Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Consider Us Lobsters


As a fan of his work, as well as an M.F.A student and an aspiring writer, I went to a bookstore in Brooklyn with my boyfriend to listen to David Shields read from his latest work, How Literature Saved My Life.  He walked up to the podium carrying an already worn out and heavily marked up copy of the book that looked nothing like the gleaming hardcover I held in my lap, but looked very much like every notebook or well-loved essay collection I own.  I liked him instantly.  Not that I hadn’t liked him since I read Enough About You, which he began with the Emerson quote, “And I shall essay to be.” That was what initially convinced me that David Shields is one of those writers who writer to be, to live – the way that I try to do, or hope to do.  And so it had seemed perfectly natural to me that he should have now written a book entitled How Literature Saved My Life How.  To me, he had always seemed like the kind of writer who believes that literature can or might save his life – or who at least hopes it will.
When I was an undergraduate fiction writing student I met a lot of people who believed that literature (novels, specifically) is nothing more than an entertaining story with a plot and characters and momentum.  This seemed empty to me and the emptiness has nearly killed me, for it had contradicted my life-long belief that literature is full of the very stuff that can save a life --- that it had and would continue to save mine.  Luckily, I came across David Shield’s nonfiction work.  Luckily I also discovered the lyric essay.  
After the reading in Brooklyn, I went to have David Shields sign my copy of How Literature Saved My Life.  As he did so I mumbled, oddly star-struck, that I had spent the summer reading Reality Hunger, and though I was too nervous to elaborate on the point, what I was trying to say was that it was one of the books that had saved me.  Or perhaps I should say that it resurrected my passion for writing and reading. 

As he signed my copy of the book, he noticed the syllabus for my graduate literature seminar that I had tucked into the back, along with my notes on his reading.  I told him that I thought I was going to write a review of the book.  But, really, as we both know for it is the sentence with which he begins How Literature Saved My Life, all criticism is a form of autobiography.


It is impossible to discuss how literature can – or can’t – save a life without discussing David Foster Wallace.  In How Literature Saved My Life, Shields quotes Wallace in saying that what is so great about writing is that we’re existentially alone on the planet – I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling, and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling – so writing, at its best is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness. 

When I first read this, my boyfriend and I were sitting at a cafĂ© in Brooklyn, just killing time before heading to hear David Shields read at the bookstore across the street.  I excitedly began to read it aloud to my boyfriend, for it was the truest wording of my own strongest feeling about writing and reading and the human condition.  However, I didn’t get through the quote before he interrupted, irritated with for talking to him while he was in middle of reading The New York Review of Books.  This, of course, hurt my feelings and proved my point and David Shields’ point and David Foster Wallace’s point.  I couldn’t know what my boyfriend was thinking.  He couldn’t know what I was thinking. Unfortunately, that particular piece of writing that was bridging the abyss between myself (the reader) and Shields or Wallace (the writer) was not bridging the abyss between me and him. 


Recently I have taken to telling my boyfriend that I love him more than I love my writing.  I don’t know if I’m saying it for his benefit or for my own.  And I don’t know if it’s true.  Some days I think it isn’t. 
I love my writing to the extent to which I have learned to appreciate myself.  My writing is mine, unconditionally.  It says and does what I want and what I need more so than anything or anyone else in the world.  In writing, I can be in a relatively socially acceptable and fulfilling conversation with myself, as well as with the unnamed, faceless reader: the perfect listener.


At his reading in Brooklyn David Shields proclaimed, “I wanted to be a person but I overly committed to art.”


When I am doing my best writing, I am not a very good person.  When my writing is fluid and rushing deep down into the crevasse of consciousness, I am extremely moody, manic, mean and even more malcontent than usual.  Sometimes I think it is because in order to write well, I need to go deep inside of myself to a place where no one can reach me.  A place where I can reach myself, where I can hold and comfort my broken and crying younger self.  A place where I can have the clarity of mind with which to decide what it is that I think and feel and need and want.


