Brian Eno told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground Record sold only 30,000 copies… I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” The same could be said of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a slim collection of short stories that had the same effect on hundreds, if not thousands, of burgeoning writers.
I encountered Jesus’ Son at twenty, on break from college and wandering around a massive old bookstore. I saw that cover in the remainders section, bought it for $4.98, and promptly left it in the bag on my floor, only to discover it again, a couple of weeks later. I read it on breaks from my landscaping job (filthy, mulch-stained fingerprints litter the pages) and would go back to whacking weeds and edging beds with Johnson’s electric language pinging in my brain. I marked lines and passages I loved at that time with a stubby green pencil engraved with the name of a golf course I’d never been to, and bite marks in the wood that weren’t from my teeth: Continue reading
I’m an idiot. I know this. I was even more of an idiot back in college and I don’t like being reminded of this fact. So I admit I was hesitant when I picked up a copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I feared the narrator Selin and I had too much in common for us to ever get along. Like Selin, I’d fallen for a man via email while in college. Like her, I’d gone on to teach English in another country. Like her, I was trying (“doomed”) to be a writer. Unlike her, I didn’t go to Harvard. We were off to a shaky start.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. In some ways, following a year in the life of Selin was like reliving the prime of my idiocy, the crème de la crème of my naivety.
It’s strange how much I enjoyed it. Continue reading
My five-year-old son spent the morning trying to convince me it wasn’t him, but a group of five, seven, 100 ninjas who came into his room and threw Legos everywhere.
My son has an interesting problem, one faced by writers who want to conjure up magic: magical realism, or ‘real maravilloso’—when marvelous or magical events occur in a realistic narrative, locating magic in the ordinary. While it’s typically associated with contemporary Latin American writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Clarice Lispector, Isabel Allende, to name a few), it has found its way in novels by writers from other continents—Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Gunter Grass, Fay Weldon, and now Lucy Wood. Continue reading
Virginia Woolf took her greatest risks as an artist in 1930. Fresh off the success of Orlando and To The Lighthouse, she embarked on The Waves, a more experimental, more fluid novel than her previous works. (She describes it in her diary triumphantly as “my first book in my own style.”) If The Waves marked an invigorating period of self-expression for Woolf, the process of writing it—and editing it—was nonetheless taxing. (“Never,” she laments, “have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”) In an entry dated April 11th, 1931, Woolf, who was balancing a few writing projects at the time, complains about revision: “I am so tired of correcting my own writing… And the cramming in and the cutting out… But I have no pen—well, it will just make a mark. And not much to say, or rather too much and not the mood.”
Before I started reading William H. Davies’s 1908 book, Autobiography of a Super-tramp, I was only familiar with his most famous poem, Leisure, the opening lines of which are:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Armed with this minimal knowledge of his canon, I was hopeful Davies’s memoir about life as a tramp in North America and Britain might illuminate a new perspective about labor that I, who was complicit in the traditional notion of career, sorely needed. As Tomos Owen wrote in his afterword to the book, “the tramp threatens and challenges the prevailing ideas of a society predicated upon stability, rootedness, and commitment.”
This sounded promising. I wanted to threaten my prevailing ideas and those of society. It was particularly on my mind in the wake of a US presidential campaign, during which we were repeatedly reminded by both major parties of the centrality of work to the American mythos—that access to the good life is premised on a willingness to work hard—without any thought that human beings may be built for more than just work, that perhaps idleness may be our greatest aspiration. Continue reading
Brian Evenson’s new novella, The Warren, opens with a declaration of documentation:
I shall begin this written record by reporting the substance of our last conversation—which was not only the last conversation I had with Horak but the last I had with anyone or ever expect to have.
The most unusual word of the sentence, “substance,” is the tenth word out of twenty-six, and it comes right after the second most unusual word in the sentence, “reporting.” The sixteen words that follow “substance,” excluding a character name, are some of the most frequently used words in the English language. Most of them are widely used in primary school. In terms of density, the first ten words account for almost half of the letters in the sentence. The sentence is top-heavy—unbalanced.