On Turning Thirty, by Raul Clement

 

“It’s impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty-five…” – James Michener, The Drifters

What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do.” – John Updike, from…?

 

I.

The Pixar film Up presents itself as for children. It is animated; it features talking dogs, floating houses, and nefarious schemes.  But for adults it contains one of the most remarkable – and remarkably close-to-the-bone – opening sequences in recent movie history:

In the early part of the twentieth century, a young boy named Carl watches a newsreel about an explorer named Charles Muntz. Afterward, infatuated with Muntz and his trip to Paradise Falls, South America, Carl races up and down the streets near his home pretending to be Muntz. In a nearby abandoned house, he meets a girl named Ellie. She shares his obsession with Muntz and describes to him her dream of moving their clubhouse to Paradise Falls.

Cut to: Carl and Ellie’s marriage. As a sort of montage we see their entire married life – their clubhouse remodeled into their home; their jobs as balloon-maker and zookeeper respectively; a touching scene of a silhouetted Ellie in a hospital room, crying (she has either had a miscarriage or learned she is inferitle). In their living room is a shrine to Paradise Falls, and before this shrine is jar. As the couple grows older, they fill the jar with coins for their trip Paradise Falls, only to see it emptied again in times of financial crisis.

One day, when the couple is old, stooped and gray, Carl finally buys two plane tickets to Paradise Falls. He invites Ellie out for a picnic on their favorite hill in the park, where we have already seen them lying hand-in-hand at various ages, staring up at the clouds. Midway to the top of the hill, Ellie falls and doesn’t get up. She is ill. She is taken to the hospital, where she dies. They never make it to Paradise Falls.

It was John Lennon who most famously said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” If I had to choose one phrase to sum up the opening sequence of Up, this would be it. It’s not just that we put things off until it’s too late; it’s that the decisions we make get in the way of the reasons we make them. We go to law school to support our true passion; the law consumes so much of us that we don’t ever get around to pursuing that passion. Or else accidents happen: wives get pregnant; parents get sick; money we intended for other purposes is spent. Sometimes we just keep saying tomorrow until there is no tomorrow left.

As an opening to a major Hollywood production, and one for children at that, the beginning of Up is formally and thematically shocking. We expect our stories to start in media res, but this opening functions as back story, a prelude to the main event. But more than that, it is its bleakness that disarms us. The lack of resolution. Or at least tidy resolution – death resolves us all, of course. But while in the conventional movie, death comes with a speech or one last grand, redemptive gesture, here it comes in the middle of life, leaving many things undone. Words unspoken. Dreams unrealized.

We are disarmed not by the artfulness of the sequence but by a graceful artlessness we recognize as truth. It acts as a corrective to the too-neat narratives of Hollywood that force a calming order on life.

 

II.

By the time you read this, I will be thirty years old. That’s 10,957 days, counting leap years. 262,968 hours, 15,778,080 minutes, 946,684,800 seconds. Etc. I break it down this way not because it’s an original way of looking at it, but to illustrate how meaningless such a measurement is. Divided into its smallest units, the number becomes as incomprehensible as records of the dead – days fallen, left behind.

Thirty years is, of course, thirty revolutions of the earth around the sun: this is what it generally means to us. Seasons change, holidays come and go, the ball in Time Square drops and we imagine a fresh start. And maybe there is something innate in such a cycle, something our bodies respond to in a way outside the understanding of science. Or maybe it’s just a convenient cultural marker, a way for us to talk about units of change.

Because that’s all time is: a measurement of change.

But does change always – for lack of a better word – change at the same rate? Anyone who has arrived at this number will tell you there are different ways of being thirty. Some people seem to have it all figured out: they are married, or taking the bar exam, or buying their first home. Others work at McDonalds, drink with their friends after work, perhaps move to another town when things get stagnant. Some don’t even make it to thirty. For everyone who has it figured out, there are probably ten who don’t; and those that claim they do are often just striking a confident pose.

What does it even mean to be thirty? What separates it from being twenty- nine years and three hundred and sixty-four days old? Nothing, scientifically. At least nothing that separates it from any other day tacked on– just another step in the slow decomposition of the body that starts at around twenty-five, I’m told.

But culturally, it does mean something. A lot.

Eighteen. Twenty-one. Thirty, forty, sixty-five. I have left out a couple, I’m sure, but these are the big ones – the birthdays that we are judged by. In this society, we don’t have true rites of passage, though we do have unofficial ones. At eighteen you are a man, generally expected to move out of your parent’s house. You can die at war, vote, smoke cigarettes and look at pornography. At twenty-one, you can drink. At thirty…

Ah, but there’s the crux. These first two ages are defined by privileges and their attendant responsibilities. What can you do at thirty that you can’t at twenty-nine? To the best of my reckoning, it’s not what you can do, but what others expect of you. What the pressure of their expectations can do to you.

 

III.

For the past ten years or so I’ve lived in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s a city of three hundred thousand, the third biggest in the state. There are two universities, three more colleges. Dozens of bars, plenty of coffee shops, a few used book stores. As a friend of mine puts it, it is a “great place to be in your early twenties, but not such a great place to be in your late twenties.”

This is because it is a college town – as you age, the people around you don’t. Or rather, they graduate, move on, are replaced by another group of undergrads. There is not much reason to stay beside inertia. There are not many jobs for recent graduates – it’s pretty much all bartending or tenure-track professorships. Greensboro is called the Gate City, and though it got this name because it acted as a train hub for much of the state, it has come to mean something different to the current residents: the city as a way station, as a place to catch your breath before diving into real life.

