A full-page ad in The New Yorker. The May 21 issue. A young girl, staring confidently at the camera, smiling. The copy at the top of the page, the copy ostensibly transcribing this girl’s voice, reads: “I just saw my first Broadway show. Now I’m writing one, too.” I see this, and I just want to punch a wall or something. Is this what it’s come to? You only need to experience one of something before you’re qualified to create one of those things? The usual comparisons spring to mind, the usual clichés: brain surgery, rocket science. Ah, but yes, of course, the beauty of the arts is that you don’t need to have experienced any of them in order to create one of them. You don’t actually need to have read a single novel in order to sit down and string a hundred thousand words together. But what is writing supposed to be? Is it just self-expression? Is it just therapeutic? Is it some kind of psychic equivalent of taking a dump? You don’t have to be in awe of the pile of shit that humanity has already created in order to add your own small contribution every day. You don’t ever need to consider it. You make yours, you get rid of it, you feel better, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Is it Weinberger who mentions casually in one of his essays that in Egypt three thousand years ago there was an entire school of poetry devoted to the subject of anxiety that everything had already been said? Everything has already been said, but if you don’t read, if you don’t go to the theater every night, if you never go to the library, if you never go all the museums you can afford, go to them over and over again, if you don’t have any awareness or knowledge of the mountain of everything that’s already been created, if all you are is empowered, then you don’t have to even know that everything has already been said, you don’t have to have anxiety about it, you don’t have to be concerned about where your play, opera, poem fits in the magnificent, aggregating, oceanic temple of what has come before, you don’t have to even worry about ever having a reader, a viewer, an audience, all you need do is sit down, and let it out, and feel better. (My conscience: Is my worrying here just one miniscule reiteration of the long war between the Classical and the Romantic?) This ad is an ad for an investment firm that funds some sort of theater program in the schools. The girl in the photograph—is she a model, or could she actually be a beneficiary of this program, could these actually be her words?—is (partly?) of African descent; I am (mostly, as far as I know, but who knows?) of European descent. Do I have a right to complain in any way about any amount of money shuffling from Wall Street to (presumably) underfunded arts programs, to kids who benefit from those programs? (From yet another corner of my conscience: What about the irony of complaining about the celebration of empowerment and self-expression on a blog post?) And yet, and yet, there’s some great wrong here. Does this have something to do with The Cult of the Amateur? (Why do I have this sinking feeling that the contemporary celebration of the untrained has something to do with a Will Rogers populism mutated by Ronald Reagan economics into a new and subtle way of keeping the citizenry crushed under the heel of its own proud ignorance?) In this same issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes: “In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything. […] We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.” Is this what’s missing? Do I want the young girl, rather, to be saying, “I just saw my first Broadway show; I feel humbled and in awe of this dying art, and I’m immediately writing my senators, even though I can’t yet vote, to urge increased funding for the arts; and I’m going to get an after-school job in order to pay for my new habit of going to see Broadway shows, because in the next few years I’m going to see a hundred of them, and then, if I’m lucky and I work my ass off, I’m going to go to Tisch, and I’ll keep writing all this while, but I’ll know, from all my reading and theater-going, that my work will surely be nothing in comparison, because as Jean Rhys said: ‘All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'” But investment firms presumably don’t have any interest in funding awe; and I don’t want the world to revert to what it was before Free to Be, You and Me, because that was even worse; but maybe my real subject here is this: Shouldn’t the teaching of writing really—secretly, ultimately—be the teaching of reading?
After J. David Stevens’s “The Death of the Short Story,” originally published in North American Review, collected in both Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories and Stevens’s Mexico Is Missing, the latter of which appears to be available in its entirety on the Ohio State University Web site.
Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” —n+1
The night I first met the short story it had just been beaten up pretty badly by a couple of these aggro publishing kids. You know the type: they had their own lit mag, they had distro and a blog, they had a tire iron and a bone to pick. What is it with these Young Turks, always needing to take a brick to the skull of one genre or another? A generation ago they nearly killed the short story and the chivalric romance in one fell swoop in a bar brawl up in Oregon somewhere. This time around, the kids tried a sucker punch, invited the story to a release party for some new anthology they’d put together, at a swank restaurant down on the Bowery, they said—except there was no anthology, no party, no restaurant, and that’s where I found it, bleeding adverbs all over my stoop.
