Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides -- it’s not exactly work that challenges the status quo, explodes the language, generates a haunting change in the timbre of the art world, or radicalizes the reader. But it’s genuinely entertaining, without the insinuating condescension of formula genre fiction. You can put your feet up and read the novel in a couple of escapist hours, hours where you don’t have the urge to flick on the TV, call your ex-boyfriends, think about genocide, or stare into the gaping, thrilling hole of your own life. Such books are pleasant. The problem is finding them. I’m always hunting down novels that are supposed to be like these -- works by Thisbe Nissen or Heidi Juvalits -- and they’re so boring you kind of want to die. And then, of course, there’s an element of guilt in reading or enjoying mass-produced books that are expressly designed not to challenge readers, that are designed for viral marketing, for crossover ads trussed up as reviews in Vogue or Marie Claire.

If you are an unsuccessful writer, you never really have a second book. You have a pile of un-read projects, chronologically inexact, lying around your apartment like exotic pets or blocks of radium. Your work can grow into whatever it wants to grow into, a lion pup free of the zoo. Of course, this will end badly, like those 18th Century experiments with feral children.

I’m not sure what it’s like to be a successful writer. I see them all the time lately around the city, in windowless Hilton conference rooms or at yoga or the coffee shop. It doesn’t look so great. A lot of the mediocre ones have a tired, grey look, like businesspeople or academics. They complain about the weighty drudge of the second book, or the third book, or the fourth book. It sounds as if writing one is like being forced to sing with a lot of people yelling at you, or being forced to pee, drunk, while four of your friends are waiting for the bathroom after a too-long night, although no, those are bad metaphors, too lively. It sounds more like doing the reading comprehension questions in your high school textbook by Friday, or trotting out the copy in some annual report, or getting up in the morning to do some chores and errands.

I see these writers, and I’ve decided that I’m going to be more like Quentin Crisp or Philippe Petit when I grow up. And then, of course, the writers are the glamorous part of the NBC Fall Lineup-esque committee that produces and overproduces second, third, and forth novels. There are agents and publishers and publicists around to say things like, “This book doesn’t have enough of a plot. What if the son gets killed in the end?” or “What if we make this a memoir, and not a novel?” Reviewers and blurb-ers already know what to say about a second novel, because of what the reviewers and blurb-ers said about the last one. Critics do this with film, theater, and art, too. Like C students at a middle-tier college, it apparently brings them great alarm to have to evaluate something without knowing the right answer in advance.

Then readers come in. I have acquaintances who are successful readers. They buy a new hardback book once a month, sometimes at the kind of chain bookstore I boycott, and they read it and like it. Or, they read it and think it’s “okay, although I haven’t gotten to the end,” and they recommend it anyway, and they don’t feel the urge to die of boredom. It is usually a New York Times Notable Book. This little system of production and consumption also brings us room fresheners that are not safe for homes with pet birds, happy pills that cause liver failure, processed ham from tortured pigs, and movies like You’ve Got Mail.

The real sufferers of Second Novel Syndrome are failed readers, those of us with the literary equivalent of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorder, bookish tropical fish who thrive in fragile ecosystems in temperate waters, who die when our reefs are destroyed by ozone or refuse. We hunger for brilliant, exhilarating, awe-inspiring books that are literary and great, or just trashier, juicy books that are entertaining without being condescending. Yet, somehow, successful writers and their entourages seem hell-bent on producing and celebrating resolutely tepid work that falls into neither category. Now, it seems like maybe you don’t even have to write a dazzling first novel before you write your boring second novel -- you can even start out publishing a debut book that reminds everyone of the work of some other disappointing writer. Second Novel Syndrome can happen to your first or twelfth book these days. It’s all about writing something labored, writing under duress, writing something that doesn’t want or need to be born, like collecting a pile of flesh scraps from the butcher in a plastic bag and pretending it’s a baby. Your production/consumption team pretends along with you, giving your book the Pultizer Prize, writing that it’s a “tour de force” on its flyleaf. It’s only us failed readers who are scared. We want to scream, “That isn’t a real baby!”

I have Reader’s Block. It’s fine when I want to read Great Literature -- I just read something old, or foreign. Sometimes the old or foreign books even hit that perfect edge of juicy readability and brilliant, awe-inspiring, high lit goodness. I just finished The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, which is basically all about themes that I associate with crushing boredom -- farmers and old, sick parents and rural areas -- but I couldn’t put it down. It’s subtle, quiet, hilarious, cruel, beautiful, and somehow exhilarating in all of its understatement. It has a protagonist with a unique voice. It never hits a false note. It never hits a predictable note. Reading a book like that is joyous, especially when it keeps rereading itself in your head, your heart, and your life for a few days or weeks afterwards. Then again, sometimes Great Literature doesn’t provide the pappy escapism I need -- Kafka’s The Castle or Gayl Jones’s Corregidora or Christa Wolf’s Medea or Gogol’s Dead Souls is going to radicalize me, to unseat me, to cause little explosions in my own life. Sometimes I want, well, The Fundamentals of Play instead of a book like that. Or, in between books like that.