For this reason, those that stay here are generally failures in one way or another. Take, for example, a bar I’ll call the Pizzeria. On any given Friday night – in fact, on any given Monday afternoon – you can find the same five people hunched at the bar, deep in their cups. It’s tempting to judge these people – as, in fact, I now am – because frankly it’s a lot of fun. But more than that, it sets up a distance between you and them – insulates you from becoming one of their ilk. Because when you’re twenty-nine and it’s three o’ clock in the afternoon and you’re in the same bar you’ve been going to since you were allowed to drink (for the braver of us, even earlier than that) you are, to all outside appearances, one of them. A nobody, a failure. A townie. It is only in your mind that you are different.

One day, you tell yourself. One day I will write that novel I have been dreaming of. One day I will meet a nice girl and get married. One day I will leave this place. This is the insidious part of being a twenty-first century American: it’s not just that others judge you by what you have or have not achieved, it’s that you judge yourself. It gets so you don’t want to answer one of the most basic questions: “What have you been doing?” Because the answer, if not nothing, is at least nothing worth talking about. By which you mean: nothing that won’t diminish me in your eyes, and in doing so, in my own.

So you find ways to make yourself sound better, more promising than you are. These are not lies exactly, but a positive spin on reality. You become a PR man for your own life. “I am thinking about applying to grad school,” you say. Translation: I have looked up some schools online and dreamed about how nice it would be to attend one. Or: “I might move to New York. I have some good connections up there.” Translation: I know a few struggling actors.

Still, a young person now has certain freedoms, freedoms our parents gained us through years of costly and painful rebellion (or so the story goes – more likely it was just a gradual loosening of the belt that started generations before).  These freedoms are by and large negative ones: the freedom not to marry at eighteen, not to have three children by twenty-five, not to pick one job and stick with it until your pension kicks in. These are good freedoms – nothing is gained by committing to so much so early, except maybe the illusion of adulthood. But I also wonder if it isn’t part of the problem. You take away all restraints and there’s nothing left. You end up floating in air, untethered as Carl Frederickson’s house in Up. Except instead of floating toward Paradise Falls and a kind of redemption, you are drifting toward nothing at all.

 

IV.

The themes in the opening of Up are not particularly new. That they can be expressed in a single song lyric by one of our most universally loved musicians proves that. And nor was John Lennon the originator of that aphorism: a quick Wikipedia search shows that William Gaddis, Lily Tomlin, and even Reader’s Digest have been credited with the phrase.

Nor is Up the first work of fiction to dramatize it. One of the great – and until recently, greatly neglected – twentieth-century American novelists, Richard Yates, made dashed hopes the subject of his most affecting fictions. The short story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired” deals with a talentless sculptor and mother of two who cannot square the life she dreams of leading with the one she ends up leading. This character, probably based on Yates’s own mother, appears in several others works, including the novels The Easter Parade and A Special Providence. As the title of the latter indicates – and this could be the title of any of Yates’s books – she is the subject of a biting authorial irony, as well as a source of pity and frustration for the people around her.

But mothers are not the only ones to see their hopes dashed. Shattered illusions are Yates’s great theme, and nowhere does he treat them more completely and devastatingly than in his acknowledged masterpiece, Revolutionary Road. Set in the early 1960s, it tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple who move to suburbia, but consider themselves different from the bland conservatism that threatens to swallow them. April has dreams of acting, while Frank has a desire to do something vaguely artistic; in the meantime, Frank goes to work at the same company his father did and April becomes a housewife. In despair over their failing marriage, they hatch a plan to move to Paris: April will work and Frank will take the time to figure out his “purpose.” But April becomes pregnant and Frank, who was beginning to have doubts about the plan, receives a lucrative job offer. April, desperate not to lose what she sees as their last chance at happiness, administers a self-abortion and dies. Frank is left shattered and empty.

This is Up if the movie ended after the first fifteen minutes – and if Carl and Ellie, and not life’s vagaries, were responsible for the failure to live out their dreams. In Up, Carl is redeemed by his friendship with Russell – a Wilderness Scout who is a younger version of himself – and a belated journey to Paradise Falls, where he learns that the life you dream of leading is not always the one you’re supposed to lead. There is no such redemption for Frank Wheeler: by foolishly clinging to his dreams he destroys the possibility of ever realizing them.

So what is Yates’s solution then? Submit to our bland fate? Apparently not: the reason we identify with the Wheelers is that they are the only characters in the novel who still have the ability to dream. If we give up our dreams, then we are like Mr. Givings, the husband of the Wheelers’ real estate agent. Tired of his wife’s constant gossiping, he turns off his hearing aid so as not to listen to her. This is the novel’s final image: a woman’s lips moving soundlessly, a man engulfed in his own silent world.

 

V.

My parents divorced when I was two years old. I went to live with my mother. While I was too young to have been traumatized by the event – and the word “trauma” should probably be reserved for events like rape and genocide – I do remember the subsequent years of fatherly neglect. I would wait by the door for him to pick me up; he was hours, sometimes days, late. I don’t remember being upset by this, either – though I do remember the elation when he did arrive – but it must have bothered me on some level, because we still have a hard time interacting.

