I am very unhappy.I am in the South of France, in a villa set in a vineyard, where bottle after bottle of Cote du Rhone wine is brought to me every day, alongside exotic cheeses, slices of country ham, and baguettes.I am with a woman who takes pleasure in my pleasure.None of this did I have to pay for.

My only legitimate complaint are the cicadas, whose loud, rhythmic, twenty-four hour chanting nags at me like guilt, or the overworking of a brain.

I am reading Stephen Elliott‘s memoir, The Adderall Diaries.It’s annoying me.The reason it’s annoying me has nothing to do with the quality of the book, which is brave and attuned to generational nuance in the way of great literature.This annoyance seems in tune with the cicadas, and I’m trying to figure out why.

One of the reason the book bugs me is its cover.It has a cover which I find beautiful—or maybe not so much beautiful as cool, and by cool I mean that its cover signifies that it belongs in the company of other books that have been deemed cool, like Dave EggersA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest.I realize that “cool” is just an elitist cultural snobbishness which affects the artists and writers of every generation, but knowing this doesn’t stem the jealousy.

You see, when my book came out three years ago, I imagined it with a similarly cool cover.I didn’t know what that cover would be, but I was pretty sure it would be rendered by some cool artist.Instead, ignoring all the book’s literary derring-do, my publisher came up with a spectacularly lame cover.

Because my book involved online gamers, they thought a sci-fi cover would be appropriate for it.I didn’t agree.I argued that saying World Leader Pretend was science fiction was like calling Huckleberry Finn a rafting manual.This line of argument did not make me any friends.My publisher went ahead with publishing my book with the uncool book cover.

Not long after my book came out I attempted an experiment.I was attending a cool literary event called Literary Death Match.There was an after-party, and at the after-party there was a pool table where people were putting cool-looking books and journals and pamphlets for people to take for free.I had a copy of World Leader Pretend with me.I put it on the pool table, and stood, martini in hand, to observe.People would pick the books and journals and pamphlets up; they would maybe turn them over to look at the material on the back cover; and then they would slip them into their backpacks.A copy of McSweeney’s 20 disappeared very quickly this way.

I drank my martini slowly and talked to my friends.Hours passed.The room became sparse.At midnight, I picked up my book, now alone on the table, and walked it home.

I’ve been in the villa a few days now, and I’ve yet to see one of the cicadas.There is this huge fig tree which looms over our back patio—it sounds like there are thousands of them up there, nagging, laughing, goading—but when I look, I can’t find a single one.

I have gotten to a part in Stephen Elliott’s memoir where he discusses the fact that he is sleeping with three different women at the same time, and I am feeling particularly hateful.I am determined not to launch the book off the porch and into the vineyards.I feel much the same way that I felt when reading Paul Theroux’s novel My Other Life, which is clearly a memoir disguised as a novel, at the point when he begins discussing his time in the Peace Corps in Africa, and where it becomes clear that he’s not really so much teaching English to poor kids as he is sleeping with every single woman at the bar in frequents daily.I can see through the layer of hate, and the layer of righteousness to what the emotion is; and I can read that Stephen Elliott had a shit-ass past, and that he isn’t so much sleeping with these three women as spooning with them, or having them pinch his nipples with clothespins, or walk across his back in high heels; and I can read about Paul Theroux’s horrendous bout with clap, but nothing that I read will make the noise of my jealousy go away.

I leave my book for the afternoon.We go for a ride in the car through picaresque villages.We arrive at a town with a canal that runs through it.There are ancient moss-covered waterwheels along the canal that were once used to spin thread.There is a glace stand—sorbet—and my girlfriend and I purchase a scoop and sit to eat it, dipping our feet in the cool waters of the canal as we do.

She is a writer, my girlfriend—the author Kerry Cohen.She is bright, talented, and successful.She has her Miracle Bra on, which I’ve renamed the “Monster Bra.”Normally, I can’t take my eyes off her when she’s wearing the Monster Bra, but today I’m ignoring her in the midst of my gloom.Across the canal is a gift shop.In the gift shop are cicada coffee cups, cicada dinner ware, cicada napkin holders.It’s the first time I’ve seen a cicada, their widespread eyes, their silliness.

Stephen Elliott’s memoir was published by Graywolf Press.I doubt if it sold many copies.In the memoir, he describes his father disowning him and leaving him to live on the streets.He makes it through his late teens by working as a stripper in gay bars.Men try to sneak their pinkies into his asshole.

This is the man I’m feeling envy toward.

It turns out that the cicadas of the Cote du Rhone region of France are a signifying feature of the region.Cicada, in French, is le cigale.In July, the drone of le cigale is unavoidable, omnipresent, everywhere.

