Essay 46: More or Less Unsuccessfully
Novels about writers are a risky business. It’s fine, I think, if one avoids them altogether. There are some I like very much (London Fields, Pale Fire, all the Philip Roth ones, The Tragedy of Arthur); there are some which are understood by common consensus to be good and yet you could not pay me even a million bucks to read them (The Golden Notebook, The Savage Detectives, Death in Venice, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter); and then there are some where I don’t care what anyone says, I feel sure that they are Bad (Elizabeth Costello, Diary of a Bad Year, Lady Oracle, The Information).
The worst is when the novel is chiefly about how much it sucks to have to write a novel. I managed three paragraphs of an article about Ben Lerner’s second book, and then I got to the words “seemingly obscure, self-reflexive subplot” and had to close my eyes for a while. “Seemingly obscure.” “Self-reflexive.” “Subplot.” What kind of life is this. I pushed the magazine away from me with one finger, and went for a swim. Jokes. I read the whole review, and then I read like six others, with what the punters refer to as Mounting Irritation. Maybe it’s a good book, but I will never know, because it is a novel about a person trying (“more or less unsuccessfully” oh god oh god my worst) to write a novel, and therefore I can’t read it. Therefore I can’t understand why anyone would read it.
This is a conviction I try to remain firm on, but of course I waver. Of course the whole things falls to pieces straight away, actually, because one of my favourite books ever is Wonder Boys. Wonder Boys is mainly about a man trying More or Less Unsuccessfully to write a novel. No getting around it. It is a classic of that lamentable genre, and has been in my permanent Top Five since I read it.
I have whole bits that I remember off by heart, but the bit I have been thinking about recently is when James Leer (young, tormented, pretend-Catholic, writer) is being dragged out of the auditorium at a writer’s festival: “James Leer emerged from the auditorium with his arms outspread and draped across the shoulders of Crabtree, on his right, and on his left across those of the young man with the goatee who’d dropped by during office hours to let me know that I was a fraud … Although he looked a little queasy he seemed to be walking steadily enough, and I wondered if he weren’t just enjoying the ride.”
James says “’The doors made so much noise!’”, and “’This is so embarrassing! You guys had to carry me out!’” The narrator asks Crabtree if James is all right, and Crabtree rolls his eyes and says, “He’s fine. He’s narrating.”
It’s a favourite hobby of mine, narrating. Here is a story called “Three Incredible Boys in the Unbelievable Hills”. It has a bit where a dear friend of mine is wandering around and she is saying ‘I can’t do this. I feel like a pervert. My camera feels like The Eye.” Here is a story called “I Took Drugs, Although I Did Not Intend To.” This story starts “You know like in Scarface? Well.” There is a story called “The Haunted Nursery School” and if you got a kick out of that one then I have “The Abandoned Nurse’s Home” lined up and ready to go. Here is a story called “All of Us at the Same Fucking Restaurant Would Durban Ever Just Give it a Rest.” A story called “I Was Kind.” These are all stories that have made themselves available to me in the last month or so. The nice thing about them is that they introduce themselves. The first thing happens, and then the story wriggles up and sticks out its hand. It tells me its name (“The Story of the Opal Ring”) and points out sensory details that will be good for later (sometimes when you projectile vomit it actually comes out your nose a bit). By the time things really get going, I am already standing a little bit back. By the time it’s over, the thing is all written down. I have always been this way, and so have most of the people I love. We narrate. Is this what is known as a Coping Mechanism? Do you really need a mechanism to cope with the time you threw up in the road?
I don’t know if I have ever really understood the opening sentence of “The White Album”, where Didion says “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – I know what she means, but the register is too urgent for me to really get a grip on it. When she says “live”, I don’t think she means “have a functional and groovy adult existence.” I think she means “get through the day”. I think she means “We tell ourselves stories in order to not die.” I don’t know if I understand what this would feel like. The first line of “The White Album” is a bit of a trick, anyway, in the second paragraph she modifies this statement, and that’s where the essay really begins. It describes the writer’s arrival at a point where her usual narratives cease to be useful to her. She is talking about the tail end of the 60s, and about her failure to make sense of it. Writing used to help, and then it didn’t. She is talking about a nervous breakdown.
She talks about what happens when stories fail us, and then the essay finishes, and then you think about the first sentence again. It sort of rings in your mind: if you don’t have a coherent narrative handy, you won’t be able to live. The end. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and about James Leer being dragged out of the auditorium, and my own tendency to wring a story out of just about anything. It’s been bothering me, because some things have happened, lately, which resist narrative. I am talking about things that have happened to me, or to people I care about, or to people I don’t know but who I see in the news. Nothing so terrible (at least in my case), but strange and difficult in that it won’t be turned into a story. There are too many bits missing, or else the protagonist goes rogue, or else a whole lot of shit just happens in a row for no reason. The story is deeply unsatisfactory: it is no fun to tell, and hard to listen to.
“The White Album” stops short of suggesting what you are meant to do, exactly, when you have on your hands a story with no narrative. I have been thinking about this a lot, because I would very much like someone to tell me. Do you try and make it into a narrative? Do you just leave it? What happens if you just leave it? Will you get a nervous breakdown from doing that? The tone of “The White Album” suggests that no good can come of it. I would like to believe that this isn’t true and that, despite my natural inclination to make a story out of every time I go to the shops, even, nothing bad will happen if you leave some stuff alone for a while.