Sean Wilsey knows that “there’s no surer impediment to a good time than knowing you’ll have to write about it.” So much for the guy who’s reviewing his book.
More Curious, Wilsey’s collection of previously published essays, is enjoyable, occasionally hilarious, and always insightful. It delves into unexpected topics, turning apparent minutiae into allegorical exposés of wide-ranging attitudes and American points of view. Part of the author’s charm is his ability to research and adventure. Obstacles be damned, he tracks down the story of a short-lived marketing campaign for Red Roof Inn that utilized a low-maintenance, animated character voiced by John Goodman, remnants of which no longer exist in the cyber-sphere; he gets the authority on New York City’s rat population on the phone, only to discover his knowledge already exceeds that of the representative of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene; on a tour of NASA, he hones his understanding of a piece of machinery that already handles urine, and hopefully will soon handle excrement, turning waste into water—an integral part of any attempt to visit Mars.
The author of the best-selling memoir of Oh, The Glory of it All—the title of which also was inspired by events related to fecal matter—is like Sherlock Holmes if, instead of solving mysteries and confronting villains, the detective just pursued small details that tickled him. But Wilsey also weaves those pursuits into heartfelt personal anecdotes that make poignant, decidedly liberal comments on contemporary American culture. The heaps of praise bestowed upon Wilsey’s attention to detail can perhaps be attributed to the fact that, with Wilsey, it is never obvious that what is being read is description.
Wilsey’s greatest skill is restraint. He doesn’t feel the need to wrap his essays up in neat conclusions and fable-like platitudes, which gives his readers plenty of room to decide for themselves about our interstate highway system’s immense structure, or our absence of a unified culture during the World Cup. Wilsey’s sporadically lofty vocabulary seems not haughty but inviting—a call to further education.
Genuine, earnest, high-quality writing, though, is not enough to justify this book’s existence, especially as nearly all of the essays in More Curious have already appeared in print. A collection of essays is sort of like a band’s greatest hits album; sure, it’s nice to have all the songs together back-to-back, but you could have just made a mix tape. Should you maybe raise an eyebrow and wonder if this book is a money-making scam? One of Wilsey’s essays even treats the subject of the availability of literature in the digital age, and he bravely challenges John Updike’s fear that work will be pirated and altered. “A universal library of scanned and searchable books would be the greatest imaginable gift to writers and readers alike.” If that’s true, Mr. Wilsey, why are we paying for things you’ve already sold?
As if in answer to that question, much is made, in the book’s first section, of the idea of fusion. “Writing is simply an attempt to come to terms with things that are almost impossible for me to live with otherwise,” Wilsey writes. Mentioning his reverence for two markedly different writers—the chaotic Thomas Pynchon and the controlled Joseph Mitchell—Wilsey states his goal of fusing the two styles. But his ambition to fuse essays written in a span of sixteen years falls short. Wilsey seems attracted to related ideas, his notions evolving over the years, and this is evident in his writing. But, despite the consistency of his voice, wit, wordplay, and humanity, we are still reading at one point about the owner of Shake Shack’s vision for hospitality and at another bargaining for furniture on craigslist without transition. These are undoubtedly separate, disjointed essays.
The final essay, in which Wilsey revisits Marfa, Texas, was perhaps included in the book for its pinch-me-I’m-dreaming-moment in which David Foster Wallace extols Wilsey’s first Marfa treatment. But you really want to spend that last moment with Sean Wilsey. Unlike a novelist, who asks you to swim through a singular body of water, Wilsey forces you to come up for air. When he first wrote about Marfa, he was only visiting the place. It is delightful to read, through the micro episodes of his essays, about the intervening sixteen years. Another visit with Wilsey, sixteen years from now, would probably feel just as fresh.
– Inspired by so many who came before him, Zach Borenstein was born. Otherwise, he almost certainly would not have been. But maybe. In the twenty-five years since, he has continued to emulate others and craft his own body of work through running, reading, writing, piano, and Boggle. In 2013 he moved to Ecuador to raise HIV awareness but is chiefly known in the community of Palestina as a middling basketball coach.