For now and maybe forever I love my boyfriend better than I love my writing.  And the certainty I have of my love for him is something that neither writing nor reading has ever given me.


On our first date I told him that most people tell me I’m too cerebral.  My boyfriend replied that he didn’t think it was possible to be too cerebral.  At that moment, I knew that if he was telling me the truth, then he was the one for me and we could spend a lifetime together discussing what it means to be or tow believe in the one. 

On that same date we discussed religion.  Or, more specifically, we discussed faith.  He said he considers being Irish Catholic to be his ethnicity, not his religion.  I said consider myself agnostic.  I don’t believe in a higher power but I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.  In fact, I rather hope I am wrong.

A month later, for my birthday, he took me the Cloisters, an old monastery uptown atop a forested hill overlooking the Hudson. The Cloisters are an extension of the Metropolitan Museum and house religious art and paraphernalia.  I had chosen them as an activity for my birthday because I had wanted to be reminded of my favorite European cathedrals from my time abroad.  And so, as we walked through room hung with medieval tapestries I told him that whenever I fly somewhere I have to say a prayer before the plane takes off, in case the plane crashes and in case there really is a higher power who could save me from such a tragic fate.  In the prayer I always explain that I don’t want to die yet because there is so much more I want to do.  I want to finish writing my book, I want to find real love, I want to live a full life of learning and marriage and family and the sheer experience of years.  In the prayer I say I don’t want to die because I want to experience god and if there is one, then she must be life itself.  My boyfriend replied that he always makes the sign of the cross right before he flies.  I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing. 


At the reading he gave in Brooklyn, David Shields began by saying, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.”  Initially he attributed the quote to Picasso.  He then recognized his error and correctly attributed it to Philip Roth (who, according to the New Yorker, recently tried to discourage an aspiring writer from getting into what he said is a dreadful profession).  What Picasso said is that art is a lie that tells the truth.  I think both Roth and Picasso make the same point.

After a couple weeks of dating, my boyfriend suggested that we each write narrative nonfiction stories about the date we went on together and then compare notes – or, stories.  I loved this idea so I immediately went home and spent the next week writing a story about our dates, though what it was really a story about faith and about how, for the first time in my life, I had some – and it was in him.  In the end, he never wrote me a story.
After initially saying that I wouldn’t let him read what I had written if he wasn’t going to write anything for me, I decided to read aloud to him the story I had written.  It was about a month later on a Sunday night in October. We were sitting on his couch and the football game he was watching was in the middle of halftime so I almost had his full attention.  I don’t remember his reaction.  Maybe, probably, he kissed me.  But I remember reading the story aloud from my small orange notebook, dressed in his t-shirt and gym shorts.  I remember thinking that I had never felt so bare and vulnerable as I did in telling him – by means of the story – that I had faith in the love I had for him and in the love he said he had for me.


Sometimes, when I leave his apartment, I like to leave my boyfriend notes and poems.  I can’t know for sure what these small acts mean to him but I can only hope they mean to him what they would mean to me: a lot.  I do know that he keeps the notes and poems.  I know because I sometimes find them sitting atop his dresser, sometimes on the floor, sometimes tucked in his drawers between his clothes along with the journal I gave him when he told me he wanted to get back to his writing.  In the five months since I gave him the journal he has only written in the first two pages.  When I ask him about this, he says the same thing he says when I ask him why he never wrote me the story he had suggested me write for one another.  He says he thought that was something he wanted to get back to, but now he realized that that part of his life – the writing life – is over.


In Brooklyn, David Shields choose to read from a section of his book I which he frankly recounts his relationship with the girl who lived in the dorm room next to his when he was an undergraduate at Brown.  Before they began dating, Shields began entering her room while she was at class so he could read her diary.  He likes to read about how she sees him.  Finally, after months of dating, he confesses this transgression to her and their relationship quickly disintegrates.  He concludes that he had loved reading about their relationship as much as he had loved the girl and once he was no longer reading her diary, he was no longer very much in love at all.  The, David Shields declares, is what is known as a tragic flaw.