No, the short story is not dead; it is alive, and well, and shacked up in my living room, actually, in a kind of mother-in-law apartment situation I’ve set up for it. It’s constantly hearing reports of its death, though, has been hearing them for forever—or at least since around the time Collier’s closed up shop—which, in spite of how often it’s been jumped, kicked, pummeled, and stomped, it finds perpetually surprising.
“Like Mark Twain reading his own obit,” says the story.
“Word to that,” I say.
Almost more troubling than the reports, past tense, of its recent death, are the predictions of its imminent demise. The story gets this horribly anxious look. I tell it not to worry. It’s okay. These are just death prognostications, I say—it’s not like they’re death threats! That thought usually just makes the story feel worse—what’s the difference between a prophecy and a fatwah, when you’re at the receiving end?—but it always pulls itself together quickly. That’s not naïve optimism, that’s just science, just the nature of a ruthlessly efficient little body with a spine of infinite possibility running through it.
Is it dead? No. Unwell? Hardly! But is it feeling a little apathetic, a little resigned, about all the diagnoses and prognoses it gets, the perennial baseball bats to its plots? The story shrugs.
“I meet a lot of people,” it says.
And it’s true. Some of these meetings are as long as the frequent one-night stands the story has. Or weekend-long benders. (I don’t even bother asking for it to call me to let me know it’s not coming home; I know now how resilient the story is; whether it’s off fighting a distant war, or holed up in some hotel with a hooker, a bottle, and a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing, I know it’ll be back soon.) Sometimes people only meet the story for as long as it takes for it to buy a pack of cigarettes at a deli. Or hold up a bank. Or sprout wings and fly out through the emergency roof exit of the crosstown bus. Or have a quiet epiphany—in the living room, at the county fair, over dinner—about its drunken father and the meaning of life. So many drunk, absent fathers the story has! A million damaged childhoods! So many sad mothers who had to abandon it in the dark of night on the doorstep of their local creative writing program!
And so many quiet epiphanies! It’s fun, all these crises, all these realizations; although I have to admit it gets a little exhausting, emotionally speaking, just from crying so much. We both cry a lot.
And yes, sometimes I get confused, living with the short story; sometimes it seems like it’s trying to prove something to me, or like it’s reverting to some very juvenile stage, where it wants to be smarter and more difficult than it is, where it wants to obfuscate all meaning, all sense. Where it wants to be cool.
Like last night. We were hanging out, having a mellow evening, watching some television. The story always likes to watch these great half-hour dramas you get these days—they’re its grandchildren, after all. It’s very fond. The story got this funny look.
“I worked for Kristin,” it said.
“What?” I said. “Who’s Kristin?”
The look got even funnier, like it wanted me to understand what it was talking about, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, explain it directly. The story looked the way it often does, like its compact little self was bursting at the seams with meaning.
“Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious,” it said.
“Do I know Jeff?” I asked. “Do I know these people?”
The story shut up again.
“Are these people you know from a workshop?” I said.
It waved at me, as if to say, forget it, I’m done with explaining what I’m on about for now. Then it pointed at the television. Check it out, I think is what it was telling me. This is good stuff. There was an hour-long dramatic series coming on—one of these shows with multiple, interwoven plotlines playing out over the years, bloated and baggy, but beautiful, impossible not to watch.
Then the doorbell rang.
“That’ll be the novel,” said the story. “It doesn’t have cable.”
Who am I to say no? These old genres have enough problems.
I went to get the door.
It was fall, and I was on vacation in Kansas City, riding my scooters around town. I own more than one scooter, and when I go on vacation I like to bring them all. Comparing the relative merits of different conveyances in new places is one of life’s great pleasures.
As I buzzed about, I searched my electronic map for a good place to get pizza. The town was new to me; how was I supposed to know where to find a decent pie? Perhaps I could have asked one of the many locals I kept wheeling past, but I prefer computers—the anonymity of a screen, the honesty of cold data—to actual human interaction. This is my way. I like to think that it’s the way of the future.
I hadn’t had an acceptable slice since my last vacation, when I was in San Francisco, staying in a hotel down on Market Street. There’s a fantastic pizzeria there—at 10 Market St., specifically, if you ever happen to be in town, and the place still exists, whenever it might be that you read this. Isn’t that one of the funny things about writing, that it can outlive its subject? Just ask any of those Greek and Roman guys, or other historians from other empires that no longer exist that you learned about once, either in school or on the Internet.
