p3“It’s cold in here,” he says, sinking into the wingback chair. His hoodie bunches up near his neck as he leans back. He smooths his salt-and-pepper mustache a few times then puts his hand down, only for it to rise up again automatically. He sees me watching and stops fidgeting.

I grab his arm for leverage and pull, rolling my chair closer to his, knocking our armrests. “Here.” I kick one leg up and rest it on his lap. I smile. “Have some body heat.”

mountford8

Peter Mountford’s enthralling new novel, The Dismal Science, looks at what happens when a recently widowed World Bank administrator gets embroiled in Latin American politics. In this companion to Mountford’s debut, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, middle-aged and recently widowed World Bank administrator Vincenzo D’Orsi comes undone, jettisoning nearly every one of his personal and professional relationships.

Peter and I met at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle for a talk about identity, middle-age, and the 1 percent.

Superchild

By Karen Kelsay

Poem

Alone on the playground’s edge,
surrounded by a troupe of invisible ballerinas
who transform her frayed skirt into a flash of tulle

while others play foursquare and hopscotch
on the blacktop, she exercises her superpowers
by blocking out thoughts of her mother’s demons.

I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

Somehow, I’m still expecting that, in another six months, year tops, I’ll be able to preorder the next Amy Winehouse album. Somehow, I’m still expecting word that she’s joined the 27 Club to be just a rumor, like the sudden death of Zach Braff that bobs through the tide of Internet grotesquery about once a year.As news outlet after news outlet confirmed the countless Facebook statuses I’d seen to be factually true, I still found myself, if not surprised (not exactly), then in shock.

Fans of Heart, the rawk band led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, fall into one of two categories: (1) those who dig the band’s fat rock licks from the 70s and lost interest after 1982’s underwhelming Private Audition, and (2) those who think that after 1982’s disappointing Private Audition the band was just getting started and who actually prefer the more embarrassing, slick, and power-ballad-heavy material to come. Naturally, I fall into the latter category, because guitars and feathered hair are nice, but exploding pianos and Aquanet are better.

This Heart-fan dichotomy was illustrated powerfully last year at karaoke night at Matchless bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Surely you’ve heard about what happened. It was a battle royale between the old school and the, uh, new old school, and boy was it a shitstorm. For my song I chose “Alone,” the desperate power ballad to end all desperate power ballads, and I sang the f*ck out of it.

 

Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth. A whaler’s church in the afternoon, sunlit and salted, gives way to the drunken splendor of a barn-ish-space—who knows the names or categories of these spaces, where we gather to celebrate other people’s marriages?—and an entire island is suddenly yours, yours and everyone’s, the whole fucking thing. You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and everyone is in agreement—not to believe in love, exactly, but to want to. This, you can do. You dance with a stranger and think, we have this in common, this wanting to believe. In what, again? In the possibility that two people could actually make each other happy, not just today but on a thousand days they can’t yet see.

Why do you write?

Well, Jonathan Safran Foer told The New York Times Magazine that he writes “in order to end [his] loneliness.” I write in order to prolong, and if possible to exacerbate Jonathan Safran Foer’s loneliness. I aim to embody a Jewish American authorial masculinity so totalizing, it not only takes his breath away, but all his friends, his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, and their two children.

 

Is loneliness a factor in your own work?

It doesn’t motivate writing. Literally it doesn’t motivate writing. I moved to Kansas in July from New York and I’m living by myself in a sad house, alone, and not writing.

 

You moved there intending to write?

Sure. It could be a Foerian Watusi—just self-aggrandizing performance—but I had access to a house. There’s a mortgage my Socialist late uncle was able to arrange via the USDA’s Office of Rural Development. I moved to right-wing Kansas for the welfare, in effect. And also to write, which means first of all living cheaply. And second of all, what it means to me is to summon the kind of intelligence I’d most hope to find in a book. If you’re brilliant already that must be a cinch, but if you are not a brilliant person, you’ll have to take whatever intelligence you have and extend and transform it until it’s capable of apprehending something extraordinary and worth reporting. Or that’s the theory. I’m here as an experiment in “changing,” rebuilding, my mind.

 

What are the results of this experiment?

Yesterday I drank gin. And you can do that in New York: drink gin. So I put a minus sign in my writing journal. I didn’t go outside, talk to anyone, think, read, or work. It was indistinguishable from Brooklyn.

 

You make Kansas sound dangerous.

Indistinguishable from Bagram, excuse me.

 

You seem obsessed with danger, one might almost say dangerously so. Do you deliberately create it, and why?

The path into the life-furthering wisdom is reputedly perilous. One risk being the risk of the false path. Corollary: if you’re sure of your steps, you’ll have failed. I might be wrong, I might have missed something important, but when I was eighteen and taking notes on the matter, it struck me that I’d never met somebody happy who was worthy of respect. No one was happy—but everyone would tell you how to best live your life. The conclusion was that one should improvise, blaze unexpectedly, try to stay weird.

 

Your misery is strategic?

The misery, if any, is habitual.

 

But in the difficulties that you seem to engineer for yourself, is there a strategy?