This last December I finished the novel that I’d been working on for the last five years.It took ten drafts.The strain of it cost me my marriage.I was tired of all the personal fiction, the chick-lit, the memoirs.I wanted to write a great social novel: a novel about the Middle East and Guantanamo and the destruction of the environment, a novel about how all our lazy navel-gazing is wrong.In the novel, my main character was a preacher.In my novel, he stood up on milk crates.In my novel, my preacher gets listened to.

When I took the book to market, though, I discovered that preachers on milk crates don’t get listened to at all.They get stepped around.

The author Kerry Cohen and I have been invited to dinner by a couple who own one of the local vineyards.When we arrive, there is an amazing spread of fine olives, cheeses, casseroles, and wines, all spread out on a long table with a spotless white tablecloth.No one is sitting at the table, though.Instead, all of the guests are standing around a tree.The host is underneath it, pointing his finger at a branch. “There’s one,” he says, “There!”

That’s when I see it for the first time: le cigale.It’s camouflaged against the tree, gray on gray.It’s small—it seems impossible that a being that small can produce so many decibels.It looks so easy to squish.Once I’ve seen one, more of them seem to appear almost instantly.”There’s another,” I say.Suddenly, we’re all standing under that tree—adults, children—searching for cicadas.”There’s one! There’s one!” we chant.It’s a fun game we’re playing, searching for the source of the racket.It reminds me of Where’s Waldo.

After more of this, we return to our table.

There’s a gorgeous view from where I’m sitting.Vineyards, then off in the distance, the town of Sablet, a historic fortified village built on a beehive-shaped hill.There is a church at the summit of the town.Swallows circle it, their nests perched in cracks in the old stone.

There are things we will spend our lifetimes trying to achieve—and fail.There are things we have achieved easily that others will spend their lifetimes trying to achieve—and fail.Our jealousy can either drive us to madness, or we can surround it, identify it, and laugh at it’s silliness.

After all, we’re all les cigales, spending our lifetimes trying to make the most noise.

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JAMES BERNARD FROST is the author of the novel A Very Minor Prophet, published by indie wonder-press Hawthorne Books, reviewed here by The Oregonian, recently optioned by Rocking Stone Media, and available wherever books are sold. He is also the award-winning author of the novel World Leader Pretend, published by St. Martin's Press, and the travel guide, The Artichoke Trail. His fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in venues as diverse as Wired, SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, The Official Magazine of World of Warcraft, Trachodon Magazine, and the Farallon Review. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his two children, the rain, and the trees.

23 responses to “On Jealousy”

  1. Cicadas are sort of like that annoying cousin you only see every couple of years at a family reunion of some sort. Virginia gets infested by them (cicadas, not annoying cousins) every decade or so. Swarms of cicadas like some crazy, scary scene from a horror flick. They are always around–just never in those droves to which they are a part of every decade/half. Hell, I saw the shell of one’s former self stuck into the railing at my parents’ home last weekend. I used to collect them as a kid. Very strange little insects.

    I find your parallel between the cicada and jealousy of Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries interesting. I read that a couple of months ago. Wiped it out in a couple of days during my lunch breaks at work. Quite the departure from what I’m used to reading, particularly the sadomasochism and bondage. Can’t say I know much about that sort of thing.

    The cover and binding remind me of one of those old library books you only see in public libraries nowadays. Your book’s cover doesn’t seem that bad. I mean, maybe a different font would have been better. But when you said science fiction, I was picturing something extremely lame. Science fiction novels can have some serious cheese of a cover.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this. I think your novel sounds pretty interesting. I think Joshua Mohr’s Termite Parade may be my new favorite book cover out there though Some Things That Meant The World To Me is pretty kick ass looking too with the whole play on Wheel of Fortune.

    Enjoy your travels in France.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      It’s funny. I think all of us writers get more angst-ridden about our book covers than we need to be.

      Mostly, I just wanted to point out how ridiculous the emotion of jealousy is. We’re weird creatures that way–what we’re jealous of is so strange and uncontrollable.

    • e. lou says:

      The cover of Termite Parade (which I also love) was done by San Francisco artist Aubrey Rhodes. At the Termite Parade book release party, Joshua Mohr showed us the original painting (it’s big!). I think it’s a really cool idea to have artists do book covers. I wish more publishers would do that.

      PS I cyber-stalked her and found her website: http://www.aubreyrhodes.com

  2. Art Edwards says:

    For $50, I think we can find a place to do that pinkie deal for you.

    Whee!

    Art

  3. dwoz says:

    I’m jealous of you because I would rather be fighting that Battle of the Cover to keep my book off the sci-fi shelf, than not having a battle to fight.

