My mom’s on Facebook, and I’ve accepted her friend request. (Hi, Mom!) She doesn’t own a computer, she doesn’t own a cell phone, she still deposits checks and withdraws cash by walking up to the bank counter, but she’s been on Facebook for a few months now, which is long enough, as she informed me (actually, when she was just a few weeks in), to learn more about me by clicking links than she’s learned from me in person. She found one mention of herself in my online writing—it was on this site, in my self interview—and she took issue with it. She wants you to know: That hummingbird that got into her bedroom? She tried every other way to get it out, she tried for hours, before she killed it with bug spray. It was horrible and it was late at night and she needed to go to bed.

It’s not that pre-Facebook I hid my writing from my mother, or from anyone, exactly. In the nineties, I co-published a zine called Maxine, and I included in it writing of mine that was sometimes sexy, sometimes weird, and almost always personal—for example, I collaborated on a comic loosely based on my best friend and I that involved cunnilingus. And I sent the copies to my parents. I sold copies to co-workers. Devil may care! I liked the feeling, actually. I liked the combination of accepting ownership but relinquishing the fantasy that I could control others’ perceptions. It felt very different than finding someone listening at the door or rustling through my stash of journals and love letters. (You know you did that, Mom!)

In fact, publishing personal writing on paper felt like an anecdote to privacy invasion. I’m not sure why online writing feels like something in between. Is it just because it’s more likely that something online can worm its way anywhere, easily? That it wouldn’t be a magical, fate-ridden thing for someone I knew to stumble onto a blog post the way it would be to stumble onto a zine? All it takes is being bored at 2 AM. What’s that old girlfriend doing. What about that cousin who I played doctor with once. What about that daughter. She always kept the room to her door closed. She always had her nose in some book or up in the air. She’d always give me this look, like. . . . And now, when she finally does call, she’s too busy to talk.

My mom knows her own inclinations. She says that’s one reason why she doesn’t want a computer: she’s a voyeur; it’d be too tempting. She did her Facebook sleuthing this summer, when she was living with my sister-in-law, whom my brother has been divorcing for years. They’re still fighting over money and visitation and blame. I told my mother that it was a bad idea, that things would get awkward. And they did. She was on the phone complaining about it one day, perhaps commenting about the quality of my sister-in-law’s mothering—and her appearance and her eating habits and her housekeeping—without realizing that her hostess was sitting on the porch just outside the open window. When my mom walked out there, Stephanie told her, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave.”

When my husband and I found my mother snooping around our windows the summer before, when she was house-sitting down the street, we choose not to say anything. We just pretended it had never happened.

My mother, who when I told her I had quit smoking, said, “That’s not very sociable, is it?”

My mother, who when I told her as a new parent that I didn’t have time to go shopping for sales said, “If you’d get off your high-horse and go to McDonalds once a week you’d have one night a week to go shopping.”

My mother, who was actually very concerned about nutrition when I was growing up, and who insisted for awhile that I eat cubes of cheese in the morning, for fat and protein. I did not want to eat cubes of cheese in the morning; they disgusted me. So I did what any self-respecting kid would do: I palmed them and later slipped them into a drawer in the playroom.

And my mother, upon discovering the colony of cheese cubes—by this time with edges turned a waxy blood orange and sides coated in powdery mold— became enraged and made me eat them as punishment. It was a Mommy Dearest moment, her towering over me and brandishing the plastic spatula with which she sometimes spanked us, me choking down a cube or two before pushing past her to go retch into the toilet. I can still see the hunter-orange curdles floating in the shining white bowl—my mother kept a very clean house. But she is no Joan Crawford. She didn’t make me eat any more after that, and cheese was taken off the breakfast menu. So I think I won that round.

Yes, when it comes to my mother, I am a perpetual adolescent who will—obviously—air old and dirty linen in public to score a point.

Although this is the first time I am doing so. In a piece that I am posting to the internet.

As a kid, I was the kind of good girl who was secretly, sneakily bad.

In first or second grade, I went to the bathroom and locked all the stalls from the inside before crawling out of the last one and going back to the teacher with a report: I couldn’t use the bathroom; someone locked all the doors. “Probably some sixth grader,” the teacher said, “who thinks she’s being smart.”

