Congratulations, she said, the editors have selected you to contribute a volume of essays on contemporary poetry to our prestigious annual book series The Empirical Poem. I’m sorry, he said, editors? At the university press, she said, the screening process is a highly competitive one each year; fierce, even, some might say. I think you have the wrong number, he said, or maybe you’re mistaking me for someone else; I’m an attorney, you see, not a poet. Ah, like Stevens, she said, both in your choice of vocation, I mean, and characteristic modesty; it’s quite charming. Thank you, he said, but seriously, I have never written a single poem in my entire life. This is a great honor, she said, and perhaps you misunderstood me—the book will be a volume of critical essays, not poems, goodness no. You know, I think the last poem I ever read, he said, was that business about the wheelbarrow and the wet chicken. Are you suggesting, she said, that the editors are just out here playing knuckleball? So much depends on, he said, something something. Do you think the editors are fucking around, she said, flinging around a career-making commission like this willy-nilly, for a book series that has included Pfliegman’s shrewd analysis of Dylan Thomas’s correlative capability, Schopenhauer’s award-winning study of Manxian praxis, and Rosenbaum’s astonishing discourse on the poetry of babies? Something something, wet chickens, he said, I always did like that one. You decline an accolade like this, you don’t just embarrass yourself, she said, you’re telling everyone who’s ever written a book for The Empirical Poem to go fuck themselves. I’m sorry, he said, it all sounds very fancy. The university is handing you a free meal, she said, and you’re shitting on the cutlery. It’s been a long day, he said, and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’m offering you a goddamn tenure track to Sittingprettyville, and you’re forgetting that there’s a difference between the outward appearance of grandiosity, she said, and the truly grand; I mean, don’t lawyers fucking understand intuitively that in order to get sausage, you have to break a few eggs? Trust me, I know an egg from a spitball, he said, but where my head is at today is, if an independent pig farmer in Kentucky gets a tip to short the Chicago pork market from his growth hormone dealer, does that constitute insider trading? It would depend, she said, on whether you were talking about pork futures or pork hedge funds. See, he said, now we’re talking. That is, she said, just one woman’s opinion. Don’t be so modest, he said, I’ve got a proposition for you. Okay, she said, I think I smell what you’re cooking. So long as most of the essays, he said, will be about wheelbarrows and wet chickens. So long as most of my securities fraud work was in beef, she said. You know, he said, I’m an alumnus of the university. I was a litigator in Lubbock, she said, in another lifetime. Please convey my gratitude to the editors, he said, really, it’s an honor. It’s the curveballs, she said, that delight.
A review of the new Franzen in the NYTBR that runs to about eighteen hundred words, featuring plenty of nouns and adjectives and phrases presented in series, but never once invoking the ‘Times style book’s omission of the serial comma?:
“clever, superior, smarty-pants;” “broken, awkward, imperfect;” “sheer, poignant, foolish;” “difficult, embittered, resentful;” “artistically brilliant, tormented, somewhat geeky;” “learning German, the Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, bird-watching;” “politics, global affairs, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq war;” “the smugness, the avidity, the pomposity, the rank egotism;” “one about the sale of his mother’s house, another on the unintended effects of some high school pranks, another on the author’s pubescent experience of a Christian youth group;” “the humorous—and, indeed, the amusing, the pleasurable, the beautiful;” “the stultifyingly conventional adolescence in a St. Louis suburb[;] the earnest, aspirational mother; the stern, anhedonic father;” “perpetual awkward, perpetually failed, and yet just as perpetually optimistic;” “[T]o write about the self without recourse to glib narratives of redemption so characteristic of memoir just now, without romanticizing his faults. To strip away the layers of self-congratulation (to say nothing of flat-out lies) that we so often get in ‘personal histories,’ in other words, and to say, in effect, ‘I am an imperfect person and this is what it looks like to be that imperfect person—to insufficiently love one’s fellow man, one’s parents, one’s spouse, even oneself.'”
