Catching Up

J.M.W. Turner, "Sunrise, a Castle on a Bay: Solitude"

I see I haven't published a post here since the end of March. An uncharacteristic silence, even in these days of more limited blogging. Mostly, this has been because I've been busy with a bunch of other things (including another blog), but I've also reached one of those periodic stages (for me, every 5-10 years, it seems) where I re-evaluate what I'm writing, who I'm writing for, the purpose of putting words out there in the world.

One of the things I've been thinking about recently is how much I miss the old days of blogging, the early 2000s. Not that I miss any particular thing I wrote — I think the vast majority of what sits in the archives of this blog is not worth revisiting — but rather the energy and community, even the naivety. It's not something that can be repeated; I am not what I was, technology has changed significantly, the world is different. But I feel a tinge of nostalgia occasionally for the youthful hope and for a certain innocently arrogant sense of the importance of words and literature that ... I don't quite have anymore.

So now seems like a perfectly good time to write an old-style blog post, chatty, tangential, fragmented, unfocused, perhaps even narcissistic...

First and most importantly, two big things: I have achieved, much to my own surprise, the highly unlikely winning of a tenure-track position at a university. Tenure-track jobs in any field I'm even vaguely eligible for are few and far between these days, but I won the lottery: I am now Assistant Professor and Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at Plymouth State University. I spent a couple years on the academic job market seeking a position as an English professor anywhere in the country and ended up as a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies in my own backyard, the place where my mother worked for over 40 years, a place where I have more institutional memory than the vast majority of other employees. It feels both utterly appropriate and profoundly strange. It's a job that I would have been thrilled to get anywhere, and it just happened to be here, where I already live and have lived for most of my life. Every time I try to leave New Hampshire, something forces me back, so now I'm just going to give up trying to leave and accept my fate. It's a good fate. I get to help students and to work with exciting colleagues on innovative pedagogy. A dream come true, in many ways.

Also, I have an academic book coming out at the end of January 2020: Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction. This is the culmination of years of work, and literally decades of reading and thinking about these three writers. At this site alone you'll find all sorts of scraps and shards of ideas about Woolf, Delany, and Coetzee — some of which are echoed in the book, some of which are contradicted, since my ideas have developed significantly over the years. Thanks to some really smart peer reviewers who posed invigorating questions about the manuscript, I think the book is a real step forward in how I perceive what these writers are up to at certain moments in their careers, and, more importantly, how imagination, reality, and crisis may intermingle. Though the title is, as academic titles these days tend to be, designed as much for search engines as for human readers, the real title perhaps should have been something like: How Fiction Matters (or, at Least, How Writers Convince Themselves It Does So They Can Keep Writing It).

Speaking of fiction, you might have noticed (or not) that I haven't published much in the past few years. Until recently, this has not been for lack of writing. While working on my dissertation last year, I also wrote a novel. Unfortunately, the novel does not work for readers. I think I have reached the end of what I can do with revisions without making it into something I don't want it to be (or, equally, something that simply doesn't interest me to write), and so it's going to go on the shelf with other noble projects that were of great benefit to me personally, but not of interest to the world. At first, I was annoyed at this idea, frustrated that years of work would not reach an audience, but I have a longstanding interest in terminally idiosyncratic writing, in writing that fails to communicate, writing that fails in every way, writing that goes unread. I always say that I don't ever try to live off the income from writing not just because I would find it an anxiety-provoking lifestyle (which I would), but because I want to be free to write whatever, however I want, regardless of whether there's an audience for it. I have such conflicted feelings about audiences that this is the only way it can be. When I was young and trying to be a playwright, most of my plays were assaults on the audience. This was ultimately one of the reasons why I needed to not be a playwright, as directly thinking about the relationship between text, performer, and audience dug some sort of sadism from my unconscious. (It is no surprise that some of my favorite plays are, indeed, assaults on the audience: the plays of Sarah Kane and Wallace Shawn. In college, I adored Peter Handke's "Offending the Audience", a play I now find basically insufferable. But I could say that for a lot of things I loved in college. They were important to me then, and that's what matters now.) For some writers, assaulting the audience is productive and meaningful, but not for me; it's just a dead end. So I try other genres, modes, styles, seeking a way to live with words.

Over the past 12 months or so, I've written almost no fiction simply because it was impossible. Life intervened too much. My mother's death unmoored my world. I was working at a new job while also trying to survive the academic job market. One of my oldest friends in the writing world, Katherine Min, died in March. (I want to write about her. Every time I try, I fall into silence. I will keep trying.) I had to euthanize one of my two cats after more than a week of truly heart-wrenching illness. I had classes to teach, students to attend to, an academic book to revise. I got a job. There wasn't room for fiction in any of this, there was only room for living, and barely that. ("How are you doing?" friends asked, and I could only answer honestly: "I don't know. How can I understand the best and worst year of my life as it's happening?" I have learned, in this time, to appreciate boring normality more than I did before.)

Nonetheless, I have a new story coming out in the next issue of Outlook Springs, one of my favorite literary magazines, one of those rare publications where I feel a real aesthetic affinity. I had a very brief story in the first issue, so it's a pleasure to be returning now with something a bit more substantial.