When I was in sixth grade—an impeccable student—I had already developed a taste for bad boys, and I befriended the grottiest trouble-maker in class, Scott Bilow. He was actually a pretty nice kid who had a rough lot. His dad was a drunk, and a good day for Scott was when he was sent to the bar to get his dad and was invited in and given a Coke instead of a back-hand. Scott had stories to tell, and dirty poetry to recite, and I was all ears. One ditty ended with the memorable line: “Sister’s on the corner yelling pussy for sale.” I thought on that a lot. The pieces were just starting to add up for me. Sometimes, if we had indoor recess or whatever, I’d play a game he taught us where I’d hold a pencil and follow directions that resulted in the spelling of fuck or shit or mother fucker on the lined, grey paper of his writing tablet.

When the teacher found these pages in his notebook, she took him out in the hall and hollered at him. The rest of the class couldn’t hear his side of the conversation, but we didn’t need to:

“What did you say?”

“You’re trying to tell me Zoe Zolbrod wrote those awful words in that awful handwriting?”

“Zoe Zolbrod has beautiful handwriting and she would never write those dirty words!”

Thirty years later, I’m still proud that I accepted the blame. The teacher was so dumbstruck at the dissolution of her categories that I don’t think either Scott or I was ever punished. Or maybe the punishment was just a note home to my parents, still married then. They wouldn’t have given me a hard time for something like that. They might have congratulated me on taking responsibility when I could have skirted it. Honesty was their big thing. As a teenager, especiallywhen some of my friends physically feared their parents or were routinely denied freedoms—my mom and dad let me get away with a lot, as long as I told the truth.

So, my mom’s on Facebook  (welcome, Mom!) and that’s what’s inspiring me to trash talk her to you all and to post this up on TNB. But I’m not sure whether I’ll link to it. And my mom’s back home now, no longer living with my sister-in-law’s laptop and internet connection. She uses the computer at the library sometimes, but it’s not open at 2 AM, and during business hours, well—she still works part-time as a care-taker for elderly people, and she plays tennis, and volunteers, and shops the sales. (She basically clothes my children with her findings, saving me needed time and money. She’s the only person who has ever watched the kids overnight or over two. She . . . but I digress.) So she might not see this. And if she does, I’ll own up to it. These are some facts. Shrug. Nose in air. Laid out just so. That’s all I’m saying.

 


DH: Barcelona is a city I can imagine leaving…for the beach. If Barcelona is in the mind ofJames Salter, then the reader can be set down in the streets of the city, even if they’ve never been there. As for my friend JC, who recently set off for BerlinZurich and Vienna, he can have them.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel rim glasses, which he doesn’t need, lie on a table by the bed. He’s compared to the keel of a ship. What I’ve noticed right off in my first JS story is that the writer is a master of the suggestive fact…of facts that have vaporous ghosts of abstractions clingiing to them as if the facts could be haunted.

There are priorities in what Salter wants to talk about. I notice that JS goes on for about half a page, associating M with images of strength…steel glasses (one), he doesn’t need them (two), body parts like the keel of a ship (3).

It’s only after we’ve been though half a page of Malcolm asleep that we are introduced to Nico, his partner. She’s already awake and has gone out to the terrace after her bath. Since I’m myth-saturated, I associate Malcolm with the sleeping Eros…Eros is often depicted in art as sleeping. It’s very dangerous to wake him. It’s not necessary for Salter to have thought of this at all. But the myth helps me to see something…that Malcolm is being presented as a god and maybe, I’m wondering, to Nico he is one.

I’m indebted to Salter for the slow elevator approach to storytelling. Nico goes down the slow elevator of her building to get Malcolm a morning coffee from a restaurant. Can you guess that Malcolm likes it black? “Solo” he says. And that Nico is getting it for him and likes getting it for him?

There was a time in my life when I was on a slow elevator off Spring Street in Soho a great deal. Christ, that elevator took forever. It must have been a hundred years old. But I understand about slow elevators. JS has a great line: as the lift drifts down from floor to floor, it’s like Nico is passing through decades of her life. In my opinion, you have to be in midlife to appreciate a slow elevator.