Anyway, all I wanted to do was find a business, some business that sold pizza to its customers, but this was proving somewhat difficult as I whizzed up and down the narrow roads and twisting alleys of the fine Midwestern city in which I found myself on this particular vacation, even more difficult than the proverbially onerous task of finding a good hotel near LAX—which is, really, the needle in the haystack of the online generation. I know one—I mean, I know a really, really excellent place to stay near the Los Angeles airport—but I don’t hand out free advice to just anyone; I like to play my cards close to the vest.
My trouble in Kansas City was, in part, logistical. I had to keep one hand on the scooter’s handlebars, hold in my other hand the digital map device on which I was performing my search, and, on top of all that, keep the widget in my ear from falling out, the widget connected to the telephone I was using to call Lou. Lou is my friend with the answers. He also happens to have the most unmemorable telephone number ever: 555-7361. It’s a number I always have to jot down, no matter what. Lou is my answer guy, when the non-human networks fail me. He’s the guy I call when I need to connect the dots—like, say, when I want to understand why Seattle and ZIP code 98109 are not perfectly coterminous, and how exactly to get from one to another—if it’s even possible to get directions from some place to a place inside it—or when I need to figure out what JFK was doing at 350 5th Ave. in New York City the day before he was assassinated. That sort of thing.
Lou, I said on my portable telephone, what does a modern, digital, scooter-driving fellow like myself need to do to get some repectable pizza on his fall vacation in Kansas City?
You need ingredients—e.g., eggs, maybe milk, Lou said.
And then? I asked.
And then you need to figure it out from there, said Lou. That’s as far as I can take you. Or as far as I want to take you, he said.
Eggs and milk, I said. Very helpful examples! You’re a good friend, Lou, I said, in so many ways; e.g., your always dependable advice.
No problem, said Lou. Anytime. You know the number.
Eggs, milk—good stuff, I said. I’ll write myself a note.
(1) Many thanks for thinking of [our literary journal] for your work. We aren’t able to use this piece for the magazine, but we appreciate the opportunity to consider it. All of us at [our literary journal]. [sic] Thank you again. (2) Thank you for allowing us to consider your work. Though we find we are unable to use it, we consider it a privilege that you thought of us and regret that the volume of submissions precludes a more personal reply. (3) Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your work. We regret that we are unable to use it at this time. We wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript elsewhere. (4) Thank you for letting us consider your manuscript. We regret that it does not suit our present needs. (5) Thank you for sending us your work, but I’m afraid we can’t use it in [our literary journal] at present. (6) Thank you for sending your manuscript to [our literary journal]. We will not be able to accept it for publication, but we appreciate your interest in the magazine. (7) Thank you for submitting your manuscript. We regret that we are unable to publish it, but we appreciate your interest in [our literary journal]. (8) Thank you for submitting your work to [our literary journal]. Though it doesn’t meet our current needs we appreciate the opportunity to consider it for publication. We wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere. We are doing everything we can to reply to manuscripts in a timely way, and hope that we haven’t been too slow in considering this one. Keep up the good work! (9) Thank you for submitting your work to [our literary journal]. Unfortunately, we are unable to accept it for publication at this time. We wish you the best with your writing and thank you for your interest in [our literary journal]. (10) Thank you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript. We’ve read it with care but have decided not to accept it for publication. Best of luck placing it elsewhere. (11) Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work. The editors have read your submission and regret that it does not meet our present needs. We wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript elsewhere. (12) Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to publish it. Because we understand the time and effort that goes into writing a story, we’re sorry for the brevity of this reply. (13) Thank you for your recent submission. We have given careful consideration to the material but we regret that your manuscript is not suited to the current needs of the magazine. We thank you for giving us the opportunity of reading it. (14) Thank you for your submission to [our literary journal]. Unfortunately, we must pass at this time. Best of luck placing your work elsewhere. (15) Thanks for sharing your fine work with us. We receive a large number of submissions but can publish only one in a hundred. Since our space is limited, we must often turn down well-crafted writing. We wish you the best of luck in placing your work. (16) Though your work has been declined by our editors, we thank you for allowing us to consider it. (17) We have read your submission carefully and found that it does not fit our current editorial needs. However, we do appreciate your interest in our magazine. Thank you for sending your work to [our literary journal]. (18) We regret that the manuscript you submitted does not fit our current editorial needs. Thank you very much for sending us your work. (19) We regret that we are not able to place your work in our magazine. We’re sorry to disappoint you, and we thank you for submitting to [our literary journal]. (20) We thank you for having given us the opportunity to read your manuscript, but regret that it does not meet our particular needs at this time. (21) We thank you for the opportunity to read your manuscript. Unfortunately, your work does not meet our needs at this time. Because we know how much effort went into this submission, we regret the use of this form. But the volume of manuscripts we receive makes a personal reply impossible.