We’ve only recently begun to repair our relationship. I’ve spent a chunk of the last two summers with him in the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina, helping him renovate his Queen Anne-style home. He pays me in food and lodging and whatever cash I need.  The work needs to be done – and he would have to pay a skilled laborer more – but mostly it’s an excuse for us to hang out.

We talk about our lives, which have taken remarkably similar paths in some ways and have diverged in others. Like me, he took most of his twenties to finish his undergrad (I still have not quite done that). Like me, he spent most of that time flitting from city to city, traveling around Latin America, and working low-paying, unskilled jobs. But he also married my mother when he was twenty-two and had me he was twenty-five – two experiences I can’t imagine going through now, let alone at that age. I can’t help but think that if he had waited he might have been a better father: the proof is that I have two happy, well-adjusted half-brothers, Graham and Jacob, and that he and my step-mother have no intention of divorce. The proof is that he is here for me, finally, now.

It was he who shared with me the Michener quote that is one of the epigraphs of this piece. We were talking about Up, which he had seen with Graham and Jacob when it was in the theater. Their uncle, my father’s brother-in-law, was with them. During the opening sequence, he kept leaning across the aisle and pretending to smack Jacob in the head.

I thought you said this was a funny movie,” he would say.

He was playing around, but there’s some truth there, too. For adults, the opening of this movie registers as a painful recognition: we don’t end up doing most of the things we plan to do. I told my father how, now that I was approaching thirty, I could see the sad truth of this idea.

And that’s when he quoted, or misquoted, Michener to me. “You know Michener said it was impossible for a man to waste any time before thirty,” he said. “So I guess you’ve still got… what? A month?”

But Updike said ‘What you don’t do before thirty, you’ll never do,’” I shot back.

So which is it? And are the two even mutually exclusive? The Michener quote is from a novel about twenty-somethings bumming around Europe, a book that begins with the sentence “Youth is truth.” As such, it embodies the romantic idea that the purpose of youth is not to accomplish anything, but to accumulate experience. That this is, in a way, its own accomplishment.

While I couldn’t find the source of the Updike quote – too many random bits of data floating around in my thirty-year-old skull – I suspect it is from one of the Rabbit novels. Perhaps Rabbit thinks it about himself, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of his own dreams. Or perhaps it is in Rabbit is Rich, and he thinks it about his son Nelson, as a way of dismissing the whimsy of youth. Either way, the meaning is the same – something akin to “strike while the iron is hot.” That this phrase should be uttered by a writer who was printed in the New Yorker while still in college, who published his first novel at twenty-five and his first masterpiece just a few years later, is hardly surprising. It was probably this attitude that allowed him to accomplish such things.

But maybe these two statements can be squared. Maybe the time we spend doing “nothing” can be seen as a way of doing something. We might not publish (or even complete) a novel at twenty-five, but we might make the mistakes and accumulate the experiences which allow us to publish that novel later. And maybe this is what Michener really means: that youth is a time of preparation, that as long as a person spends their formative years, well, being formed, then they are not wasted. If so, it’s not what a person doesn’t do before thirty that they’ll never do, but what a person doesn’t get ready to do.  Hence, Michener and Updike are not expressing opposite sentiments but two shades of the same optimism.

Or maybe this is a last lingering bit of my youthful romanticism. Maybe it’s an elaborate justification for all the time I’ve wasted. Can’t it be these things and also be true?

 

VI.

Another book turned movie, The Natural, offers us the solution that Yates’s relentlessly bleak Revolutionary Road refuses. Like Up, it focuses on what we do after our dreams are shattered. Roy Hobbs is a preternaturally gifted baseball player who has his career cut short because of a senseless crime. As he lies in a hospital bed, lamenting the choices he made, he receives the following piece of advice from his one-time lover, Iris.

You know, I always thought we had two lives,” she says.

How…what do you mean?” Roy asks.

The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.”

The meaning is clear: Roy is still a young man. There is a lot of life ahead of him – he can lead it with the knowledge he has gained from his past mistakes. He doesn’t have to wait until he is old and alone like Carl for redemption.

I, for one, look forward to a decade of no more wasted time.  Of course, according to Michener – the true version of the quote, not the one my father misremembered – I’ve got five more years.

 

Looking Beyond the Surfaces in David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (a Not-Really Review by Raul Clement)



I.

Let’s judge a book by its cover, shall we?

The book in question is David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself: a Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, and it is the first work resembling a biography of Wallace since his death by hanging in 2008. As such, it is an odd start – less a biography than a casually edited transcript of a week-long conversation between Wallace and Lipsky – but for right now it’s all we’ve got.

And perhaps it’s fitting that Wallace get to present himself in his own words. Words are, after all, what we come to Wallace for – that unique and explosive alchemy of high and low, of literary and pop, of slangy and technical, of intimate and cerebral. Or as Lipsky describes it in his afterword, placed oddly but cannily before the main text of the book (in imitation of Wallace’s experiments with form, but also so as not to have the reader’s final impression of Wallace be of his tragic death):

“He wrote with eyes and a voice that seemed to be a condensed form of everyone’s lives – it was the stuff you semi-thought, the background action you blinked through at supermarkets and commutes – and readers curled up in the nooks and crannies of his style.”

So ordinary and not. Somehow extra-ordinary, ϋber-ordinary, able to tap into the unarticulated places that we all share.  “A condensed form of everyone’s lives,” emphasis on condensed as contrasted with everyone.  Or as Wallace himself expresses it:

“If a writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart they are. Wake the reader up to stuff that reader’s been aware of all the time.”