The slow elevator approach to story telling…you see, we’ve passed down another floor in my post. You don’t discover how the reality of another person changes right away. It happens slowly, like a play, scene by scene. I’m paraphrasing Salter here. This is what Nico is thinking. Reminds me of that Boulez piece, Pli Selon Pli…fold after fold.

Salter goes on to introduce fold after fold of cognitive dissonance until “the story” can’t take it anymore and breaks up into a sputtering coda of non sequiturs. I’m a great fan of having the structure of a story buckle with the sense of what’s happening.

Let’s all go to the beach. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach? So JS sends his characters and his readers to the beach at Stiges. But S introduces a new character, Inge, Nico’s friend from when she was going solo, as the agent of dissonance.

It’s awesome how the great JM piles on pleat after pleat of disturbance, all of it MINOR, but the effect is to overwhelm.

First off, it’s genius to have Malcolm encounter Nico’s old girlfriend, Inge, from her unattached days. This excavates Nico’s old personal history…rarely a positive experience for anyone. Shows the boyfriend what you were like before he met you.

Here are some folds for you: They go to the beach in Inge’s car. She doesn’t realize it’s a piece of junk, Malcolm drives but Inge leans over to use the horn uselessly when they get stuck in traffic. Even though Inge owns a piece of shit, she talks about owning a Mercedes someday…several. She is overweight but wears a dress that’s too short. She talks about the boys in a bar not being able to buy you a dinner. She wants to run on the beach in front of expensive villas so she can be ogled. She berates her boyfriend who she called at 5 in the morning because he didn’t call her back the previous night. She dreams that every guy who lays her for one night may want to marry her.

It’s genius that Nico becomes emotionally exhausted and falls asleep on a couch in the restaurant she selects for the trio afterward. The real nightmare occurs when she wakes up, groggy I would think, and sees Inge in a tete a tete with her boyfriend.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the minor key measures that shadow this less than five page story. It’s called ‘Am Strande Von Tanger’ and it’s in Modern Library’s wonderful reissue in cloth of James Salter’s collection “Dusk and Other Stories”.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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DH: Iris Murdoch, the mid-20th century British novelist, was the true inheritor of the great Victorian tradition of moral psychologists. Her complex stories turn on questions of what’s the right thing. Only in contrast to today’s dogmatic moralists, who are so convinced that they know exactly what you should be doing, IM wrote stories where good and evil are real but meant to be puzzled over.

In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine an extra-marital affair rivals in legitimacy the marriage it is undermining. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a gay relationship and a straight marriage are both under threat. One will go down. Which deserves to survive and why?

Most readers today remember Iris Murdoch as the brilliant writer whose mind was darkened by Alzheimer’s. But I prefer to remember the writer who has influenced Zadie Smith. And I think we should remember those we love in their best times, in their salad days, since there is no need to memorialize sadness.

Open Road Media has recently made ten works of Iris Murdoch widely available for download. The one that caught my eye was The Philosopher’s Pupil, which was the first Murdoch novel that I read. It’s my recommendation in our new series: Three Guys One Download. Next month, another of the Guys will recommend a download.

DH: This is the last of my three posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s new novel, How to Read the Air. It’s about the lying at the heart of the novel, in the creation of the character, Jonas Woldemariam. If this were a 19th century novel, a novel by Dickens, then Jonas Woldemariam , like David Copperfield, would be the best title for it. But Jonas is no hero.

Jonas’ fitful employment history starts out in a non-profit agency that helps illegal immigrants to stay stateside. DM’s very effective narrative strategy sets up these little scenes where the hapless applicants lay out their paltry documents, stories, photographs to justify their appeal for asylum. Jonas doctors them up. He uses his fiction skills to make the refugees seem more appealing to the authorities. Where an emigrant says he was threatened in his homeland, JW says their house was burned down. If they say they were threatened with imprisonment, then Jonas writes down that they were arrested three times and did prison time under torture.

