December 21, 2009
JR: I just started reading Swimming Inside the Sun, and I feel bad for not being able to give it a full review. Lately I’ve been trying to do the NYT crossword puzzle while falling down an elevator shaft, which is to say, my life is coming unhinged. There are so many reasons to like David Zweig’s debut, because it sounds like a memoir, but it’s a novel (what a beautiful package to boot). I particularly like the strong opening, detailing a roll in the hay that our hero takes, with a girl he’s only just met. Dan Green’s life is easy for me to relate to, and any man who has lived in New York City, alone, for any period of time, will find the “situation” to be precise. So far the writing is tight and funny, even sad, but worth your time. Please look for this book, you won’t be disappointed.
DZ: After an initial phase of Where the Wild Things Are and some Shel Silverstein, I basically swore off reading fiction for about sixteen years. Adolescence was all about watching TV or riding my bike. I remember hearing about Narnia and thinking that crap is for dorks.
As a kid I tended to be contemplative, and later, in my teens, brooding – usual triggers for creating a reader. Yet my inclination toward introspection was generally satisfied by listening to The Wall and playing guitar in my basement. But by my late teens I was beginning to sense that rocking out wasn’t going to fulfill every intellectual and emotional need.
In college I really started to feel a void. I was learning about all sorts of new stuff – sociology, politics, psychology; increasingly complex emotions were overtaking me; and basically I was just thinking a lot more about the world and my place in it. I began to crave a more meaningful connection to others, and to myself. Strangely, being an expert at funneling beers wasn’t quite achieving that. And yet . . . books still eluded me.
I was in a political science class that assigned Lincoln by Gore Vidal. I distinctly remember that it was about twelve thousand pages. My friend Sam was also in the class and we looked at each other and rolled our eyes when we begrudgingly pulled our copies from the shelf in the campus bookstore. But Sam was a dutiful student – she forged ahead. I tossed my copy under my bed. As Sam made her way through the book the next few weeks unfolded like a movie montage: Sam reading under a tree on the quad, me drinking at a party. Sam reading hunched over her dorm room desk, me in bed next door with a girl. And finally, Sam showing up to class bleary-eyed with a beaten and dog-eared Lincoln in her hands, me guiltily hands-free, too embarrassed for anyone to see my pristine copy. Much to Sam’s chagrin, I got a higher grade on my paper about the book than she did. But something weird happened – I didn’t feel good about it. It was like an alcoholic’s moment of hitting bottom. I knew I couldn’t go on like this. I needed to read.
Yet, I didn’t know where to begin. It certainly wasn’t going to be with Vidal’s cinderblock. Then, over a year later, while studying abroad in London my junior year, I wandered into a bookstore and picked up a copy of Life After God, byDouglas Coupland. The word “zeitgeisty” was written on the cover in a blurb. I think I had learned the word six months earlier and felt satisfied that this book was worth buying. As I walked out of the store I didn’t know this would be the book to start me on a path of finding so much joy and a sense of connectivity from novels. But a day later, while staying up late to finish it in nearly one sitting, I knew.
Life After God spoke to my anxieties and ill-defined unease I felt about our culture – the detritus from our consumerism, the hollowness of ironic distance – and the yearning I had for authenticity (whatever that meant). It showed me that I wasn’t alone in my hidden fears about the end of the world. I saw that language could be simple yet deep. It was a revelation that fiction could do all this for me. I felt less lonely.
I haven’t read Life After God in years. I’m not sure how it would hit me today, especially any religious undertones. But that doesn’t matter. The exact right book came to me at the exact right time, and it opened up a new world to me that I have immersed myself in ever since.