Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to Fall In Love While Discussing Literature

*This is a work of autobiographical fiction; any similarities to real people is neither intentional nor coincidental.
You may be the kind of person who has always lived more inside your own head more than in the world. You may have been writing stories and reading the classics back when all the other kids were playing Nintendo and watching Nickelodeon. You may love a certain book – or a certain quotable phrase – more than you love your parents. You are the kind of person who can fall in love while discussing literature.
All you need is to meet someone like yourself. Someone who buys used copies of his favorite book over and over again. Someone who appreciates extended metaphor. Someone who would buy you jewelry from Tiffany's because he wants you to feel what Truman Capote wrote and Holly Golightly longed for: the calming assurance that nothing bad could ever happen to you.
Someone who lives inside his own thoughts and the printed thoughts of others will better recognize the light of passion that sparks within your black pool pupils. He won't confuse it for a mere reflection of the harsh florescence of the world or the hot embers of a smoking cigarette.
You'll know when you meet him. He'll be funny, the way you're funny. And he'll be different the way you're different. And he'll know it too.
And it will happen so seamlessly. You'll venture into a bookstore by chance one afternoon. You needed air-conditioning or a bathroom or the soft reassurance that comes from picking up a book in the travel section and remembering that the world is bigger and more wonderful than it seems.
The two of you will pass a stack of David Shields' autobiography, Enough About You, and he'll ask if you've read it and you'll say that you did. Then he'll ask what you thought of it. And, because you're not sure what kind of person he is, exactly, you'll make your reply simple but to the point.
You'll say, “I liked it. He opened with the Emerson quote 'And I shall essay to be.'”
You know that in French there is an infinitive verb, essayer, which means “to try.” Thus, the sentence could read, in French, “Je vais essayer d'etre.” I will try to be. But for you it means exactly what it says. I shall essay to be: I will write in order to live – in order to both make sense of my experiences and to leave proof of my fleeting existence.
And perhaps he to whom you quote David Shields quoting Emerson will know what you mean. It will be this suspicion you'll have that, though he doesn't say so, he too understands this fundamental fact of being a writer that will be draw you in.
So the two of you will find somewhere to sit and talk. A table by a window in a quiet cafe would be nice. You will glance out at passersby, using this feigned interest in strangers on the street to break the tension. Then the conversation will truly begin.
It will begin with the safest, most general topic possible: what kind of writing do you like?
Of course, this will be difficult for you to answer, for you are very picky. You used to want to be a vegetarian because you loved certain vegetables so very much, however you just didn't love enough vegetables to make a lifestyle out of it. The same could be said of your love of various kinds of writing. Though, luckily, when it comes to literary preference the term you can use to describe your tastes is discerning, not picky. You have very discerning tastes.
So you will tell him that you like some poetry and that which you do like, you love. You will tell him that you love creative nonfiction. And at this point you will begin to gush about the wonderful thing called the lyric essay. You love lyric essays.
The two of you will talk about post modernism in literature. You will tell him that you're fascinated with books that use multiple points of view to tell the story and are thus able to show how the conflict lies not within some grand theme of the plot but within the misunderstanding that one mind can have of another.
Then you will discuss writers. You will talk about Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and he will talk about Dostoyevsky and Dickens. You liked Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and he liked Crime and Punishment. You both liked Great Expectations. And though neither of you will admit it, you like that latter because you too have great expectations. That's why you're both there – in the city, in the clothes you're wearing, in the conversation, and in the life you're trying to lead.
You will tell him that Joan Didion is your favorite writer. You will say that her intelligent, finely articulated accounts of her life and the world continue to pull you into one essay after another, while her keen use of language and punctuation makes you adore every minute of it.
Then you will recite a couple of your favorite quotable lines from “The White Album.”
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.[1]
You will smile with pride at your own good memory for great words. And you'll exclaim, “Did you hear the fluidity and the succinctness of it?”
What the part of the essay you chose to quote from will say about you is that you have secrets -- secrets that come in the form of your several other selves.... The little girl sitting in the corner on the floor of her bedroom, crying, who would became a not so little girl sitting on that same floor, in that same corner, crying harder than ever, remembering how she had to tell her friends that the bruises on her arms were from playing with her younger brothers. The young woman who said, “Yes, I will marry you,” and who later screamed, “Please, please, please don't leave,” and who then found herself a new corner on a new floor and cried the same old tears. And still others – other selves that lay buried in the dark of your shadow, all waiting for the late and lonely hour when you will forget to forget that they're there.
He will contribute to the discussion by saying that he has only read one essay by Joan Didion. He read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
“I liked it and I didn't like it,” he will say. And from that vague statement you will come to learn that he is from San Francisco and that he moved Chicago because – though he won't come out and directly say it – he felt like the little boy chewing on the electrical cord. He was home schooled – liberally – by his mother who loved the Bible, marijuana, and her boyfriends. Then there came a day when he put down the electrical cord and picked up a good book. And when he graduated college with an English major he moved to Chicago, leaving behind everything except his favorite books.
You will nod and smile because you understand. You don't have any pictures of your other selves with you where you live now, but you have their favorite books.
He will tell you that If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, is his favorite book. He's an Italian writer, he'll inform you, so it's literature in translation. He will explain that anyone who truly understands the transcendental experience of reading a good story will love this book. He will tell you how the book strikes upon the little discussed fact that true readers may finish a book but that is never the end. The story and its characters and its quotable lines become part of the reader and live within them as they live within the world.
“It's a story about reading and about falling in love with someone with whom you can discuss what you've read,” he will say.
And then a comfortably loaded silence will descend upon the two of you. You will look at him. He will look at you. You will wonder if you're imagining the subtext in the conversation. You will wonder – perhaps worry – if he may have actually understood what you meant when you quoted Didion. Then you'll find yourself half hoping that this isn't all in your head – or that if it's in your head, that it is in his head too.
Then he will ask you what your favorite book is and you will reply that you don't have favorite books so much as you have favorite lines.
He will raise an eyebrow.
You will smile and continue. You love the part that comes next. You're going to quote Jenny Boully from her book, [one love affair*].
“And all the writings of Ruskin could not help her to accept the fact that in living, some things are just broken and therefore own their own beauty[2],” you will recite to him.
His eyebrow will lower and you will see something spark in his small brown eyes as he looks at you. A strange silence will seep into the moment, layering it thick and heavy with tension and foreshadowing. You will brush a lock of hair from your face, smiling as you delight in the beauty of the line anew.
“Wow,” is what he will finally say.
(Trust me, that's what he'll say.)
Your smile will grow bigger and you will glow even brighter. And he will see it and he will smile back at you, even as you brush past the fact that he didn't say “Wow” because the line was perfect, but because he thought you just might be.
You will continue to gush to him about great lines. You will tell him that Richard Yates' prose in Revolutionary Road is simply gorgeous; the way he can make something as simple as cars in a high school parking lot seem both poetic and poignant... Wow!
And the conversation will thus ebb and flow until finally you break away from it. You will get up from your seat by the window in the quiet cafe and you will say goodbye and walk out into the stunning luminosity of the day. The birds will chirp. The air will glide in gentle wisps over your face. And you will have the delicious sensation of both falling and floating simultaneously.
Then later that night, or perhaps the night after, you will be absentmindedly checking your email when you find a message from him. The message will contain nothing more than a link to the Lydia Davis short story, “Mother.”
You will read the story. You will read the last line twice, just to be sure.
The girl dug a large hole and went to sleep in it. “But how much better if you slept forever,” said her mother.[3]
And then you'll know that he understood what you were saying when you quoted Didion. You will know that the day when the two of you discussed literature, he didn't just notice the fluidity and the succinctness; he read the subtext.