Later, Jonas teaches at an upscale Manhattan private school, you know, like the Dalton School …a place that I’ve visited. It’s a plum job for a gifted English lit major fantasizing about getting a doctorate. His wife, Angela, pulls strings at her law firm to get him the job. One of her law partners is a trustee at the school.

His privileged students get treated to a long-winded tale about his father’s attempt to leave Sudan. The story is distorted family mythology. Jonas is a diffident David Copperfield…a Dickens’ impossibility. Jonas lies because he withdraws. He withdraws so he can be a writer in the most generic sense…so he can lie.

At home with Angela, he tells more lies to spin his life over. The scenario is that he is going to be promoted at his “academy” to a full time position. It’s as if David Copperfield said: “I’d like to say that this is what happened. I am imagining that it could have been this way.” But one way to view any novel is to say “this is what might have happened”.

Dickens’ conception of character is moral and reforming. But DM’s approach, through his lead character Jonas, is aesthetic and “fraudulent”. It’s lying. “How to Read the Air”, what does the title mean? My take is that it’s quixotic. It’s impossible. You can’t read the air. Reminds me of Kierkegaard…and Camus. The aesthetic approach to life as an evasion because the character can’t do the moral or religious. The lying “fiction” as a critique that uncovers. Because where the lying fails, there the truth can be glimpsed…if only for a second out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

But How to Read the Air is slipping away from me as I try to grab hold of it. Its complexity fights being analyzed. What a great book club selection it will make! And what a devious writer Dinaw Mengestu is! That’s why I love him. As Jonas crashes and burns lies into the fragile connections of his world, one is led to a wondering about his real sensitivities to his parents and himself that he is trying so hard to conceal from Angela. How can any relationship bear up if it is being asked to bear so much concealed emotional weight? Even the novel’s narrative style buckles and twists all over itself as events are related as they happened, or as they might well have happened, or as they expressly did not happen as the reader sees the lies that the audience in the novel believes. Massively well-constructed, How to Read the Air will be published by Riverhead in cloth


DH: On my main library shelves sits a massive edition of Dickens, still awaiting completion.  And when I look at those intricately conceived word feasts, I am reminded that a lot of that story stuff first reached its readers in the form of installments in some scruffy periodical.

How quaint, reading a mag by gaslight to find out what’s going to happen to little Dorrit! But when eras do axial shifts, the quaint can be transformed into the cool. Why can’t our e-readers function that way?

Why can’t I arrange for Brad Watson to e-text me his latest story as soon as he has written it? And why can’t BW say, two weeks after that: “Oh, I revised it, dear reader. Here’s the new version. Which do you like best?

And why can’t I read Claire Messud’s new novel that way, by chapter installments. And if CM wants to do a take-back, because she’s decided to move her story in a different direction, what’s wrong with that? I can take it. In fact, I’d like it. There are “Seven Types of Ambiguity” in language anyway, according to William Empson. Why isn’t the writer…or the reader…allowed to change their mind? I’d rather buy the right to access the writer’s brain, who wouldn’t, than buy any particular static work. Don’t you get it? It’s “showin your skills” that’s the most admirable part…not the end result of those skills.

DM’s, the great DM’s, new novel “How to Read the Air” is divided into three parts and for once I am going to take these authorial Mason Dixon lines seriously and provide three reviews of which this is the first. It’s three attempts at being a good reader (and blogger).

“How to Read” arcs two parallel plots over about 300 pages. But it’s like a double helix. For each parallel plot has two phases. What the reader construes is really happening and how the central character, Jonas Woldemarian, is spinning it out. For this is a novel where lying is a compulsive survival strategy. Jonas lies to survive psychologically. But the characters are all weaving central fantasies into their lives. Dinaw Mengestu shows us how the stories we tell ourselves to get by and the stories writers give us as formal art, are just different phases of the same humane performance.

DM makes for an embattled author. His narrative voice, full of a suppressed pathos, comes up with amazing conditional voices as his detached third person narration slips into being Jonas and then slips out again. My favorite voice is what I’d call the “voluntary conditional”. It’s “I’d like to say this is what happened.” It’s a great way for DM to be Jonas and still be able to relate events at which the character was not present. He actually uses it to relate events in the life of Jonas’ mother, Mariam, that occur when she is pregnant with the son who is narrating the story.

