November 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Blowing Down Bleecker Street

I’m as high as Lindberg, high as steam off a cold cow turd. I’m Liza Minnellied, fully-loaded, lit up like Main Street, lit up like the Commonwealth, lit up like the sky, lit up like Times Square, lit up to show I’m human.

I was sitting down to write a review of a novel I thought was a waste of time, and it got me thinking all about book reviews and book reviewers and authors and literary fame and what’s “real” in literature and what’s make-believe, and how we judge books, and how we judge authors, and I started to really not have anything to say about the novel at all. I decided to write about Paul Dickson’s Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary, a collection of 2,964 synonyms for drunk, instead. All together in this silver-grey volume, there’s poetry to them, to all these words about exploding or cracking or being ruined. I wonder whether there could ever be as beautiful a language for sobriety. Some reference books are so good you just want to start using them right away. I suppose that’s true of certain novels and certain poems, too.

I’ve got two good new books of literary criticism, one thin and one fat: Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola and The Story About the Story: Great Writers on Great Literature. They’ve gotten me thinking about how when we read fiction, we also can’t help “reading” the author at the same time. Reviews, even when they are fine writing in their own right, even when they are wholly, brilliantly true in a deep way, sometimes make the reviewer look shabby and denuded, his pants at his ankles, his naked knees aquiver. They reveal the reviewer’s weird tics, psychosexual hang-ups, and class limitations. And the reviews that are so beautiful, that are so true, such animated creatures that they don’t pants the reviewer in that way? Those really aren’t reviews at all. They’re just writing.  

Salman Rushdie on Frank L. Baum: “When I first saw The Wizard of Oz it made writer of me… This is the last and most terrible message of the film: that there is one final, unexpected rite of passage. In the end, ceasing to be children, we all become magicians without magic, exposed conjurers, with only our simple humanity to get us through.”

D.H. Lawrence on Walt Whitman: “This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time. All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe.”

Geoff Dyer on A Longman Critical Reader on Lawrence: “How could these people with no feeling for literature ended up teaching it, writing about it?... I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to he world so that no one would see them pulling each other off… In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it. I burned it in self-defense. It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.”

Reading any essay (or letter, or journal entry) in these volumes, I was thinking about what I knew about the essayist, more than his or her subject. Reading Walter Kirn on Holden Caulfield, I thought of that story I’d read somewhere else about Kirn fucking two foreign exchange students at the same time on prom night. Reading E.B. White’s deliciously elegant thoughts on Thoreau, I remembered the still-good Elements of Style and Fern and Wilbur and Trumpet of the Swan and learning, maybe for the first time, how a book could force me into feeling real grief. (I was also reminded that Thoreau once ate a woodchuck: “I think he felt he owed it to readers… considering the indignities they were suffering at his hands and the dressing-down they were taking.”) I’m not surprised that it’s Camus who nails Melville: “his Ulysses never returns to Ithaca.” Some of the authors have such intimate relationships with the others (literal or imaginary) that it’s hard to tell where life ends and art begins. White amuses himself by bringing Thoreau back to life and taking him to Twenty-One so that the waiters can study his shoes: “Hairshirt or no, he is a better companion than most, and I would not swap him for a soberer or more reasonable friend even if I could.”

In my own ebrity, I started thinking again about literary fame and what it might mean. You can have it and write like Chekov, you can have it and write like Elizabeth Gilbert, so that must make the fame part inherently disappointing, like pulling back the curtain in some electric green city and not even finding a meek little man tugging the levers, but finding no one back there at all. 

Someone asked Jack Kerouac how fame felt, and he said it was like old newspapers blowing down Bleecker Street. Everyone thought he was some twenty-six-year-old proto-hippie James Dean, and really he was forty, he was in love with his best friend and his best friend’s wife but it was all more complicated than that -- he wanted to clean up and dry up and be alive and not be on a bear-cat anymore, not be overshot, not be overset, not castaway or caged or slitted anymore, not to be flybone, not to have a dark day with him anymore.

