A boy reads “Jabberwocky” for the first time and is troubled. There are words in the poem he doesn’t know. Words that aren’t like other words he hasn’t known in poems or stories before. He goes to a dictionary or asks a parent and discovers, even more troubling, there are words in the poem that Lewis Carroll…just made up. Apparently, you can do that, just…make up new words for new things and maybe those words stick in the language like “chortle” and maybe they don’t like “manxome” but either way, it can be done. A boy reads “Jabberwocky” and learns something about words. A boy sees a Van Gogh self-portrait in a book and is troubled. The brushstrokes are viral and the colors are viral and though it looks like a face, it doesn’t look like any face he’s ever seen. But it’s in a book and if it’s in a book it must be OK. He realizes that paintings aren’t required to look like their subjects. Artists can paint things that are not visual. A boy looks at a Van Gogh self-portrait and learns something new about art.
White Girls by Hilton Als is not a pensive essay collection. It is not meditative and if it’s critical or scholarly, it’s critical and scholarly in ways critics and scholars rarely are. White Girls is full of ideas and themes, but they are not approached the way you expect ideas and themes to be approached. Hilton Als pit-fights the shit out of them. Ringed by prisoners who don’t know whether to stop cheering or keep cheering, and guards with their guns and sunglasses and smirks, Als beats those ideas like they were Cool Hand Luke. And beats them, and beats them, and beats them, because there is always more in Luke, in racism, in courage, in love, in cowardice, in hate, in hubris, in straight white American male privilege, in empathy, in music, in comedy, in commodity, in Luke both good and bad than you can ever beat out, but you’re a brave exhausted prison pit dog and eventually you hit your word limit and carry your limp but still swinging opponent away and you didn’t win the fight and Luke didn’t win the fight and the spectators didn’t win the fight either. Nobody wins. Except for the guards, who win every fight by being born people who don’t go to jail.
The itch started in my leg, and then I felt it somewhere on my back. I was reading an essay about Morgellons disease, a malady in which people feel they are being infested by—what?—a virus, a parasite, something on their skin?—and I began to itch.
For a moment I might have mistaken my itching for empathy for the individuals in the essay, who describe the torments they experience to Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams. But my itch was simply an unconscious sensation, something about me,not about them. How easy it was for me to direct my attention to myself and away from those I was reading about.
To further complicate my feelings, Morgellons disease is, well, “made up.” Jamison never says so, but at one point she does say:
This isn’t an essay about whether or not Morgellons disease is real. That’s probably obvious by now. It’s an essay about what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.
Chad Harbach, the editor and introducer of MFA vs NYC, calls his book a “jointly written novel” whose “composite heroine is the fiction writer circa 2014.” What better way to empathize with the composite heroine of this jointly written novel than to read her adventures in the year in which she lives and breathes and, hopefully, still writes? So the first thing I felt upon cracking MFA vs NYC in Istanbul, 5,628 miles away from Iowa and 5,014 from NYC, circa 2014, was a sense of freshness and immediacy. I associate those feelings with social media rather than books, and TV shows like Girls rather than essay collections on creative writing. This sense of newness was surprising, given that Harbach’s essay, which gives the book its title and kickstarts its central discussion, was published in 2010.
Although some of its material is a few years old, this is no book for old men. Nor is it written by them, but for one notable exception. The pieces in the book are concerned with a fresh question that most young-to-middle-aged English-speaking writers of our era are presumably asking themselves a lot: How should a fiction-writing person be in the world of American fiction, which seems profoundly divided between a university-based creating writing workshops culture, and a New York-based publishing and freelancing-until-the-moment-of-success-arrives culture?
Of all the great “novelistic” television shows we’ve seen over the last fifteen years, it’s interesting that only one–HBO’s current breakout hit, True Detective–was created by a novelist.
Nic Pizzolatto was born in New Orleans, raised in Lake Charles, and educated at both the University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University. He taught literature and writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Chicago, and DePauw University. The first short story he ever wrote was “Ghost Birds,” an eerie tale of love, BASE jumping, and the way of the samurai. Pizzolatto sold it to the Atlantic Monthly, along with one other story, at the age of 25. It’s the opening piece in Between Here and the Yellow Sea, Pizzolatto’s book of short stories.
You can hear foretokens of True Detective’s Rust Cohle in the narrator of that story, who speaks in that same blend of worldly competence and metaphysical insight. Here, in a skydiving scene: “At 12,500 feet a jump doesn’t even feel like falling–more like being at the center of a cold explosion.” And just a little later: “Skydiving doesn’t compare to BASE. Out of a plane you’re too high and have no real sense of the bottom. Mu, the void, is not so immediate.” Mu, the narrator explains, is “the emptiness at the heart of existence to which everything returns.” It’s a place the narrator longs for–part of the reason why he BASE jumps, and part of the reason why he meditates, seeking “the Blue Triangle,” where he stores his “egoless self.”