Recently, I have awakened in the middle of the night, startled by the sound of my boyfriend, who is sleeping next to me, shouting somewhat incoherently about forms and contracts and accounts.  I shake him awake.  I tell him his work is giving him night terrors.  I tell him to breathe.  He seems angry with me but I tell myself that maybe he is embarrassed.  And I wonder what it is like to feel so stressed and so stubbornly alone in the stress while believing that the writing part of your life is behind you.  I wonder what else there is.

Of course, I have night terrors too.  In my dreams I scream and cry and fight back as I relive my worst memories, but when I write I put those memories and that rage and all the broken hopes on the page and I make something for myself out of everything that could have made me just another victim.


In How Literature Saved My Life David Shields mentions his correspondence with the writer Sarah Manguso who wrote to him and mentioned that the original meaning of apocalypse is “the lifting of the veil.”  Sometimes I want to tell my boyfriend that he shouldn’t be so stubbornly private, that it would be the end of the world if he would just let me know what he is thinking and feeling.  But maybe it would be.  The veil would be lifted.


My boyfriend is irritated when we meet at a bookstore after work and I immediately start telling him about my slightly morbid fascination with David Foster Wallace.  He had a wife.  He hung himself in their California home.  She found him.
I tell my boyfriend that in light of Wallace’s suicide, I find his essays like “Consider the Lobster” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” to be loaded with signs that it was coming all along, that in spite of being a great writer and a successful one, nothing could save David Foster Wallace.  The essays show, however thinly veiled, his fixation on despair and alone-ness and the fact that nothing nothing can truly assuage these conditions of being human.  It would seem that we could all be considered lobsters in the pot, screaming and crying and trying to claw our way free, aware – or not aware, but afraid all the same – of our fate. 
I try to talk to my boyfriend about this again as we ride the Subway to dinner and again as we eat our sushi and again as we lay in bed.  He has nothing to say and I have the feeling of being impenetrably alone inside my own head.  And maybe that is the true definition of despair.


It was a February night, a week before our planned excursion to Brooklyn to see David Shields read from his latest book, when my boyfriend and I made a decision.  After making this decision, I found myself watching his face and writing in my head what I believed would be the ending to the book that I am writing that barely even has a middle yet.  While he slept, I wrote down what I been writing in my head.  The note I made begins with the declarative phrase, “This is what life is about.”

The next day I remember thinking that I wanted to take back the original statement I had made to my boyfriend about how great David Shield’s new book How Literature Saved My Life is.  For, while he debates whether literature can save anyone and he admits that it certainly didn’t save David Foster Wallace, he never suggests anything else that might.  He says, “I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness.  Literature doesn’t lie about this – which is what makes it essential.”  This is all wonderfully, heartbreakingly true but that is why it is lucky that those of us who are writers and avid readers are also people.  People can touch and love in a way that writing can’t, in a way that warms the bed and warms even our cold, selfish souls.  Writing, at its best, is a bridge constructed across the abyss of human loneliness but so too, at its best, is sex and good conversation and all the intimate ways in which we are able to share ourselves with another, even if we might misunderstand each other from time to time.

Maybe loneliness is a misunderstanding.


The night before Thanksgiving, my boyfriend and I went to a small, rundown, little grocery store wedged between bars and t-shirt shops near Astor Place.  We bought a pumpkin pie from the store’s meager bakery and then made due with whatever else we could find.  My boyfriend picked out pre-cut and packaged turkey and a can of cranberry sauce.  I picked out all the necessary ingredients for making guacamole.  As we left the store, he walked ahead of me, carrying our shopping bag.  I lagged behind, holding the pie in my arms, making a point of memorizing everything about the store and the feeling.  From the doorway he looked back at me, “You’re going to write about this, aren’t you?”  Of course I was.