He went to Big Sur and wrote another real novel on a single scroll of paper. It took him ten days. I just watched a new documentary on this -- One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur -- and it made me cry. He went out to the ocean and reckoned with writing again, he reckoned with himself again, and seven years later he died of cirrhosis. When I sit in the White Horse Tavern, even when I’m sponge-eyed, when my soft little body is loaded to the gunwales, I’ve never seen Dylan Thomas’s ghost in there. But every time I walk down Bleecker, stone cold sober on a grey day just as it’s starting to get cold, there’s Jack Kerouac blowing all around me.

Back to this novel I meant to review. It’s called Undiscovered Gyrl, and it’s written by a dude called Allison. He didn’t name himself that to make readers believe that he is his teen girl protagonist, although according to the glossy press materials, people suspected even before the book was published that he had taken the story from a real girl’s blog. His father was named Allison, too. The book was kind of a gimmicky combination of Dennis Cooper’s The Sluts and Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life, but not as good as those. It’s vapid, but then you don’t know whether that’s just “the character” and her voice, so maybe it’s vapid on purpose… and it’s phony and not-believable, but that’s because, oooh, it’s supposed to call into question whether the character is real or not, so maybe it’s phony on purpose. It comes up with 60,700 google hits, my favorite book published the same month (Breyten Breytenbach’s Intimate Stranger) comes up with less than 2,000, and you know what? I wish I had another 2,964 words for riding the porcelain bus. I am feeling my cheerios.

My response to Undiscovered Gyrl made me feel extra shabby and gave me an unusually close-up view of my own ass. Because, when the book came in the mail, I was actually annoyed that “Allison” was a dude. I felt defrauded. I had to ask myself, am I one of those readers -- one of those moronic readers I disdain -- who won’t read fiction and are only interested in autobiography or in novels “based on a true story”? Would I have liked the book better if the author had, at some point, been a hot teenage girl? I soothed myself with a list of favorite non-autobiographical novels and different-sexed authors and protagonists.

More googling (I may give up googling or drinking soon, or, maybe not) reveals that Allison is a straight dude, and his other novel has a gay male protagonist. He said in one interview, “Writing a gay narrator… is a risk, but when I began writing in his voice, he was so alive to me that I never questioned it. I simply typed as fast as I could.” I’m all for novelists writing down what comes to them via inspiration, during those scary, lucky moments when their characters come to life and start strolling around the room. No ifs, ands, or buts. Based on this description of his writing process, I’m surprised I didn’t enjoy his work. Maybe I’ll like his other book better. In the same interview, his advice to first-time novelists is, “Do not bore.” I’m all for that, too. But the narrator and premise of Undiscovered Gyrl just seemed so gimmicky to me that I was bored, really bored. Then again, sometimes I’m just as bored by “true stories,” tepid misery memoirs that seem to have been written by a production committee. 

This morning I was at public high school for kids who have dropped out of other high schools, working on one-act plays. There were three killings in the neighborhood last week. I’m so out of it that early in the morning, I just sit there dumbly till someone asks, “Is this good so far?” One kid is working alone. He seems angry, and he’s a natural writer. I’m not sure whether I believe in karma. As he is not the blond daughter of a literature professor, he is less likely than some to grow up and marry Paul Auster and have a child who ends up on the cover of European magazines. As he is not a cousin or son of Howard Fast, his ability to snag plum teaching positions and meet important agents may be impaired. Some people have never spent a safe, peaceful day in their lives. Some people, at thirty, find they have multiple sclerosis, some people’s children are killed, some people are born poor, some people are well-connected, and it’s not only academics who are cozying up with their backs to us readers, elbows pumping in a sordid little circle jerk, ala Dyer’s dreaded Lawrence scholars, is it? Although, admittedly, the novelist cronies and nepotism cases write better. Sometimes.     

I was talking to someone in publishing recently, and I said that if I knew I could write something fake, something tailored to sell well in the current market, and make millions of dollars and get famous for it, I honestly wouldn’t do it. She didn’t believe me.   

