July 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Unputdownable: More Thoughts on Reader’s Block

A friend once told me that there's a secret, addictive ingredient in Doritos, and also in barbeque-flavored potato chips. It creates an unavoidable biological response that makes you need to just cram your maw with these gross, fake-food products until you either run out, or your organs explode into human foie gras and you die fatter than Elvis. I googled, and found out that there's MSG in there, and some other flavor enhancers -- some that come from pigs and fish (sorry, vegetarian Dorito-eaters), and some that are unsafe for babies and asthmatics. Why would our human bodies crave non-foods, chemicals that make us puffy and sluggish and headachy and zitty and fat? Why don't we crave what's good for us?

Now, certain foods are healthy and wonderful and real, and just as addictively delicious as bad potato chips. We don't only crave junk, and we don't only crave delicacies. And of course, each of us does not crave the same foods. I am all about lemons, sour candy, salt-and-vinegar chips, and sauerkraut. My ex-boyfriend needed licorice and marzipan.

There's the same weird problem with books. There are good, or even great books that are hard to read or slow-going, and also bad, waste-of-time books that are a slog. There are brilliant books that are unputdownable, but also piece-of-shit, brain-rotting books that are unputdownable. How do we tell which is which? How do we sate our cravings without making ourselves sick? And how do we isolate those key ingredients that enhance flavor, and find them in wholesome forms?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with eating the occasional bag of Sour Patch Kids Extreme -- other than that they are scary and tongue-burning and contain hooves -- but if you can find the same addictive, thrillingly sour taste in an actual food, isn't that better? Isn't there also something to be said for a food that encourages you to savor it instead of wolf it down? Yet, I'm always looking for books I can wolf down, but that won't make me sick. It gets complicated, because publishers seem keen to give me disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate instead of dark chocolate or blueberries or honey or fresh bread with good pecorino -- and, even more annoyingly, they put those additives into the literary equivalent of crappy canned soup, instead of something tasty as Cheez-Its, so readers get the worst of all worlds.

Maybe the problem is in the slush-pile logistics -- you consume three McDonald's burgers, a whole quart of store-brand grape jelly, rice, a single chicken wing, an omelet with catsup, and a Kit Kat, not because you like those foods but because you have to get them all eaten to see which ones other people might buy and eat, so that you can (maybe, barely) make your mortgage payment and manage your kindergartner's tuition. There might be delicious baby strawberries or artisanal pizza or delectable truffles mixed into the slush pile too, but you'll miss them. Or rather, your intern eats all those gross foods all together, and your intern will miss the sweet berries, and you will just order the same sack of groceries from D'Agostino's that you order every Thursday, and market books written by your friend's friend from Yaddo. Oops, I'm mangling my metaphors here, but that's not the only reason I'm nauseated.

Publishers have isolated the secret, scary additives that make those trashy paperbacks we read on the airplane unputdownable. But which ingredients make a good book, or a great book, equally juicy and riveting?

I just finished a debut book that pleased and haunted me, a book that provided the right mix of juiciness and intensity: Drift, by Victoria Patterson. It's a series of thirteen interlinked stories about life in Newport Beach, California, and it's just right for summer vacation reading. There are real moments of intimacy in these stories, unexpected and electrifying connections between two human beings. There are characters worth knowing -- a beautiful, brain-damaged skater boy called John Wayne; a waitress and child of divorce named Rosie and the kinds of old rich men who populate certain American places. The thing is, though, that the book is not at all unputdownable. It is riveting, but you want to put it down all the time. There are moments in most of the stories that feel like running into a speed-bump when you've been driving down a nearly-deserted highway at night -- you feel them in your chest -- it makes sense to set the book aside and roll those moments around inside you as you drift off to sleep or look out over the water. In that sense, isn't it a more perfect beach read than an unputdownable book? It lasts longer.

In the acknowledgements section of Drift, Patterson thanks people who have supported and believed in her work "through my years of waiting tables…through the endless rejections…" It got me obsessing again about the fiction that does and does not reach us, and why. A writer friend, whose brilliant first novel was rejected by 68 agents before she learned that sending a brilliant novel to American agents is not a good way to get published, told me she is certain that if Jean Genet or Julio Cortazar were debut authors in America today, they would never get published. Fine, I can understand how those of us who like edgy, explosive, poetic, radical, plotless work are in the minority of the market -- but Victoria Patterson's work, while really good and worth reading, is completely mainstream in every way. It will come out this summer. It will sell decently. The reviews will be favorable, if mixed. Why on earth has it ever been rejected, by anyone? The blurb on the back suggests that her stories are just like those of three successful authors -- all women, all exactly her age, and all working in the short story form, and all whose writing is completely unlike hers. (She's more like a Key West-era Gore Vidal, actually, with a more interesting sexual charge and more atmosphere, but that doesn't quite get at it. She writes like Victoria Patterson.)

