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 Eggers‘ A 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.