It’s interesting that Undiscovered Gyrl read, to me, like a book constructed for the market, rather than a real book -- but in interviews, Allison Burnett talks about feeling that his characters are real. Maybe I can’t tell the difference. I feel like I can, but maybe it’s a reader’s delusion.   

William H. Gass on Malcolm Lowry: “How easy it is to enter. An open book, an open eye, and the first page lifts like a fragrance toward us so we read… Of novels, few are so little like life, few are so formal and arranged… Nonetheless, there are scarcely any which reflect the personal concerns of the author more clearly, or incline us as steeply to a wonder and a terror of the world until we fear for our own life…”

There’s a scene in James Jones’s daughter’s new memoir, when (upset after reading some of his stories) she asks, “But daddy, these stories, they’re not true, right?” And he answers, “They’re all true… I just had to change things sometimes, you know, lie a little, to make them better stories.” 

I know I would’ve liked Eat, Pray, Love way better if I’d learned that the Elizabeth Gilbert protagonist was a totally fabricated, fictional character, from the pen of Derek Walcott or Seamus Heaney or Jamaica Kincaid. What if the three of them had gotten together at one of those pubs where Lewis and Tolkein used to hang out, and gotten hotter than skunks and invented “Elizabeth” and her smug, psychiatrically-medicated, deep-pocketed quest for enlightenment? That would rock my world.

I’m reading Of Human Bondage for the first time. I can see why George Orwell wrote that Maugham was the modern novelist who had influenced him most. I’m halfway through, but no matter what happens later, I know I’ll never forget about Fanny Price, starving in her garret with her muddy skirt-hem and her unpleasant demeanor and her die-hard belief in her own terrible, hopeless work.

When I first read Jack Kerouac, I had already had too much to drink. I had already fallen in love, I had gone on road trips. I was sixteen. I wanted a boy like Jim Morrison or Neal Cassady, I had written a novel in the back of the car with my legs curled under me, or in hotel bathrooms with a flashlight, the characters in it were based on real people, the girl in it had my life but she was nothing like me. Then I tried to reread it and she was me exactly, and then I couldn’t reread it again, it was menacing me. I thought of Jack Kerouac as a person, what he would look like, what he would smell like. Like every other reader, I thought I knew him. Things happen in reverse order when you’re writing, when you’re painting, whether you’re a talentless Fanny Price or a too-talented Elfriede Jelinek or Janet Frame with your brilliance flaring up, or somewhere in between. You write a character, and then later you meet him. You warp someone into a character, and then he dies. You’re an arsonist.

I’m tired of writing, but it doesn’t care. It’s a merciless kind of energy, it doesn’t care whether you are or aren’t stuck in Kansas with the farmhands, it doesn’t care whether there’s some little man, some great white whale, some frightening void behind that curtain, whether you have a heart or a brain or just some straw and some tin, some newspapers. It doesn’t care whether you’re famous or not, whether or not your neighborhood is safe, whether you’re pissed as a possum, pissed as a tit, plonkered, ploogooed, pissed mortal.

When I first read E.B.White, I was brand new to reading and brand new to life. It didn’t occur to me that he was some man, that his characters were invented in his head, or based on himself, or based on the people he knew. I didn’t picture him when I read, at all. I never speculated about his sex life, or whether he got lonely, or whether the homes he spent time in were cold. I didn’t think about whether he was religious or whether he had gone to Harvard and been an asshole there or whether he was black or white or whether his father had been famous. I didn’t picture him in relation to me. I just read about Louis and Serena and Charlotte and Wilbur and Stuart Little, my friends, probably your friends too. They were as real to me as the construction site across the street from where we lived. They were as real to me as my family, as the mysterious visitors who came around, as my favorite turquoise grilled cheese sandwich plate and my first notebooks. I didn’t think about road-tripping with him or strolling in the woods with him or taking him to Twenty-One, I guess because we were already hanging out all the time, in a certain way. I thought there was a single god, and that he would look like the puppeteer Geppetto from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Yet I knew the difference between real and make-believe. I just hadn’t had to face up to the difference between real and fake, yet.