Dear Professor (and Mrs.) Weitzman:
Thank you for your letter requesting a joint residency at the Cuckchafe Colony. We greatly appreciate your interest in Cuckchafe, and enclose, for your convenience, our actual, paper application for residency, which is required of all our applicants, even those who are, or may once have been, “a household name.” We also appreciate the enthusiasm for Cuckchafe implicit in both your demand for “the biggest and ritziest cabin [we’ve] got,” and your avowal regarding the haste with which you intend to drive up to our “Godforsaken backwater” corner of Vermont—hence our speedy reply; our apologies if we’ve sacrificed sense for promptness. However, we tend to believe that all Cuckchafe applicants often feel “too damn busy to bother with the rules.” Many are also, we imagine, equally “sick of the damn undergrads.” Thus, we regrettably must ask all our applicants to let us consider their requests for residencies at least a few months in advance, and certainly never as soon as “next week.” (I am hopeful, Professor, that you will receive this letter prior to your threatened departure date!) Please also note that in addition to the missing paper application, we also never received a writing sample; perhaps you sent it under separate cover—in which case, perhaps it went missing in the post?
Which reminds me of a further consideration: Professor Weitzman, your enthusiasm for your third wife’s “creative spirit” and “untapped potential” warmed all of our hearts. It even tempered some of the ill-will some of us on the committee have harbored for you since your second wife’s infamous suicide, not to mention your destruction of her last, unpublished manuscript—although I was somewhat surprised to discover that I was the only member of the committee who has always taken you at your word that the novel you burned was “the embarrassing effluvia of a crazy lady.” Nevertheless, we do insist that, however many “fantastic anecdotes” the present Mrs. Weitzman might harbor in her “adorable little noggin,” Cuckchafe Colony protocols, no matter how old-fashioned they might be, stubbornly require that such stories exist in material form—i.e., written down—and that the committee have the formal opportunity to consider between ten and fifteen pages’ worth of said writing (again, I refer you to the enclosed criteria).
When you do have an opportunity to peruse our application, you’ll also note that the Cuckchafe Colony, unfortunately, does not offer such a thing as a “joint residency.” We cannot, even when our applicants insist that they need their spouse around at all times, as you so charmingly put it, to “keep the bottle on its shelf and the snake in its pants.” Have you considered applying to, say, the Bodhidharma Center for Creative Expressiveness in upstate New York? Although some might balk at the compulsory meditation, as well as the steep residency fees, meal fees, etc., their application requirements are refreshingly unrestrictive. My fellow committee members also insisted that I protest your wife’s caricature of Cuckchafe as a “pussy farm;” the portrait drawn of our institution in Grover Jablonski’s 1972 play of that name was a gross exaggeration, and besides, the place has mellowed considerably since Dr. Lenox’s ouster not long after the play won the Pulitzer.
On a personal note, if I may, Professor Weitzman, all of us on the admissions committee privately agreed that your stunning first novel, The Petulant Seed, was one of the most important and influential books any of us read in our teenage years—who, at the time, did not identify with Harry Seed’s rage at a cold world, and an even colder mother? We all share a certain fondness for the book, if an understandably tainted one; without question, its portrait of the archetypal “angry young man” of the era may have been taken far too literally by some readers, but I personally have never blamed your writing for the assassination of Senator Berkholder, or the attempted assassinations of Senators-elect Hobbs and Comiskey. I still proudly, publicly profess my love of the novel, and at every opportunity I take issue with those who agree with The New Yorker‘s Janet Purser’s legendary slandering of the book—with the ease of 20/20 hindsight, I might add—as a so-called “irredeemable template of sociopathic behavior.”