This waking up is what we – or at least I – come to great writers for. But for this existential alarm clock to go off, we must see ourselves in the writer. He must be everyone.  And it is the job of the biographer to tease out this everyone – to emphasize the ordinariness over the genius which allows the writer to express it. Genius, if it exists (and is not just the product of concentrated effort), is why we are drawn to writers; ordinariness is what allows us to apprehend genius. Even in a book as seemingly hands-off as Lipsky’s, the agenda of teasing out the ordinariness behind the genius is present.

And we need look no further than the cover to find it.


II.

[Note to the reader: this is not a review in the traditional sense. If you want the subjective opinion of a stranger as to whether this book is “good” or not, there are dozens of those in major newspapers, magazines, and journals around the country. This is, rather, an analysis of the rhetorical project of Lipsky’s book as I see it.]

In the cover photo, Wallace sits in a study or office with his dog on his lap. An innocuous photo, but let’s think for a second about what it means. A dog is middle-American – you could even say middle-world. People of all races, ages, countries, and income backgrounds own dogs. Man’s best friend. The idea here is that Wallace, for all his “tortured brilliance,” is ordinary. Relatable. If you don’t believe me, check out the countless profiles on Wallace which use his dogs, his habit of chewing tobacco, and the fact that he wears a bandana not to be hip but because of his sweating issues, as proof of his ordinariness. Check out Lipsky in the introduction, describing his first impressions of Wallace’s house in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois:

“I’ve also been surprised to find the towel of Barney, subbing as a curtain in his bedroom, and the big poster of the complaint singer Alanis Morissette on his wall.”

But lest the reader forget that, for all his ordinariness, Wallace is in fact extraordinary (and note the word surprised in the previous sentence; Lipsky is surprised chiefly because this ordinariness is unexpected), this scene is set in a study.  A reliquary of thought and creative production. He is surrounded by books. Stacked sideways and at crazy angles, presenting a view of the artist as someone who can’t be bothered with the details. Not pretentious, however – the lone book spine we can read is The Encyclopedia of Film, which while no doubt a substantial volume, is hardly Wittgenstein. This could very well be coincidence – and I’m not saying all these details are calculated – but it achieves the desired effect of the cover as a whole: to make the extraordinary relatable, to make genius ordinary.

If we share so much with a brilliant mind, the cover suggests, perhaps, by a kind of transitive property of human intellect, we too can be brilliant.

Now let’s move to the title. Although. Of course. You. End Up. Becoming. Yourself. I’ve broken it down into discrete language units to emphasize how important each is in conveying the central idea of the book. Appropriately enough, the phrase comes straight from Wallace’s mouth – a toss-off line in the context of a book-length interview, but one which takes on new weight when made to stand alone on the front cover and, in doing so, to speak for the book as a whole.

Although: This gives the effect of an ongoing conversation we are just now joining. A classic postmodern technique (yes, at this point we can say that: classic postmodern), the idea that narrative has no beginning or end – and it is one that plunges us into the moment and creates a sense of casualness that a more rigid structure would deny.

Of course: creates a rhetorical bond between reader and writer. “We both know this,” it says. Now let’s think about it together.” This is a technique Wallace uses frequently in his nonfiction and some of his best fiction (see the narrator of Infinite Jest), a position which implies the reader is every bit as smart as Wallace. That this is a lie – we wouldn’t be reading him if he weren’t somehow smarter, more alive than us – is beside the point. It’s a lie that flatters us and makes us feel at home in the text.

You: Just as the slightly awkward abutment of the two prepositions although and of course creates a sense of naturalness – which in turn seems honest, and therefore inspires trust – so does the familiar pronoun you. You is the same thing as one, but in place of this stiff, academic generalization, we have a word that points at the reader and includes him in the generalization. Like of course, it establishes a rhetorical bond: the you here is closer to we than it is to one. It is, in fact, all of us.

End Up: I’m going to skip over this for now, since the important thing is how it plays off of becoming. I will say, however, that it has an informal quality that fits with the title as a whole.

Becoming: This book is a process. While it chronicles a road trip, it is also a trip toward the self. Wallace’s self, yourself. The interesting thing is that this self is not a birthright – it is a destination, somewhere you end up. This is another postmodern idea, the self as constructed, but with a twist. You don’t create the self you would like to be – though there is a great deal of that going on in this book – but the self you need to be. Or maybe it is not created at all, but discovered. As in Wallace’s writing, postmodern techniques are used for old-fashioned ends.  Moral ends.

(Here, for reference, is the excerpt on the back of the book, which I feel comfortable including under the umbrella of the cover:

“If you can think of the times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings.  The ability to do that with ourselves…I know that sounds a little pious.”

Everything is here. The casualness, the self-awareness – “I know that sounds a little pious” – the idea of self as active creation. As moral duty.)

Yourself: We are along on this process of self-discovery with Wallace. Anything that happens to him happens to us. His problems and questions are ours. As such we relate to genius – become it, in fact – which is precisely the reason we read the biographies of extraordinary people to begin with.

We want to understand why we are not them, sure, but we also don’t want to lose the dream of becoming them.


III.