The fact is that if Victoria Patterson had the connections of Nick McDonnell, she never would have endured "endless rejections." It would be one thing if her work was good, but decidedly radical, a big risk to publish. It's not radical, though. It's good, and seems like it would be very easy to market.

Meanwhile, I've been comparing Drift to my other summer reading. There's a new edition of the 1975 novel Juan the Landless, by the self-exiled Spanish poet Juan Goytisolo. His work is trippy and hilarious and politically searing, and shamelessly combines poetry and prose. (I say 'shamelessly,' because grant-grasping American writers are always telling me you have to choose one or the other.) He does not, to my knowledge, have an MFA. His work has not, to my knowledge, been tirelessly "workshopped" with a group of tepid memoirists who each have a story they just must tell. It reads like a mediocre editor has never tried to repurpose it so that it's packaged better, in between hiring a new au pair and paying for that D'ag's delivery. More astonishingly, Goytisolo has rewritten the book himself, so that he likes it better, and written an explanation of why. I didn't know that was ever allowed for any author, Spanish or not. Sure, you can write a new edition of your nonfiction tome, but I've always thought that once fiction was published, that was it, even if it embarrasses the author later in life.

In Goytisolo's case, he writes that circa 1975, he buckled under "the doctrinal pressure exerted by some of the Mandarins of the Left Bank, which Severo Sarduy experienced and resisted as best he could…I was reading widely in the Russian Formalists, the Prague Circle, Benveniste, Bakhtin, the Tartu School, and Noam Chomsky. The third chapter of Juan the Landless suffers from sequences or sub-chapters that are entirely or partly unnecessary…" It's interesting, that "doctrinal pressure." I can't help but think it's no worse than the literal pressure on a writer to change her work so it's more like Nell Freudenberger's, lest the reader is nudged into the demanding position of judging it on its own merits.

Goytisolo's novel, tinged with the residue of a youthful enthusiasm for Russian semiotics or not, demands to be read as it was written, in his unique voice. Sure, his early novels were all banned in Franco's Spain, and sure, his later work reflects the expectations of its historical and theoretical moment, but somebody -- some publisher -- thought that this unique voice was worth something, and understood that someday, on a beach somewhere during the summer of 2009, you or I would want to read his staccato expositions on King Kong and czarinas with sweaty necks and the architecture of God. I crave good coming-of-age novels the way I crave lemons, so I was looking forward to reading Matilda Savitch, the debut novel of playwright Victor Lodato. This book, I'm guessing, will get better buzz than Drift. It's already blurbed by Mary Karr as "pitch-perfect" and "a bravura performance," so it's only a matter of time before someone else famous tells us that it's "a tour-de-force." I almost liked it.

Matilda is one of those knowing, wise-child narrators, like the girls in Brian Hall's The Saskiad or Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here (although I kind of liked those girls better). She gets a little bit too quirky and a little bit too wise and a little bit too knowing. I found the period scenes weird, and the way she approached her love interests weird. It was one of those books about a girl where I kept thinking, "This reads like it was written by a man, but I can't tell whether it's a gay man or a straight man." Then again, the coming-of-age girl character I relate to best in all of literature, Davita in Davita's Harp, was written by Chaim Potok, who was definitely a dude. I read that book when I was about eleven, and for weeks I was confused about whether Davita lived inside me or I lived inside her. I read it again as an adult and the resemblance was even more uncanny, but by then I couldn't tell whether I turned into Davita a little bit more by reading about her at such a formative age.

Matilda Savitch kept reminding me of John Crace's Guardian Digested Read for David Mitchell's Black Swan Green: "It's tough being 13 and having no real voice of my own. Sometimes I feel like I'm a 35-year-old man who's trying too hard to be knowing. I was going to say self-conscious, but Hangman would get me." I felt a combination of itchiness, irritation, and vague engagement while I was reading, especially after Matilda's innocent knowingness had been established over and over and then the book turned darker. But here's what's interesting -- I picked it up, and I finished it. It was unputdownable, like an airport novel. Yet, of course it's literary fiction, "a bravura performance" according to Mary Karr. But I didn't really enjoy it.