[1] Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "On Keeping a Notebook"
[2] Jenny Boully, [one love affair*].
[3] Lydia Davis, Break It Down “Mother”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Getting There

When I was a little girl I enjoyed reading stories about American pioneers. It began with Laura Engels Wilder and her little house on the prairie and it took me all across the U.S. It took me on a boat from Sweden to New York, then to Wisconsin and up through Minnesota; it took me from Illinois all the way to California. Perhaps it was these pioneer stories that convinced me that life was about going places. To me it seemed the pioneers were always looking for something new and what they always found was adventure. My young mind even perceived a certain kind of glamour in being able to fit one’s entire material life into a covered wagon.

The pioneers experienced life as it sprawled out before them -- great and expansive, limitless if not endless. The world was big, with spaces still unclaimed. They were conquistadores of travel itself, epitomizing the self perceived necessity of movement which pulls all true travelers forward. Theirs was a large world filled with blue grass prairies, rushing rivers, bustling cities and hilly hamlets.

I am older now and I know that the world can be many different kinds of large. It can be large the way it was when I was little and the oceans had their names written upon their middles and each country had its own bright color. France was pink and looked like a side portrait of an old woman and Italy was purple and shaped like a boot. China was yellow -- China was where china dolls and tea cups came from.

The world can be the kind of large it was when I got a bit older and suddenly felt smaller than ever as big city buildings loomed over me, reminding me of just how tall I’d never be. And as lights illuminated the million windows, I would think of how many, many people I’d never know and who would never know me – people who wouldn’t care if I died or if I had a bad day or if I grew up and found myself disappointed because my life wasn’t how I had imagined it would be.

And the world can be large they way it was after I had boarded numerous planes and been a couple places – some of which are too far away to easily revisit – and I realized that the globe doesn’t do the enormity of this world justice. It doesn’t account for how rude it is to decline a cup of tea when it is offered by a shopkeeper in Istanbul, nor does it account for the lovely quiet of a Cornish village by the sea.

Of course, the world is at its largest just when you think it has gotten smaller. I convinced myself that it would be possible to return next year, that I would come back to see how the alps look in the spring and that the next time I walked the cobbled lanes of my favorite English town I wouldn’t be too old and the way wouldn’t be too changed and I would feel again what I felt when I was young and taking a fairytale for granted.

I think I have to trick myself every now and again into believing that the world is getting smaller, just as I must sometimes allow myself to forget that forever is really just a nicer way of saying “as long as possible.” I trick myself because if I don’t, then I would feel too small and the weight of all the things I can never know, all the places I’ll never experience, and all the time I’ll never have would crush me. It’s simple, really. I promise myself that I will go back to England just like I promise to love forever: because I am afraid I won’t be able to.

There was a time when I believed in forever. It was during this time that I came to believe that the whole world was just one connecting flight away. I convinced myself that anywhere I went it would be possible to return. All the places I wanted to go, I needed only to set them as my next destination and to buy a ticket. Then one day it struck me that I had misled myself. I might not be able to go back and big pockets of the world would forever exist without me. I had taken time and repetition for granted. I had misinterpreted the narrative of the pioneer tales I had read as a child. Most of life isn’t about traveling; it’s about settling.

NOTE: This is a work in progress.