The Frequently Asked Questions page of the Web site of the New York City Marriage Bureau offers many delights, not the least of which is the answer to the question “Can two first cousins marry?” The answer in the state of New York is “yes,” but the Office of the City Clerk takes a more oblique approach, telling readers first that “[a] marriage may not take place […] between an ancestor and descendant (that is, a parent, grandparent, etc. and an offspring (child)), a brother and sister (full or half blood), an uncle and niece or an aunt and nephew, regardless of whether or not these persons are legitimate or illegitimate offspring.” The purpose of this preamble, I’m guessing, is to let us know that although we may not be living in one of those unsophisticated states—you know, the ones where you’re permitted to inbreed with your sibling’s bastard child!—the fact remains that “[t]here is no legal bar against marriage between cousins.” Or maybe the answer is phrased in this way in order to say that, although it may be technically legal, it’s not like the Marriage Bureau condones this sort of behavior? (Another thing I’m wondering: Is that question really asked of the City Clerk frequently?) Similarly surprising, at least in terms of taboos being crossed in a way that might differ from a reader’s expectations regarding the laws of a state in the Northeast, are the hurdles faced by New Yorkers getting married in their teenage years (there are many when you’re fourteen; things get a little easier at the age of sixteen).
But the most interesting information here, to my mind, is the complicated answer to the question “What are my surname options?” If I’m understanding this right, you can change your last name to anything you want at any time—but it’s not easy. However, matters are slightly simplified, in terms of letting the Social Security Administration know what you’re up to, if you begin the process of changing your name with your marriage license; but if you do choose this route, your options are limited to the following: 1) your name or the name of the person you’re marrying, 2) either of your maiden names or previous married names, 3) a hyphenation of any of those names, or (and this is the kooky part) 4) some hybrid of some selection of syllables from any of those names. So if the surnames of you and your intended were, say, “Newton-John” and “Travolta,” it would be somewhat difficult to choose a new last name of “McQueen” or “Surreptitious” or “Vermont” or “Murfrangalimöot”—but if, on the other hand, you wanted to be “the Newvoltas” or “the Trohn family” or “Mr. and Mrs. Johvo,” that would be much, much easier.
Does this mean that the portmanteau-word option is that much more popular than the brand-new word option? I’m not terribly enamored of either; both seem better suited to the marriages of banks and consulting firms than to those of human beings. (I mean, if pursuing the neologistic route, why not take it all the way to Roz Chast territory, and call yourselves Mr. and Mrs. Vvv?) But then, it also seems anomalous that “less than 5 percent of American women keep or hyphenate their name after marrying.”
No matter what you end up doing, the City Clerk adds (in bolded text), the marriage records will stay that way forever. But surely no one needs a further reminder, at this stage, of the enormity of their undertaking?
You write a story, but no one likes it. You write a story that people like, but you don’t get into intro. creative writing. You take creative writing in college, but discover a consuming love of Scotch upon graduation. You don’t have a drinking problem, but you demonstrate an interest in paying the rent every month, so you get a steady job. Your steady job doesn’t take up all your time, but you develop a strong loyalty to a number of television programs. TV doesn’t interest you, but your other hobbies (e.g., hiking the Adirondacks, teaching skeet shooting to youngsters, and COBOL programming) all prove much more gratifying and rewarding in the long-term. Writing stories continues to be a pastime, but you can’t imagine how you’d ever quit your job to go back to school. You apply to MFA programs, but you don’t get in. You get in, but you aren’t awarded any scholarship money. You get a scholarship, quit your job, and move across the country for grad school, but your work is mocked and derided by your professors. Your professors say nice things, but your submissions are torn ball from socket by your fellow students in workshop like a gang of nicotine-starved hyenas. Your work is steady and good and admired, but you find that, once having tapped the well of adventures of a bitter teenager railing against distracted parents who don’t understand, all funneled into a small sheaf of angry, pseudoautobiographical sketches, you never manage the stamina to write more than the first seventy pages of a novel. You complete a story collection and a solid five hundred pages of a novel, but then you’re married and the first kid comes along and there’s that thirty-year fixed-rate and diapers and a college fund and a revived enthusiasm for vermouth and who has the time? You write your story collection and your bildungsroman, but you have no idea where to send them. You send writing samples to a number of agents, but they all send polite rejections back saying they’re not smitten with the work and anyway this is a