And I find myself in the odd position of now, for the first time in years, not having a particular writing project I have to work on. Not for myself, not for work. (I have to keep writing about academic stuff, but one of the nice things about my new job is that I'm quite free in what counts as research.) This allows exactly the sort of meditating and experimenting I need right now. I have no desire to write the kind of fiction I've already written — because I've already written it. What I do want to write is less clear. Two of the people who for much of my life I've felt like I'm, in some way or another, writing for were my mother and Katherine Min. They're both gone now. As conflicted as I often feel about unspecific audiences, I also have always written best when I've had a sense of a small audience of a few people important in my life and mind. I'm not sure who those people are now, which has made writing fiction feel terribly unfocused. (I keep hearing lines from an Ani DiFranco song: "Every song has a you/ A you that the singer sings to..." and again and again asking myself, "Who are you?") I have faith that a sense of direction will return. I feel a certain excitement about the lack of focus right now, the excitement of possibility, even as I feel frustration that stories aren't working in the way I need them to, or want them to. This summer, I hope, will allow the excitement of possibility to allow a new focus, a new purpose.

Meanwhile, I've been reading. A lot. Here are a few things that have stuck with me over the last ten or twelve months...

I've gone back again and again to James Purdy's short stories, which I wrote about here last year. Throughout all of last summer, I read little fiction other than Purdy's novels and stories. It was obsessive; I devoured his work with little reflection; it was sustenance. Something about his sentences and images was exactly what I needed. It's still true. I sink into his work with a great sense of familiarity: the rhythms are ones I have long known, even when I haven't known these iterations.

Similarly, too, over the last year, the work of Gary Indiana and Patricia Highsmith. I wrote about Gary Indiana's memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love in 2015, and got obsessive about his work again this fall when a friend sent me a copy of Vile Days: The Village Voice Art Columns 1985-1988, which I read and reread, then returned to his early novels and stories. And Highsmith, whose work I always return to when I despair for the human race, when I'm feeling misanthropic, because Highsmith is always more misanthropic than I am, and so, oddly, calms me. I'm currently rereading all the Ripley novels in chronological order, because I didn't read them that way originally: I read and reread The Talented Mr. Ripley many times (taught it in multiple classes), then read Ripley's Game, then The Boy Who Followed Ripley (about which I felt similarly to Alexander Chee), but I'd never gotten to Ripley Under Ground, which I just finished yesterday, or Ripley Under Water, which I still have yet to read. (I have no great expectations for it. It was one of Highsmith's last novels, nobody has much fondness for it — alcoholism, among other things, had certainly diminished her talent — but it will be nice to have read all of Ripley.)

It's an interesting group to think about together, a triumvirate of writers queer in every sense, and writers who tend toward the cantankerous and idiosyncratic in their life and opinions (in Highsmith's case, more than cantakerous: truly hateful), and toward the grotesque and amoral in their stories, whose work you either really get — and thus can't get enough of — or else are utterly indifferent to, even horrified by.

Beyond that triumvirate, I found pleasure in the Jack Reacher thrillers of Lee Child and the short stories of Gerald Murnane. Child I began reading after someone somewhere (probably Twitter) said his books were what thrillers would be like if Samuel Beckett wrote them. That guaranteed my interest, so I tried out the first one, Killing Floor, which was okay but nothing special. Then a friend who was moving gave me a pile of Child's books, and I tried the second, Die Trying, which was bizarre and kind of off the rails and also weirdly compelling. I stopped reading them in order then, since I only had a scattered collection of the books, and found myself captivated. Child writes action in a way I am a sucker for: very clean, clear, specific, but also concise. (Something I appreciate in Donald Westlake, especially the Parker novels.) His plots feel improvised, and later, reading the badly-written-but-voyeuristically-interesting Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Making Me, I discovered that Child basically does just make it up as he goes along. (Also, that he's seen Waiting for Godot over 40 times, so there's something to the Beckett comparison.) This adds a surreal quality to the books, particularly the later ones, because the novels can't have a lot of range: Reacher's character can't progress much, the novels are designed to be read in any order, the basic plot is more or less the same in every book, and so there aren't really that many places that Child can change things up from book to book, yet he has to because it's a hugely popular series and readers (and publishers) want a new book each year — a book similar enough to previous books that it delivers what one wants from a Reacher novel, but different enough to not be quite the same as every other Reacher novel. The other thing I find interesting is that, for a writer in his genres (both the genre of high-concept thrillers and the genre of internationally bestselling novels), Child's a pretty good writer of prose. Yes, the qualifications there make it faint praise, but Child is not Dan Brown; he knows how to write beyond the level of a 10-year-old, and he takes care with words and sentence structures. Years of scriptwriting gave him a good sense of dialogue, too.

So, anyway, if you've got to read mass market fiction, you could do worse than Lee Child, or so I've come to believe. But this may just be a weirdness of geography. I have, after all, lived most of my life in New Hampshire, and Child's books are, per capita, most popular in New Hampshire. And the recent Reacher novel Past Tense is set not just in New Hampshire, but in the part of New Hampshire where I live. (Reacher's father lives in the town where some of my best friends here live.)

And then a writer just about as different from Lee Child as it's possible to get: Gerald Murnane. I had read some of Murnane's work before I picked up Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction, but for whatever reason, while I liked it for its oddity, I didn't really connect or feel passionate about it. Then I read "When the Mice Failed to Arrive" online. I got Stream System immediately. Reading "Finger Web", I was annoyed in all the ways I'd been with some of Murnane's other work, and then ... the story revealed itself as vastly more than what it seemed to be. Few stories have quite so fully undone me. And that was what was needed. Something clicked. Now I knew how to read Murnane. I continued on, slowly and carefully, savoring the book. I haven't had time to get back to much else by Murnane — it requires attention and care and a certain mood — but I will soon.

There is much more I could say, but this chronicle has gone on long enough. More to come.

Popular posts from this blog

"Stone Animals" by Kelly Link

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth by Katherine Towler

Reflections on Samuel Delany's Dark Reflections

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

"Loot" by Nadine Gordimer

The Snowtown Murders