How do these themes carry forward into the book? At first glance, Lipsky’s biography appears to be the product of laziness – a quick cash-in on the Wallace legacy. As mentioned, the book is essentially a direct transcript of a week-long conversation between Lipsky and Wallace during Wallace’s tour in promotion of Infinite Jest. Lipsky’s intrusions are minimal. I will quote a few at random, not so much for their content, but so that you get a sense of their flavor.

A few section headings so that we know where we are:

“First Day,” one reads, “David’s House, Tuesday Before Class, In the Living Room Playing Chess, His Dogs Slinking Back and Forth Over Carpet.”

Bracketed asides contain additional thoughts of Lipsky’s – sometimes purely informative, sometimes meditative, sometimes undermining – about Wallace or the subject at hand:

“[Hums while playing chess: not tremendously good at chess; strong, however, at humming]”

Or later, as they discuss why Wallace won’t take an advance on his work:

“[This remains chess: as if I’m trying to trick him into castling prematurely.]”

But mostly they talk: about the way literature works, about the perils of fame, about what it means to be human in an age of nonstop self-gratification. To readers of Wallace, these will be familiar themes – present in almost every word he wrote. But they also talk about Bruce Willis movies, Wallace’s boyish crush on Alanis Morrisette (endearingly, Wallace keeps calling one of her songs “I Wanna Know” instead of “You Oughta Know”), about Wallace’s desire to get laid on tour and his disappointment that it hasn’t happened yet.

Again: ordinariness combined with extraordinariness. The conversation flows between these two modes with the naturalness of, well, a conversation. Lipsky is more archivist/editor than writer. His interruptions have the informative purpose and staccato style of editor’s notes. What this does is allow us to be there with him.

If Wallace, in his writing – and Lipsky and his editors with the design and format of this book – makes every attempt to have us feel that his mental journey is ours, then we are also Lipsky, along for the ride. By using the road trip as the book’s organizing principle, Lipsky not only literalizes the internal journey (just as the external journey is made metaphor by the title), but he furthers the impression of Wallace’s ordinariness. Road trips traffic in the mundane: hotels, Denny’s restaurants, time spent cramped in rental cars or waiting at baggage claims. Bad pop radio, hours with nothing to do but talk.

Bond.

And bond they do. At first, Wallace is guarded. He gives the answers he thinks Lipsky wants. He is careful to downplay the impact of his newfound fame and his excitement over the book tour. Part of this, as he states repeatedly, is a way of making sure he stays grounded. But it is also a calculated attempt to seem humble and unpretentious. Here is one of Lipsky’s asides:

“[He has sized me up as a guy who likes “laying”… I now know he did this sort of thing as an approach, and I can see it here, his trying to guess what people, what I wanted.  That’s who he is too: trying to read people.]”

This is not to say he is being dishonest. Rather, it’s honesty with a motive. The simple and miraculous thing that happens in the course of this book is that the motive seems to drop away – or maybe it simply changes, from manipulation to communication. Wallace begins to trust Lipsky. Compare this to the earlier talk of getting laid:

I really have wished I was married, the last couple of weeks. Because yeah, it’d be nice to have somebody to um—you know, because nobody quite gets it.  Your friends who aren’t in the writing biz are just all awed by your picture in Time, and your agent and editor are good people, but they also have their own agendas. You know?  And it’s fun talking with you about it, but you’ve got an agenda and a set of interests that diverges from mine. And there’s something about, there would be something about having somebody who kinda shared your life, and uh, that you could allow yourself just to be happy and confused with.

It’s probably naïve to think that this version of Wallace is any less calculated than previous incarnations. Wallace is too smart for that. But the effect has changed. We get, more than any other place in the book, a deep sense of his loneliness. It’s at this moment we fully feel the death not of Wallace the writer (extraordinary), whose loss we already feel or else we wouldn’t be reading this biography, but of Wallace the human being (ordinary). The book has achieved its rhetorical goal, not through any calculated and – in the most literal sense – superficial means of cover artwork and title, but by allowing Wallace the room to speak. To become himself.

And it’s therefore not surprising that in this moment, when we are closest to the felt impact of Wallace’s death, he seems at his most alive.

Book Review of Curtis Smith’s BAD MONKEY

Spending/Reading Politically: Curtis Smith’s Bad Monkey

by Raul Clement


Historically speaking, I don’t read much work from small presses and journals.  I am well aware of the arguments against this: 1) as an aspiring professional, I should support the industry that I hope will support me; 2) there’s a lot of good stuff out there that doesn’t get picked up by major New York presses; 3) politically, not supporting small presses is like shopping at Wal-Mart over your local grocery.  Yet I tend to stick to Barnes & Noble.  Indy for me is McSweeney’s or Tin House.

Recently, I won a drawing from Press 53. The prize was a book of my choice from their catalog. Because of my ignorance about small presses, I pretty much had to pick at random.  I chose Bad Monkey, a book of short fiction by Curtis Smith, for two reasons, both superficial: 1) the title struck me as amusing; and 2) I liked the cover.

It turns out you can judge a book by its cover—if that cover is a monochrome photo of a shirtless man crouched, monkey-like, on a back alley stairwell.  The photo promised a collection that was quirky and dark—and those adjectives apply.  There are stories about abduction, Russian mobsters, Ukrainian rapists, and demolition derbies. This is not the plotless, slice-of-life fiction so popular in journals, large and small, these days.