  4. I spend way too much time wishing I was in a villa in the south of France a la The Stones during the making of Exile on Main Street.

    Cote du Rhone wine is pretty good. I imagine is better over there, than the £4 bottles I’m more used to…

    I quite like your book cover. I’ve seen worse. But i know what you mean about mis-attributed sci-fi. I wrote a few completed drafts of a novel last year which had elements of sci-fi. It took forever to get a good title because everything I could think of just sounded like cheap b-movie sci-fi.

    But if anyone is ever foolish enough to publish it then I have an awesome, awesome painting to use as a cover. A TNB reader/friend painted it for me.

    I hate jealousy, especially in myself. But I can’t really help it. And I suppose it has it’s uses i.e. I’m jealous of xxxxxx so I’m going to try as fucking hard as I can to outdo them like the Beach Boys recording Pet Sounds after hearing Rubber Soul…

  5. dwoz says:

    So….how the effen eff DO you keep a book that has a “twinge” of sci-fi type detail from ending up in that WRONG shelf with a blade-runner-style-dude menacing the reader from behind the title?

  6. Greg Olear says:

    1. The opening graf of your post echoes the opening graf of Tropic of Cancer, which itself has one of my favorite opening grafs of all time.

    2. I’ve been to Provence, I’ve drank the wine, I’ve eaten the ham sandwiches with cheese and butter on baguettes, and it’s almost impossible not to be happy there.

    3. I love Paul Theroux. One of my favorite authors. I love him even though most of the stuff he writes about I don’t find interesting. I just find him fascinating, his voice.

    4. Happy Baby, to me, is a stronger book than the one that’s making you jealous.

    5. I agree with your assessment of the cover of your book (alas), and I know there’s not a thing you can do about that kind of thing. However, if it’s any consolation, my book has one of the coolest covers going (it really does — it was listed as one of the 50 best of the year by the design trade group), and it didn’t help as much as I thought it would.

    6. Jealousy, blah. Compare, despair, my friend. If certain books are making you jealous, stop reading them. I’m not even kidding. I went through a period of several years, when my book was being shopped (the one that didn’t sell), where I couldn’t bring myself to read any novels, because I was so jealous of everyone and everything.

    • James Bernard Frost says:

      I’m considering switching to reading solely fantasy for this reason. It’s hard to be jealous of Gimli, running around with a two-handed sword killing orcs.

      What’s your book, Greg? I need someone new to be jealous of.

      • Totally Killer does have a pretty bloody cool cover. It feels nice too, because it isn’t glossy like most books.

        The UK edition of Brad’s book also has a cool cover.

        It’s amazing how few really cool covers there are.

      • Greg Olear says:

        As Jedi mentioned, mine is called Totally Killer.

        I read all nonfiction during that stretch. Mostly books about economics. Hard to get jealous of John Kenneth Galbraith.

        • I get very jealous reading great writers.

          I think I’ve mentioned before that when I went to write my novel last year it’s a sort of comedy-sci-fi story. I almost threw in the towel a quarter of the way in because I was reading The Sirens of Titan.

          On the flip side when someone read something I’d written and told me it reminded them of Vonnegut it was just about the best day of my life…

  7. Aaron Dietz says:

    Lovely, lovely, and wonderfully frank piece. Do you find it annoying that you compare all the time? I mean, you look at books, you read books, and then you compare, like, what happened to this one compared to this one (yours) or whatever. My book isn’t even out yet and I’m trying not to do this. But it’s a natural thing. And a cover is super tough to come up with. Always. And the cool ones, well, sometimes it’s like Pearl Jam–in my opinion, a pretty stupid band name. But no one thinks of Pearl Jam as a name. They think of the band. Oh wait, but that’s only because they were huge and successful. Okay, I shot myself with logic. I’ll shut up now.

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Damn it.

    I’m so jealous you wrote this.

    I’ll find you, Frost.

    I’ll find you.

  9. Sharanya says:

    I’m glad I clicked through and read this – so well-written! Will keep an eye out for more of your work.

  10. […] essay titled On Jealousy, in which I somehow manage to be unhappy while lounging in a villa in Southern France, is freshly […]

  11. Marni Grossman says:

    If we weren’t jealous of other writers, we wouldn’t be writers at all. Because it’s inhuman not to feel jealousy.

    Lately I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s collected non-fiction. She’s an amazing stylist. Her prose is brilliant. Which, in turn, makes me want to kill myself. I will never be Joan Didion and that fucking sucks.

    (Joan Didion would never say something “fucking sucks.” She’s far too classy for that.)

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