tough time for story collections. You find an agent who loves your work and wants to represent you but after a while phone calls go unreturned and letters unanswered and eventually he turns up in Brazil, in hock, and addicted to yagé. Your agent sends your manuscript out to a number of presses, but they all gently decline, saying they’re not sold on the work and anyway this is a rough season for bildungsromans. Your agent goes down the publishers, rung by reputation rung, until your book is picked up by a small outfit based in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, but your first print run is only three hundred units, all flimsy and curly and print-on-demand, and none get sent to reviewers, and the only distribution this outfit has, you notice, apparently due to a small arbitration case or two and perhaps a few other various contractual contretemps, is from its own website. Your agent sells your manuscript to a respected New York publisher, but your editor is fired before your book’s pub date and no one else at the house ever picks it up and your words are consigned to the oblivion of the remainder bin. Your first book comes out and is championed by your publisher but PW, Kirkus, and Library Journal all trash it. Your first book is loved by the trades but Michiko Kakutani guts it with a strange, metaphorical meat cleaver. Janet Maslin calls your writing the new sliced bread, but the book never gets legs and the large print run of the paperback gets whacked by returns. Everyone loves your first book so much that your days are filled with praise and your nights with unceasing debauchery, but when the dust settles you find that you’re done, you’ve had your say, that was it, and you never write a second. You almost finish your second book but one morning while you’re out getting coffee your house burns to the ground, the only copy of the only draft of your manuscript inside it. Your second book is lousy. You’re proud of your second book but it’s universally eviscerated, said to suffer from an inoperable case of sophomore slump. Your first two books do so poorly commercially that you’re forced to begin your career all over again under a pseudonym. After your second book and first marriage you decide to throw in the towel and go to law school. After your third book and second spouse and first disappointing film adaptation you channel all your energy into teaching undergrads. After your fourth book and third affair with a former student and second arrest for public déshabillé and first libel suit you move to a remote region of New England, utterly disgusted with the phoniness of the world and determined to withdraw from it forever. After your fifth book and fourth conversion to Catholicism and third stay at McLean Hospital and second Pulitzer and first failed run for office you find you simply have little interest in anything other than angry letters to the editor and herb gardening and that old flame, come back to love you once more, schnapps, sweet schnapps. After winning the Nobel prize for literature you are cursed, damned, as so many claim to have been before you, and you never write another word you’re happy with again.
From The Book of Lists #2, in section 21, “Loose Ends,” item #6 (“The Wired Nation”) in the list “6 Outrageous Plans that Didn’t Happen” (on p. 483 of the Bantam Books paperback, which came out in 1980, and which I was completely obsessed with for years):
In his book The Shadow Presidents, author Michael Medved relates the extreme disappointment of H. R. Haldeman over his failure to implement his plan to link up all the homes in America by coaxial cable. In Haldeman’s words, “There would be two-way communication. Through computer, you could use your television set to order up whatever you wanted. The morning paper, entertainment services, shopping services, coverage of sporting events and public events.… Just as Eisenhower linked up the nation’s cities by highways so that you could get there, the Nixon legacy would have linked them by cable communications so you wouldn’t have to go there.” One can almost see the dreamy eyes of Nixon and Haldeman as they sat around discussing a plan that would eliminate the need for newspapers, seemingly oblivious to its Big Brother aspects. Fortunately, the Watergate scandal intervened, and Nixon was forced to resign before “the Wired Nation” could be hooked up.
This paragraph has been reproduced elsewhere on the Internet at least twice that I’ve been able to find (on two different weblogs; first in a post from October 12, 2004, here, and also in a post from October 28, 2004, here).
When I first reread this quote myself, my reaction was something along the lines of: How funny that Haldeman would seek to bring about something not too dissimilar from the home-computer-and-cable-modem-and-World-Wide-Web future as it actually evolved from (what my rusty mental history of technology in America tells me would have been the then-discrete) ARPANET and the cable television industry of the early ’70s; and how funny that David Wallechinsky (one of the editors of the book, and the co-author who wrote that particular list) would, in the late ’70s, conclude that such a system would naturally be totalitarian, when the reality has proven, rather, to be successfully anarchic!
More recently, though, it’s occurred to me that maybe Wallechinsky was onto something.