Even better news is that these stories avoid the pitfall of other work of their kind: stylization. Curtis Smith knows that high drama, in order to be believable and compelling, must be grounded in careful prose and attention to detail.  He writes about the most over-the-top subject matter with a subdued lyricism that reminds me of writers of a more traditional bent, like John Updike.

Here is a passage from the first story in the collection, “The Girl in the Halo.” It is told in the second person, the “you” being a teenage misfit in a high school of rich kids. One of these kids, a girl named Sally for whom “you” harbored secret feelings, has gone missing—presumably not willingly. In this scene, Smith observes the effect of her absence on the chemistry lab she and “you” took together:

“…how many bleary mornings had you spied on her, her purple pen scribbling notes and Mr. Fink droning on as he held one of his molecules, a slapped-together collection of spheres and connecting sticks that reminded you of a child’s toy.”

I’m not going to pretend that there’s anything groundbreaking here. But it’s solid, unflashy writing. It starts with “bleary,” which evokes the drag that high school was for most, while being a word we can read right past. But what really gets me here—what really takes a sledgehammer to my cynical reader’s heart—is the purple pen, encapsulating as it does an entire world of vanished innocence and half-realized femininity.  And the molecular model is great, too: who doesn’t remember these, and yet who remembered that he remembered them?

This is what good fiction’s all about: the oft-referenced “shock of recognition.”  By generating that shock, Smith earns the right to tell a story in the second-person (and present tense at that, though the above quote doesn’t demonstrate it).  He earns the right to sensationalist subject matter.  I am not going to give away the ending, but suffice to say, it’s a killer—pun certainly intended.

There are flaws in this collection. At times, the writing can wander into the excessively literary. At these moments, it reminded me of the worst stuff from small journals and presses—writing that adopts the tone of “good” writing, while having none of the feeling or insight. Here’s an offender from the same story, concerning the rumors that have circulated around school regarding Sally’s disappearance:

“Daryl Stone claims he spotted Blake’s red car on the other side of the Duke street railroad crossing, and between the hoppers’ cars flickering, thundering parade, he saw a blonde in the passenger seat…but when the caboose passed, the car was gone, the gate’s zebra-striped arm raised over a deserted macadam patch.”

I seriously doubt Daryl Stone described the scene this way. Now one can argue that this is the way “you” re-imagine(s) it. But there are similar instances throughout the collection, where Smith loses track of his characters in an ecstasy of linguistic posturing. Here’s one from “Without Words”:

“Ambrose, a cost analyst by trade and thus skilled in calculations and extrapolations, could have predicted these things, but when her loaded-down car pulled from the curb, what he couldn’t have predicted was the greater absences that would find him, his life’s unappreciated scaffolding of love and trust and faith sent crashing to the ground.”

I trust you can see why this is bad—or maybe not bad, but merely competent. A little bullshitty. Additionally, there are several examples of flash fiction here, which in trying to pack too much punch in too small a space, fail to achieve resonance. Maybe some people will like them; I preferred the more expansive work, where Smith’s lyrical aggregation has time to take hold.

But these flaws are, by and large, overlookable. Stories like “Think on Thy Sins”—in which a series of questionable moral decisions lead to one of the most bad-ass, and emotionally damaging eruptions of violence in recent short fiction—more than justify the $12 cover price which I cleverly avoided, but which you will have to pay. An earlier collection, The Species Crown, is next up on my list. I will shell out hard cash for it, and unlike when I shop at Barnes & Noble, I will know my money is going to the preservation of something real.

This could be the beginning of beautiful friendship.


Raul Clement is a musician and writer living in Greensboro, NC. His work appears in such journals and anthologies as Coe Review, Mayday Magazine, and Main Street Rag, among others. He is currently at work, with co-author Okla Elliott, on Joshua City — a Brechtian, po/mo, sci-fi novel replete with lepers, revolutionaries, and Siamese triplets who can see the future. An excerpt from Joshua City appeared in Surreal South 2009.

Sunday Literary Series: Raul Clement



Overpass photograph by David Friedman.

Exit Ramp Cowboys and Overpass Indians

by Raul Clement

When I went to Billy’s trailer, his Dad was in the living room watching some game show on TV. It wasn’t really a living room, just a couch separated from the bedroom by a curtain. Billy lifted this curtain and told me he’d be out. On the TV, a fat woman in a Hawaiian skirt was dancing and singing screechy-like.

In a minute, Billy came out with a backpack.

“Me and Dave are going,” he said.

Billy’s dad leaned forward and yelled at the TV. His gut jiggled a little. “Give that bitch the gong!”

We left him still yelling and walked across the trailer park. At the edge of the weedy lot, we squeezed through a hole in the fence and crawled down a concrete embankment covered with graffiti. The highway had been under construction for the last year or so and there was no traffic.  Billy unzipped his backpack and took out the arrows. They were real shiny and looked expensive.

“Won’t your dad be pissed?” I asked.

“Screw him,” Billy said, wiping his mouth. “You bring what I told you?”

I gave him the rifle. We took our stations behind all kinds of equipment—machines for painting lines, spotlights, and big orange traffic barrels. Mine was at the curved mouth of an exit ramp. I slipped on my headdress and streaked the black across my cheeks. I could see Billy on the overpass shouldering the rifle. Exit Ramp Indians and Overpass Cowboys—we’d been playing it all this summer. For some reason, I was always the Indian. My knees hurt in my crouched position, but I told myself, Wait. You’ll be a Cowboy real soon.