You’ll recognize these same obsessions at the heart of True Detective, and if True Detective seems so startling, perhaps it’s because the show is not essentially sociological (like The Wire) or psychological (like The Sopranos or Mad Men), but philosophical–a grand treatise on the nature of human souls, hiding inside a murder mystery.
There appears to be some kind of party going on.
Sunday, March 9 at 2:00PM, we’re celebrating the release of J.M. Geever’s THE BLACK CAT at Coalesce Bookstore in Morro Bay, CA.
If you are anywhere within 1,632 miles of Morro Bay, CA this weekend, you should come.
(Get the book here.)
I met the other Elizabeth Bartels at a family reunion in New Jersey when I was in middle school. I had long been used to sharing my first name with classmates – in the fourth grade there had been enough Elizabeths to need to distinguish between us using our last initials. Quickly, though, my teacher shortened “Elizabeth B.” to “E.B.” when calling morning attendance and it stuck. Even though I was Elizabeth A. Bartels, I started going by E.B. Bartels, and when I was accused of having a redundant name (“Your name isn’t Elizabeth Bartels Bartels!”) I said that “E.B.” simply stood for “Elizabeth” cut in half: Eliza. Beth.
But then I met the other Elizabeth Bartels, the daughter of my dad’s first cousin: Elizabeth B. Bartels. Even though she was a few years younger than me – I reassured myself that I had been Elizabeth Bartels first – I felt threatened. This was the real E.B. Bartels. She didn’t have to use some clever justification to go by those initials if she wanted to.
I say “the” other Elizabeth Bartels because I have yet to meet another. Bartels is not the most common of last names. Occasionally I will meet a Bartel or Bartles or a Bartell. A couple times I have met or heard of another individual who goes by E.B., though those initials seem to be much more rare than D.J. or A.J. or K.T.. But never have I run into another E.B. Bartels.
“I wanted to go back to being a reader.” Thus stated is one of the many intentions of Rebecca Mead at the start of her new book, My Life in Middlemarch, but it is the one that most rings true by its conclusion. Part memoir, part biography, part New Yorker “Personal History” essay stretched to nearly 300 pages, My Life in Middlemarch brings George Eliot to life and grasps—at times weakly so—for resonance between Eliot, her greatest novel, and Mead’s own experiences. I loved it.
Let me be clear, I remained unsure about the book for its first two or three chapters. (Mead organizes her text into eight sections, mirroring the eight books of Middlemarch.) Perhaps because of Mead’s many objectives—in addition to “being a reader”, Mead hopes to turn her “deep attention to something that mattered to me”; “recover the sense of intellectual and emotional immersion in books that I had known as a young reader”; “think about what George Eliot might have sought, and what she might have discovered, in writing Middlemarch”; “consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life”; and “become a little less melancholy, a little less resigned”—her book can seem disorienting and fractured, as though she began writing one sort of book and then at some point switched to another, before then turning her full attention to yet another. In fact, one might argue that this peripatetic writing exercise in book form is exactly what she did. Mead does manage to address each objective I quoted. In the book’s weaker sections, however, I wondered whether the book would be stronger without all of the many intentions Mead cites, as well as the sometime tenuous connections between them. And yet Mead’s fragmented focus did not stop me from wanting to immerse myself in her text; my enjoyment of reading it only grew as I read on.
This very short story is an excerpt from Marry Me by Dan Rhodes.
My fiancée suggested we get married while strapped together and falling ten thousand feet from an aeroplane. I wasn’t nearly as interested as she was in that kind of thing, and suggested we have a more conventional ceremony. She dismissed my misgivings. ‘Feel the fear,’ she said, ‘and do it anyway. That’s my motto.’ Not wishing to appear unmanly, I went along with her plan, and I have to admit that in the event it was a lot of fun exchanging vows in mid-air while a vicar plummeted alongside us.
Unfortunately, our parachute has failed to open, and our marriage is looking likely to prove shortlived. She’s screaming in terror, and I’m wondering whether this would be a good moment to remind her that it had been her idea.
- Dan Rhodes is the author of six other books: Anthropology and A Hundred Other Stories, Don’t Tell Me the Truth About Love, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and (writing as Danuta de Rhodes) The Little White Car. Rhodes was named one of Granta magazine’s Twenty Best of Young Adult British Writers in 2003 and one of the Daily Telegraph’s Best British Novelists Under 40 in 2010. He is the winner of several awards, including the Author’s Club First Novel Award and the E.M. Forster Award. He lives in Derbyshire, England.