All lovers of books discover those moments in literature that they will never forget, as if they were pivotal events in their own lives. I will never forget Mariam, in the opening of this novel, as I remember my own mother, waiting in her bedroom, stalling, refusing to go down to the car where her husband is impatiently waiting to begin an irrational trip to Nashville from the Midwest, a three-year deferred “honeymoon.” Mariam’s stalling; it’s passive aggression, part of the near constant war between her and her husband, Yosef. A war that leaves her battered and making “pretend” rehearsals of escape once her son Jonas is able to walk. Imagine your mother appearing with a suitcase and taking you as a child on a pretend trip to St. Louis. It’s practice at escapism. seeing how far you can get in a country you only dimly understand in a language you can barely speak. But Mariam and her son Jonas make “negative” progress. With each attempt they get a little farther away from Yosef before Mariam decides it’s time to head back to the starting point.

There are no “what will happen next” secrets to reveal in Mengestu’s masterful storytelling. The narrator already mentions, parenthetically, where everyone is going to end up. Rather, “How to Read the Air” is a brilliant attempt at emotional excavation. What survives? What survives every and any attempt to destroy it? What survives attempts to lie it away or batter it to death because it hurts so much? Whatever remains, that’s the truth. Stay tuned for another two posts on Dinaw Mengestu’s INCANDESCENT narrative skill.


JE: A few words about Stacey Levine: Brilliant. Surprising. Unsettling. One of a kind. Check out her novel, Frances Johnson!

Says The Believer: “This is a comedy of manners, and there is an inkling of Austen in Levine’s delicate and deadpan assault on our culture s heterosexist, heterogeneous dictates. But the feel of the novel is more fanciful than programmatic. Each sentence operates in the same manner as the overarching narrative: shifting shape, defying expectation . . .” –Jason McBride, THE BELIEVER

On top of all that, Stacey is an absolute doll!

**

I was amazed when, as an undergraduate, I read Brazilian author Clarice Lispector‘s short story collection Family Ties. The book showed me how fiction can dig into the quiet, disturbing crevasses of human experience and illuminate the parts of life that are impossible to describe in straightforward language.

At the time, I was also reading American masters like Wharton and Hawthorne, whose contained styles did not prepare me for the shock of Lispector’s long, rhythmic sentences full of repetition and the ferocity of her take on the human condition. (Lispector wrote from about 1943 until close to her death in 1977).  Even in translation, her writing is as disturbing, beautiful, and complex as life really is:

“[The girls in the orphanage] had concealed from the nuns in charge the death of one of their companions. They kept her body in a cupboard until Sister went out, and then they played with the dead girl, bathing her and feeding her little tidbits, and they punished her only to be able to kiss and comfort her afterward.”

Lispector’s translators have tried to replicate her lyricism and syncopated phrasing in English. In Portuguese, her work must be incandescent. In stories like “Preciousness,” “The Smallest Woman in the World,” and others, the narratives often launch from small, everyday occurrences, like a spilled bag of groceries or a trip to the zoo. I was excited to see that Lispector doesn’t really emphasize plot or even character, but instead puts forward her finely-wrought observations and questions about existence. And her staggering sentences intensely-packed metaphors.  “The Buffalo” describes a lovesick woman watching animals at the zoo:

“But the giraffe was a virgin with newly shorn braids. With the innocence of that which is large and light and without guilt. The woman in the brown coat looked away—sick, so sick. Unable—confronted with that lovely giraffe standing before her, that silent wingless bird—unable to find within herself the critical point of her illness, the sickest point, the point of hatred, she who had gone to the zoological gardens in order to be sick.”


Back then, I read these sentences repeatedly and they got into me as sound and inspiration. The stories contain unique music and made me want to write.

Lispector also wrote The Passion According to G.H. , a novel in which, gloriously, the major plot point is that a woman closes an apartment door on a cockroach and kills it. But she’s at her best in the short story form. I can sometimes hear her sentences ringing while I’m writing sentences. I’ve thought about her stories a lot, not only because I’m impressionable, but because her work is world-class literature that withstands the test of time.