Billy lifted his gun. The sky went dark and cold and electric behind him and a funnel came down like a black knotty rope trying to choke him. I stood up, not caring if I blew my cover. I pointed and said real quiet, or maybe it was my imagination, “Look.”

Beyond Quirky Chic: A Review of Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel

Beyond Quirky Chic: A Review of Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel

by Raul Clement


Let’s start with the obvious. Chris Adrian writes autobiographically. Or maybe that’s not so obvious—not obvious at all if you aren’t familiar with his biography.  The stories in A Better Angel, his first fiction collection and third book overall, feature murderous children and out-of-body experiences, drug-addicted doctors and, yes, angels. Not seemingly the stuff of autobiography.

But read some press on Adrian and it’s clear where his material comes from. A pediatrician and former seminary student, his second novel and best book to date, The Children’s Hospital, is about a biblical flood that consumes the earth, leaving only a children’s hospital to float, ark-like, on the seven-mile-deep waters.  Another big theme is loss and grief, and so it’s unsurprising to learn that his brother was killed in an automobile accident. In fact, several of the stories in the collection feature dead or dying relatives.

Adrian writes in a style I would call magical realism, though I can imagine the stories in this collection being described as fabulist, allegorical, and occasionally even sci-fi. Whatever you want to call it, the way a standard Adrian story works is this: the magical, supernatural, divine or surreal sit squarely on top of the real, buoying it and giving it a kind of mythical importance. The effect is pretty darn cool, honestly. Seductive.

But is that always a good thing? Sometimes this technique can feel like a crutch, something to truss up an otherwise psychologically unconvincing story. “The Vision of Peter Damien” describes a plague in 19th-century village. The character Peter Damien contracts a sickness that makes him hallucinate falling people, a pair of silver towers, birds racing through the sky. The other children in the village begin to have similar hallucinations. Gradually, it emerges that the towers are the Twin Towers, and the birds the two planes that crashed into them. There is a further 9/11 allusion in the fact that Peter’s brother, Tercin, ends up hiding in a cave.  It’s pretty clear what Adrian wants us to get out of this: 9/11 was a sickness, but one that may prove uniting and redemptive. Adrian is big on the redemptiveness of suffering.

This is not and of itself an uninteresting suggestion—though I do think it forces a positive meaning on an event that, regardless of your interpretation of world politics, has none. But the main problem is that the characters are mere vehicles for the theme. Why is the story set in a 19th-century village?  Why is it Peter who is first blessed or cursed with the vision? If there was something unique about him—some special sensitivity—it might make sense. But he seems like an ordinary little boy. And why does Tercin, though admittedly a tormenter  of his brother, play the role of Bin Laden? There is no suggestion that he precipitated the sickness. Due to these unanswered questions, this story doesn’t work as allegory, and yet it doesn’t present enough depth of character for us to want to read it otherwise.

At other times, Adrian falls in love with his own quirky conceits, language, and images, becoming just another contemporary writer of a style you might call quirky chic. If you’ve read journals like McSweeney’s or seen any recent “indie” romantic comedies—Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, Away We Go (the latter written by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers)—you’ll know what I mean. These works make a fetish of the odd detail—the hamburger phone Juno uses, the bizarrely-themed restaurants in the works of George Saunders—sometimes at the expense of real character work. Again, “The Vision of Peter Damien” is a perfect example of this—perhaps all the more egregious an offender because the 19th-century setting allows Adrian more wiggle room. And so within the first paragraph we have “the pearly botch,” “the oak gall,” and “the yellow flux.” Now, no doubt there were diseases with these names (it’s not hard to guess that “oak gall” is poison oak), but one example would have sufficed.

These details are supposed to make the story more believable—because as every good liar knows, it’s the unexpected that convinces—but in reality they do the opposite. They are either too outlandish to be believable or draw too much attention to themselves, and once having done so, don’t bear up to our scrutiny.  Or they just feel arbitrary. Should I care that a character always wears a particular quirky article of clothing or would my time be better spent learning how she feels about her father’s death? In the case of “The Vision of Peter Damien” Adrian is trying so hard to prove that he knows what he’s talking about that, paradoxically, we end up less convinced. And other stories, like “Stab”—about a Siamese twin grieving for his other half by murdering neighborhood animals—go so far over the top that we lack an empathetic reference point.

Here’s a typical Adrian story, and given the fact that it’s the title story, one might think that Adrian or his publishers thought it was one of the better one’s in the collection: a drug-addicted pediatrician reluctantly returns home to take care of his father.  Since childhood, he has been visited by a harpy-like angel, who has tells him he “will be great and do great things.” So far, he has not done so: he is incompetent as a doctor, having cheated his way through medical school, and has since coasted by in the relatively undemanding world of family care.  Now that his father is dying, the angel’s injunctions take on a more specific theme: he must cure his father and all his sins will be absolved.  “Just put out your hand,” the angel tells him.  “Touch him and make him well.”   The laying-on-of-hands symbolism should be obvious. Nor is it the first time he’s used it. In The Children’s Hospital, the female protagonist, a semi-incompetent intern, is given the ability to cure all the children in the ward simply by touching them.

But Adrian’s miracles are complicated, ambiguous. In The Children’s Hospital, the cure is only temporary, a postponement of Judgment Day. And in “A Better Angel” there is no miracle at all. The father dies; the son does not save him. Or maybe this a miracle, after all. The father has been released from his misery, with his estranged son there to comfort him in his last minutes. That the son falls asleep with his hand on his father’s shoulder and his head on his chest—and that it is after this that he wakes up and finds his father dead—suggests that death was the cure.  And maybe this small redemption is miracle enough.