(You know, I’ve been sober this whole time. I can’t write when I’m drunk. Even if it’s just a review.)

Clutton to Philip, Of Human Bondage: “Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman, you must give up being an artist… You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother -- well, it shows they’re excellent sons, but it’s no excuse for bad work. They’re only tradesman. An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.”

In his introduction to The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman (who writes neat criticism and fiction and nonfiction himself) states, “While critics tend to use literature to expose writer’s biographies, writers use biography to shed additional light onto the work. They are also comfortable with inconvenient realities… Writers set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it…” But who can tell the difference between a writer and a critic anymore? And if you’re not famous, if your work is lying in piles in your garret underneath your mud-stained dresses, does this mean you’re neither? If you are famous, and you’re writing hack work that you secretly know is hack work, with way too much help from your powerful editor, what are you then? Gary Dexter’s intro to Poisoned Pens explains: “What is negative is, if nothing else, generally sincere. Good reports of fellow-writers can easily be flattery or log-rolling: just think of the ways book-reviewers operate. It is only in the negative and the scabrous that we can be sure of a writer’s true feelings.” Well, I don’t know about that. Aren’t nasty reviews sometimes sour-grapes-y, or based (like much academic back-scratching) on the critic’s panicked lack of understanding of a book he feels he has to write something about? 

I met an editor of a famous magazine at a party who told me grandly, “When I read something, I have to decide whether I want to make it my problem.” He hates a lot of the work I love most, and I can see why. A lot of it would be tricky to package, sell, or explain -- product-wise, a problem indeed. It is meant to be read. It isn’t of this world in any familiar way. 

Fanny Price’s brother comes to Paris to deal with her cold body: “He was a rubber-merchant, and he had a wife and three children. Fanny was a governess, and he couldn’t make out why she hadn’t stuck to that instead of coming to Paris. ‘Me and Mrs. Price told her Paris was no place for a girl. And there’s no money in art -- never ‘as been.’” Oh, but there is money, in some art.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, reading a junk novel, and I meet a beautiful stranger. He’s writing something in a narrow notebook, his penmanship is jagged and oceanic, I ask if he’s a writer and he says, “I’ll probably never publish anything.” I can’t tell whether I’m hallucinating him or not, and I guess it doesn’t really matter. His fiction/poetry comes out in shards, he says, just like mine. The best grilled cheese sandwiches in the city can be found at the White Horse Tavern, he says. He has never seen Dylan Thomas’s ghost. I explain that Thomas actually died in a hospital nearby, he didn’t drop dead right there in the saloon, maybe that’s the thing about the ghost. Maybe people who think they see the ghost in that bar are just crazy, maybe they’re kind of hammer-blowed, maybe they’re halfway to Baghdad. My problem, he tells me, is that I’m too fixated on the sides that come with the grilled cheese. He is so disappointed with his sandwich that he’s contemplating arson, I’m glad I chose the apricot bar. I try to give him my phone number as he leaves but I know I’ll never see him again, or will I? 

The thing is that eventually, if you spend enough time in the Emerald City, even if you live on bread and milk and take lunch every day alone in your garret, you’ll rub elbows with the city’s denizens. Eventually, one of them will shuffle you aside, and grab your shoulders and turn you so that your back is to the audience. He’ll offer to reach into your jeans and diddle you, for the low, low price of you cranking him to his own orgasm in exchange. And what will you do, then? 

In Carlo Collodi’s original version of The Adventures of Pinocchio, the puppet never gets rescued by some fairy and turned into a real boy. The final twenty chapters were added at the behest of Collodi’s editor, to make the story suitable for children. In the real story, Pinocchio ends up like Fanny Price, only not at his own hand, but at the hands of the Fox and the Cat, sleazy con-men who lead him astray by appealing to his greed and vanity and craving for glory. There’s a blackbird -- I don’t remember in which version -- who tries to warn Pinocchio, but the Cat eats him. It’s gory, all around. The puppet-boy, and his problem with lying, and the murderous bad guys, and the puppet’s creator, are all true. The happy ending is the fake part. 

There’s your Karma ripe as peaches.