So here I am with Caitlin Macy’s long-awaited second book, Spoiled: Stories, in my hot little hands. And even after being unable to plow through the epically plotty The Little Friend or Middlesex, even after leaving the express copy of the geriatric-mother-centered The Almost Moon (not really a second book) on the library shelf where it belonged, here I am excited about it. I decide to overlook the fact that it’s stories. I mean, it’s not like stories instead of a second novel always mean, “I didn’t have another book in me, so I decided to cobble together some old stuff I wrote back before I died inside.”

The first story is boring and about boring women and involves Upper East Side (Upper West Side?) real estate. The second story is boring and about boring sisters and involves snotty and irritating children. The third story is boring and about a boring woman who and involves voting and an amniocentesis. The fourth story is boring and about a boring woman’s uneasy relationship with her nanny, and her uncomfortable relationship to her own privilege, and of course involves children and babies and mothers in the park and Tumble Bunnies references, and concerns about real estate and summer houses. The fifth story is about a young equestrian about to go to boarding school and her uneasy relationship with her nasty riding instructor and the woman’s daughter, and is somehow really boring too.

The sixth story, “Eden’s Gate,” is a funny, riveting, and brilliant exposition on relationships, class, privilege, celebrity, female vulnerability, and how we get caught in traps we can’t get ourselves out of. It’s the only story written in a male voice, like The Fundamentals of Play, and somehow it gets deep inside each of the characters -- the studio head’s son, the un-fun emerging movie star he loves, the big-titted waitress who was her rival at boarding school.

On Jessica, the budding movie star: “It’s funny, Josh thinks, watching her writhe and squirm, because usually poise is what attracts people, and Jessica is not poised…Nor is it her looks alone that you’d notice. If anything, the requisite blondness and thinness, the sad eyes countered by a mouth that smiles too easily, as if to preempt envy, undersell her. (Before he knew her, at the Oscar party where they had met in fact, he’d heard her described, with telling condescension, as ‘a very pretty girl.’ That had been his pickup line: ‘Those people over there are describing you as a very pretty girl.’ It had been a thrill to him that she had gotten it—had known it wasn’t a compliment. He wanted to lead her off to a dark room and get his hands on her, yet at the same time, he kept up the pretense of a non-goal-oriented conversation. Interrupted here and there by an acquaintance of his, or hers, but mostly his, he felt a gnawing in the pit of his stomach, not dissimilar to the days leading up to his parent’s divorce, as if he had sensed that some self-defining possession of his was profoundly at risk.)”
The seventh story is boring and about a boring woman with Upper East (or Upper West?) Side real estate, but not a classic six, her uneasy relationship with her cleaning woman, and her uncomfortable relationship to her own privilege. The eighth story is long and really, really boring, and is about babysitting. And the final story is boring and about a boring newlywed woman in Morocco and her uneasy relationship with her husband and with the gardening staff and her uncomfortable relationship to her own privilege.

Since I’m reviewing this book, I should have to explain why these stories are so boring. Especially since, according to Random House’s press notes, written in all caps like someone yelling at you by text message, there will be a major feature on the book in The New York Times Sunday Styles section, and also coverage in Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, O Magazine, Poets & Writers, and More… especially since all of the comments in Curtis Sittenfeld’s blurb (“I’m hugely impressed and plan to recommend Spoiled to all my friends”) are true. These are “keenly observed” stories. They take on the same contemporary class-struggle themes as Fundamentals of Play. Also, I’m always whining about mainstream books or stories with forced, labored plots, where someone commits a murder or goes to jail or the couple’s child dies because the author isn’t good enough to write a nuanced, true psychological study -- and in Spoiled, nothing like that happens, and I should be grateful, right? It’s not even that the themes are boring or alien to me -- the themes of The Twin (or, for that matter, Dead Souls) ought to be boring and alien to me. It’s not that the stories are badly written, badly crafted, or dishonest. It’s just as if all of these stories -- other than “Eden’s Gate” -- exist on an alternate plane from the one I want to read in, as if they have a different, wrong, incompatible wavelength. They come from some boring universe, from the grey corners of some functional machine, maybe from the place where second socks disappear at the Laundromat. Maybe the stories are right for some other reader. Maybe not.

If other people are bored as hell by some of these stories, or by the latest Jonathan Lethem book, or by Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American or Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name or Roxana Robinson’s Cost, I’m worried that they’ll never admit it, partly because it’s easier to talk about terrible, maddening work than humdrum work, and partly for the same secret reasons that successful authors are looking so tired and puffy and compromised these days. I remember being nine years old and loving everything I read, loving it earnestly, sopping it up like a little sponge, believing in all of it, hoarding it in the backseat of the car and ignoring the beautiful mountains outside. I loved it even when it was boring, The Hardee Boys or Les Miserables, anything, just as long as it was a book. It may be that reader’s block is incurable. It may be that it’s not a sign of being a failed reader, but rather an understandable disorder that plagues fragile souls in a disordered society.

Here I am, right where I started, waiting for other second books, waiting for the possible letdown of Alexander Chee’s second novel after Edinburgh, hoping that Dorothy Allison will write something more like Bastard Out of Carolina than Cavedweller. In the meantime, I’m reading old books or foreign books, sometimes old foreign books, and bad nonfiction, and Howl with all of Ginsberg’s annotations. I’m hunting around desperately for real first novels, or for books that are too good to fall into any sequence or any category at all. I’m trying to turn tons of pitchblende into fingernail slivers of radium salt, marveling at the eerie prettiness of the strange lights glowing in my desk drawers. Of course, this will end badly.