Back to the angel, though. What does she—for it is female, though it can take on any form—represent? Is she the hallucination of a drug addict in withdrawal (she grows calmer and less demanding when he self-medicates)? But if so, why has he seen her since childhood? Is this merely a case study of a lifelong schizophrenic?  Is she his conscience made visible? Or is she a literal agent of God come to command him? Or is she just a convenient literary symbol for things like duty, kindness, charity, and redemption?

To Adrian’s credit, he never answers these questions. But at the same time, I have a hard time deciding whether all this scaffolding is richly ambiguous, in the way good literature should be, or just distracting. Because the thing is, the character in “A Better Angel” never really emerges, for all the originality of his conception.  Does he want atonement? Does he even care? Or does he refuse it because he’s too afraid? The latter is closest, I think…but why? What is the root of this fear? Instead of delving into the narrator’s head, all his problems are externalized in the form of this angel—who, even if she is a product of his subconscious, still seems a little too forceful a way of presenting the same.  As a reader there’s a joy in discovering— through subtext, through telling contradiction, and through concrete action—the secret part of a character, the part that he doesn’t even fully admit to himself. Like dream sequences, the angel in this story deprives the reader of a lot of that joy.

And I think this goes to the heart of my problems with this collection—inventive, seductive, thrilling and just downright bad-ass as it sometimes is. It’s rhetorical technique—this mashing together of the everyday and the divine, most notably the worlds of medicine and childhood and loss against the worlds of angels and prophecy—distances us when it should draw us closer. I don’t think this is necessarily a mistake on Adrian’s part—in fact, it feels pretty intentional—but it does seem like Adrian doesn’t trust his base material enough to let it be.  If he adds angels—and when I say angels, I mean any of the supernatural or surreal elements of this collection—then it will be important. Never mind the fact that a story about a doctor helpless to save his father, and written by someone with intimate medical knowledge, carries its own interest. In the world of quirky chic this is not enough.

I am probably being a bit unfair lumping Adrian’s writing in with the rest of the quirky chic. The best Adrian stories use their techniques to explore things they could not otherwise. My personal favorite in this collection is “The Sum of Our Parts.” In it, a suicide victim is maintained on life support in a hospital. Her spirit hovers in a kind of limbo, unable to leave the hospital until her body dies. She floats from room to room and in this out-of-body state discovers a new capacity to read minds. She is privy to the secret lives of doctors—their thoughts about each other, their lusts and petty grudges—as they go about their rounds. The inner workings of a hospital are described in fascinating, authoritative detail while the story is moved forward by Beatrice’s ghostly wanderings. The title, at first just a reference to  Beatrice’s multiple organ transplants, takes on a richly layered meaning as we come to understand how humans as a whole are more than the sum of our parts—all of our actions spread out in a web of consequence not unlike the invisible net that pulls Beatrice back whenever she tries to leave the hospital.  Each person is an organ, humanity a body. Adrian might have arrived at this idea through a simpler omniscient story about the people in a hospital ward, but in the creation of Beatrice—a literalization of the omniscient narrator, disembodied, outside the action, able to go anywhere—he has given himself justification for the technique and added levels of metaphor that wouldn’t exist otherwise. The story was written this way because it had to be; it was the only way of saying what Adrian wanted to say. That is not true of all the stories in this collection.

For better or worse, Chris Adrian is a writer of high moral seriousness: even when the conceit overwhelms a story’s effect, his aims are large. He is concerned with no less weighty subjects than grief, loss, redemption, and the apparition of the divine.  Maybe to tackle those subjects, a bold, elevating technique is what’s required. At their very best, Adrian’s stories allow us to hover, angel-like, above the action, observing it all with the cruel, tender detachment of God.

And that in itself is pretty divine.


Raul Clement is a fiction writer, musician, and poet living in Greensboro, NC. His work has appeared in various literary journals.

Sunday Poetry Series Presents: Raul Clement

AFFLICTED
by Raul Clement

Doxycycline, Ciprofloxacin, Ranitidine—
the names remind me
of distant stars whose light
I will never see
or else just what they are,
wishes instead of cures.

The doctor sticks a gloved finger
up my ass with one quick
motion. Not quick enough.
It is cold with jelly,
like the finger of an alien,
an inhabitant of Ranitidine.

No blood in my stool.
Bilurubin normal, no jaundice.
No hypoglycemia, lime tater negative.
Chest X-rays, brain MRIs, EKGs.
Blood pressure good, temperature 96.8,
nothing to worry about.

No AIDS, no syphilis, no clap.

I drink the contrast dye.
It tastes like something I can’t remember,
something from elementary school,
the smell of new blacktop against
my bloody face
and the laughter of Leah German,
or any other girl I hoped
would love me.

I lie still until the machine beeps—
nothing like a tolling bell,
so I do not ask
for whom?
and then I turn on my side.
Ten more minutes and I’m done,
the nurse says.

All around me, the machine
buzzes and hums like an alien
landing pod.


Raul Clement is a fiction writer, poet, and musician living in Greensboro, NC. His work has appeared in various literary journals. The above poem was originally published in Coe Review and is reprinted here by permission of the author.