All spring, I have been trying to re-learn to read. I’m in a book club with a group of women friends in my neighborhood—the kind of book club that focuses on the book, rather than the wine. (Caffeine, actually, is better with this group, because one must always be ready to heed to the sharp discussion.) This month, our book is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.
Everything is connected in the end. That’s the sober pronouncement made near the conclusion, on page 826, of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in which the resolutely anti-modern, paranoid nun Sister Edgar arrives in the afterlife to find herself in an eternal cyberspace, instead of what she’d expected of heaven, alongside J. Edgar Hoover, her philosophical twin. The conclusion manages to be both ominous and incantatory all at once; grim and yet hopeful.
The one common theme of all these one-off volumes is: they represent a singular creative movement amid the lives of their authors, that is ultimately evanescent. They are the opposite of the books or careers that are like immovable boulders, or worse, business franchises. They produced something, and then they moved on. They are the living personification of Diana Vreeland’s purported fashion dictum, Elegance is refusal.
This overwhelming self-referentiality is exceptionally ironic given the emphasis of current mainstream discourse on marginalized communities and their importance of “inclusion.” I’m all for Inclusion, but in my own experience, the inclusion that seems to be on offer is the mere gathering of difference—not its dynamic melding. We are a basketful of sullen turtles, pulled into our shells, I guess.
Ever more there’s the problem of a “missing middle” where—like the firefighters unable to find affordable housing in the metropolia where they work—writers struggle to get published, find an audience, and get paid, let alone have the longevity to let a creative vision root and grow and be pruned and strengthened by contrapuntal conversation with an audience.
We are not living in an age of synthesis—let alone humility—in public dialogue, whether about art, literature, or religion, Rather, the dominant pose (and take note of how I framed that) is one of the endless, exhausting refinement of distinctions, the chopping up of this not that. If you’ve ever been the target of a long Twitter pile-on, you know what I mean.
When, exactly, did this grammar of grief emerge? In my lifetime, it would seem to be the daily pages of biographies of 9/11 dead published in The New York Times’s landmark project, A Nation Challenged. And the homemade posters of the missing that flocked the walls and telephones of the city.
The college admissions system today, I read somewhere, rewards not the “bright well-rounded kid” (abbreviated BWRK by admissions reviewers), but the “pointy” kid instead, by which is meant an outsize and distinctive feature—like innovating a patentable medical device, launching a business, or testifying before Congress. Three sports and extracurriculars are nowhere near enough.
A couple months ago I received a group text from a friend asking if we had seen the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed film The Lost Daughter and saying how disturbed she was by its portrayal of motherhood. This friend is both a mother and a philosophy professor; the other two friends on the thread besides me are a writer and the vice president of government relations for a pharmaceutical firm. All of us are mothers. All of us were pretty disturbed/annoyed by The Lost Daughter.
A couple of weeks ago, as we staggered into 2022, I made a New Year’s Resolution of such modesty, so incredibly pathetic, that it is almost embarrassing to admit here: I was not going to check Twitter on Sundays. I say “almost” pathetic, because you would think it ought to be pretty easy to avoid checking Twitter on Sundays.
What is a literary life? What makes a written work a literary landmark—or something lasting in any way at all? I once thought I knew the answers to these things, but now am not so sure. For that matter, I’m not even sure I know what literature itself is anymore.
Reading, I felt a physical wave pass through me, and I had to steady myself, as though there’d suddenly been a stiff wind blowing through. What is Time, that a simple piece of paper could make it actually contract in me? My sense of my own body, my own sense of presence in the world was, for a few unstable seconds, gone.
I’m writing this as the national media in the United States are already well into rolling out their retrospective “packages” to mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11. Maybe I’m just listening to and reading the wrong things, but in all these retrospectives, I have only seen the cogitations of journalists and pundits and academics—and precious little exploration of 9/11’s effect on fiction.
I was asked recently to speak, in a seminar series for professionals, on “the Beauty of Fundraising,” but as I sat down to reflect on what my remarks would be, I realized that the work had gone way beyond the activities of “just a job” to become an essential discipline—and, in case there are any worried parents out there, a profitable end point for a meandering, expensive college education.
A few years ago I was at a neighborhood friend’s house for drinks with a couple of women, all with master’s degrees and professional jobs, and for a good twenty minutes, all the talk was about what a drag books were and how messy they made a room look. I sat there in silence, mourning, as though somebody had stabbed my dog.
If you’ve been anywhere near the media in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the archival photographs, indistinct and muddy, depicting the broken and blasted-out blocks that were all that was left of the city’s affluent Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street”—after the mob was done with it. A mob that, as the reports tell us, included the Tulsa police force and the National Guard.
I once heard a female academic talk about the necessity of “de-gendering the private sphere,” and the past year would certainly seem to confirm that, what with children (including my own) and baskets of dirty laundry creeping into the backgrounds of Zoom calls.
I want the sheen of the easy finish. Don’t I deserve it, by now? But that’s the dishonesty everywhere now, from The New York Times to CPAC. Instead, the task remains, to take the uneven thread of words, just as with the backstitches of embroidery, and pull them out, and pull them back in—this is not just writing or sewing, but soul-making, too.
Not that long ago, I was talking to somebody—at the farmer’s market, of all things—on the hot, somewhat pundit-y subject of “cultural appropriation.” I remarked to a friend that I was in big trouble, because all my favorite cultures had been appropriated.
I’m thinking about Lefty because I worry about the growing disappearance of death—and by extension, the remembrance of death—from physical space in America. It’s not new: “Have you heard about the revolution in the funeral industry?” my brother the financial manager declared to me, years ago now—the growing preference for cremation over physical burial.