I don’t mean to say that weirdness for the sake of it, addiction, desperate solitude and elective pseudo-poverty are any kind of universal answer. But I am skeptical of other answers.

 

You’re a man without a clue? No answers?

Good laughs. Canyonlands National Park. Tanqueray. I think the nearest answer is a wholly arbitrary oscillation between absolute doubt, on the one hand, and ingenuous reverence and joy: aloofness, immersion, repeat.

 

Perspectivism?

Say agnosticism sprinkled with Buddhist meditative practice, alcoholism, and a feel for the American landscape. Because that’s what works.

 

What relationship is there between wisdom, happiness and writing?

I don’t know that wisdom leads to happiness. The nature of the universe could turn out to be one of those things that you’re better off not knowing. But like anyone, during bouts of confusion, inertia, or sadness—bouts that come nightly in my case—I look instinctively for guidance from the sages, and the sages that I find most compelling are the writers whose experiential depth comes through in their words. They know what I want to know because they haven’t missed life.

 

To write the kind of books you’d want to read, you’re required to live, then.

🙂

 

 

It always happens this way.

I’m wandering along, content with my life, when I happen across a romantic comedy on tv and I, being the slow learner that I am at times, sit down to watch it because gee, I could really use a laugh.

SACRAMENTO, CA –

When you left I lay there for nights on end, staring up at the ceiling, memorizing the shadows cast there by the street lights outside, listening as the heater clicked on and blew too-hot air at me and then waiting for it to turn back off.

I lay there listing in my head the reasons why you left, filing them away, stacking them up, shuffling them around, reorganizing them, examining them, turning them over and over again, all in the hopes of seeing the why more clearly.

I lay there night after night, unable to sleep, crying, waiting for the world to wake up, listening for the sounds of life outside so I could know I wasn’t alone, thinking to myself that I was unloved, unlovable.

I lay there in our my bed feeling pathetic and lost, blaming myself and thinking I was the one at fault, thinking if I had just done this or that differently, you’d have loved me enough to try.

When you left, I lay here, broken. But since we stopped being “we” I have come to realize I have been freed – free now to do all of those things I thought I’d never do because I was with you.

I lie here now, changed.

I lie here knowing I don’t owe you anything.

I lie here thinking that you were just as much at fault as I was, that it wasn’t only I who wouldn’t change.

I lie here now, hopeful, listening to the world outside my window, knowing I get to be a part of it, thinking that one day I will find someone who deserves my love, and I will be loved, am lovable.

I lie here with the sun casting bright morning light onto my covers, thinking this is my chance, my chance to make my life anything I want without having to worry about how it will effect the someone else in my life.

I’m here! It’s happening! Let’s get this thing moving. No more moping. No more crying over you. No more dwelling on everything you ever did to hurt me.

No more.

SACRAMENTO, CA –

Anyone who has a younger sibling knows what it feels like to be loved unconditionally. If you have enough siblings, you may even know what it’s like to be loathed unconditionally. Me, I’m lucky to have two younger sisters who would have done just about anything I asked them to do when we were younger. It might be said that I made them into my own personal slaves. Kati was about 16 years younger than me, so her tenure was short-lived and she didn’t get into nearly as much trouble as my sister Jess.

I would get Jessica to break into my mom’s secret stash of M&M’s. Or I’d have her steal my sister Melissa’s favorite doll so we could torture it. We’d also dress up my brothers as girls and take photos of them. Or we’d convince the youngest child of the moment to eat bugs, or dirt, or rotten grapes. And if we ever got caught, or if someone tattled on us, Jess would always take the blame. She never once told my mom that I made her do it. Of course, she was (and still is) adorable, so my mom was never too mean to her. Sometimes she’d get her hair pulled or be forced to apologize or sit in time out. But as soon as her punishment was meted out, she’d be back in my room hoping to play barbies (which I was always able to talk her out of because I didn’t ever want to take my barbies out of their boxes).

In my family we all had what I guess you’d call a “soul sibling.” Jess was mine. Even though we were six years apart with two other girls between us we were paired together from the time she was born. When she was a baby, I’d hold her whenever my mom would let me, and as she grew she became attached to me. She would beg my mother to dress us in matching clothes and we’d talk incessantly about how we should have been born twins.

Jess and I also shared a room, and a bed, for as long as either of us can remember. Even when I finally got my own room at age 12 Jess would sneak down in the middle of the night to sleep in my bed with me. I was afraid of the dark and of killers hiding under my bed, so I appreciated the company.

I managed to get over my fear of the dark and I bought a bed under which nobody could fit, but I’ve never been able to get used to being in bed by myself. In fact, I’ve never been able to get used to being alone at all. Since the time I moved out of my parents’ home, I’ve had one boyfriend or another to keep me company. When they weren’t around, I’d turn on the TV and the stereo at the same time to fill up the silence and loneliness threatening to envelope me. Then, two weeks ago, the other half of my bed was vacated, with nobody new waiting to fill the void.

And so it is that, at age 28, I’m learning how to be alone with myself for the first time.