Contrast this to Drift -- it was a book I loved, a book that gave me real satisfaction, but I put it down over and over again, making it last for weeks, and read Umberto Eco's Ugliness, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better by Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, Stendhal's Love, Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers by Cris Beam, The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, Marie Howe's What the Living Do, a bunch of Vasko Popa poems (again), Anne Patchett's memoir about her friendship with Lucy Greely, Shooting to Kill by Christine Vachon and David Edelstein, My Life in Orange: Growing Up with the Guru by Tim Guest, an Elie Weisel novel (his fiction always bums me out, yet I always keep reading it), a few random young adult novels, whatever books I could find that addressed ravens in mythology or dreams, Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature's Most Intriguing Dedications by Marlene Wagman-Geller, and the second half of Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel by Alek Wek (in a less-than-proud reading moment, I flipped past the Sudanese refugee part to get to the international supermodel part.) In my own life, the correlation between unputdownable books and books I love isn't exact. If I'd been stuck without the world's best library system at hand, and I'd only had Drift to keep me going, though, it would have been enough, whether I read it in two hours or made it last weeks.

Sometimes, I wish it was all predictable. I wish that I could reliably pick out books that would be impossible to put down, but that weren't as trashy and gross as nacho cheese-flavored Doritos. And I wish that I could also reliably pick out books that could be dipped into and dipped out of, like Drift, to carry me through summer days lying around on the High Line or sleeping in the grass along the Hudson. Then again, maybe wanting that predictability is exactly the problem. Maybe some horrible, Upper East Side dwelling literary agent who tries too hard to look like Joyce Carol Oates is not the reason that Victoria Patterson had to endure "endless rejections." Maybe I'm the reason! Maybe I'm a better foodie than I am a reader. Then again, I do try to sample around. I have my intrepid moments.

I've been reading and enjoying Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List by Aviad Kleinberg. I think books about sin should be like grimoires -- each of us should write our own, individual book, a combination rant and mea culpa. It's hard to relate to the creepy Judeo-Christian attitudes about sin and the human body that Kleinberg describes, and I keep thinking of which sins and virtues I would pick if they were mine to decide for everyone. Willful ignorance, for sure. Intentional apathy. Thoughtless conformity. Banality. Settling. Are these covered under sloth? I am especially interested to learn, in some further research, that sloth is a consequence of one of the original sins, acedia, a listless melancholy, and the sin-list was revised to enfold despair into sloth. Fury and envy seem so understandable, while random, motiveless mean-spiritedness is pretty unforgivable. Does self-righteousness (of which I am now guilty) fall into the category of pride? Diligence is one of the heavenly virtues, but it is surely responsible for all of the plodding people out there who dutifully uphold the worst social systems.

I'm not sure who was responsible for making Victoria Patterson endure "endless rejections," or what exactly their motivations were. But they've definitely committed some kind of nasty sin, or at the very least they've slighted me and other readers, especially when-in our search for a juicy but not junky, absorbing new book-we end up stuck reading Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision; or a memoir with quirky but heartwarming nuns in it; or a novel in the voice of a really old, wise dying person, written by a middle-aged woman from New England during one of her residencies.

Then again, I guess with novels or short stories that don't have that undeniable, electric-orange additive that makes them as addictive as nicotine or crack, it all comes down to personal preference. A book like Matilda Savitch or Drift may or may not sell well, whereas anyone who eats one Stephen King Dorito is going to finish the whole bag. So maybe it's not about agents and publishers giving that one rare shot to their son's friend (or their friend's son) from prep school in Concord. Maybe they actually like really boring or annoying books, the way they like the Upper East Side instead of Greenwich Village, or D'Agostino's instead of the zillions of unbelievably great non-chain New York City food stores.

Maybe I should quit the sin of complaining when things are not so bad. Unlike Goytisolo's first readers, I have millions of books to choose from, and hundreds of thousands of them are great. I live in a world of Malls of America and grocery stores that seem to be the size of cities. With aisles and aisles of food, why do I worry about the rare fruit I may never get to taste, the salty young pecorino too fragile to ship, or tomatoes with real tomato flavor? The lost books keep haunting me, though, haunting me enough that I stop being merely self-righteous and start to scare myself by getting downright biblical. "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and tear you." Then again, who are the dogs, and who are the swine, and which are the pearls? And what about me, the furious reader, the proud reader, the lustful, greedy, envious, despairing, gluttonous reader? Where do I fit in?