I think none of us need convincing, Professor, that since then, your career has, as you mention on page five of your thoughtful note, “tanked.” Indeed, it probably was a stroke of luck that you got tenure before “that little Harry Seed-wannabe bastard picked up a gun,” although I confess that the extensiveness of the coffee stain on that particular page makes me uncertain that I’m quoting you accurately here. All of us on the committee share your hope that your best work is ahead of you, and your belief that Cuckchafe would probably be a great place for you to “bang out some classy stuff;” and although we sincerely hope we do not see you, your rental car, and your typewriter in our driveway later this week, we unreservedly look forward to you and your wife’s timely, correctly assembled, and completely separate applications in the future.
The Cuckchafe Colony Admissions Committee
“Yes, I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” Or so I thought.
Then he went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple. Or so he thought.
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. Or so he thought.
I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. Or so she thought.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past—or so we think.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty. Or so I think I think.
His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs. Runs?
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.
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.
Brooklyn climbs itself like an autodidact, like a vine using its own stalk as a trellis, like a bridge being built out across a river with no supports. The streets work the graveyard shift for the squeaky wheels dreaming self-improvement dreams, but the days thwart ambition with an inventory of niggling details: “Beer bottles and beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that had held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces.” Or, rather, human feces? This is a civilized, late twentieth-century Brooklyn, but a Brooklyn in which men urinate out into the void from the windows of the upper floors of brownstones. A protagonist reminisces about a childhood hobby of shitting as a group pastime, an outdoor activity. Do the citizens of the borough, bum and burgher alike, take delight in shitting in the gutters, on subway rails, in the parks, on stoops, in the rivers, on sidewalks? Do we all stand and point and howl with the joy of our own unaided manufacture? Who was it who said that this is the only city in the world where the dogs can step in human shit? Brooklyn is a wise child, innocent and depraved, wild-eyed and sleepless, its Brooklynness impossible to box, wrap, or bottle. Brooklyn is a nation of immigrants and exhibitionists, escapees and cartographers, pirate lepidopterists and amateur gang leaders, petty thieves on sabbatical and nice guys who got stuck halfway; in short, life is not entirely wonderful here, and on that point, children and adults can agree, but they always get stuck squabbling over the particulars. Every curve of this marvelous place, a once and future garbage dump; each corner harbors ghosts; every crook vibrates with the history of the culture. (For example, did you know that part of The Warriors was filmed on one of the dead platforms of the Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop?) I love New York.
Remember that party back at the beginning of the summer, or maybe it was the end of the spring, the party where at one point I was talking about how I misremember facts, get details fogged and discombobulated, maybe especially when it comes to the biographies or writers, like how I remember the story of Carson McCullers out on Nantucket in the summer of 1946 with Tennessee Williams and his companion, Pancho Rodriguez, and the two writers would sit every morning, all summer long, on opposite sides of the dining-room table, kitty-corner to one another, Tom with his typewriter and Carson with hers and a bottle of whiskey between them, during which stay she wrote The Member of the Wedding and he wrote The Glass Menagerie—except, reading McCullers’s biography I realize I’ve got it wrong, that summer she wrote a play based on her third novel, and he, rather, was working on Summer and Smoke (in a year when Menagerie was still running on Broadway); except, come to think of it, I might not have mentioned that story at all at that party (and I might actually be accurately remembering an old, pickled creative writing teacher’s inaccurate recounting of the story), but I think I did talk about my memory of Allen Ginsburg showing up at William S. Burroughs’s house in Tangier, finding Bill anesthetized and inconsolable, sprawled on his bed like a lovesick nihilist with a monkey on his back, pages upon loose pages, stained and trampled typescript, strewn about the apartment, which Allen picked up and started to read, and maybe Jack Kerouac was there too, and somehow, in the retelling, Jack and Allen took on the voices of Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear, if I’m remembering right, and Bill had the voice of Sam the Eagle, and Kermit and Fozzie thought some of Sam’s pages were pretty good, maybe they could put them together in some kind of order, like a novel, and Sam said no, no, it wasn’t worth it, life was misery and romance was a crock and boys were fickle and besides, there was no more decent hash to be had in all of Morocco, but Kermit and Fozzie gathered all the pages together and put them in an order that made sense and took them to a publisher in Paris, and that became Naked Lunch (although maybe I didn’t mention that story at the party either, maybe it came up that afternoon back at the beginning of the summer when we were talking on West 4th Street, not far from the library, while a bum sang variations on the old jingle our city used to use to advertise itself to the world, “I Love New York,” at us)? Anyway, that was a fun party.