The best advice that I ever got In Re: The Matter of Finishing a Novel came five years before I actually sat down and finished the fucker. I was at an Oberlin College reunion, and I ran into my old friend, Neil. Neil and I had an odd history. We’d actually met before college at a young writer’s thingamajig at the University of Virginia. He was friends with another boy from Pittsburgh who would, later that year, become my first boyfriend. They were both aspiring playwrights and wrote dark psychodramas about sex and incest and heroin and stuff. I was still wearing an oversize Jethro Tull concert tee (Roots to Branches, babe), and both boys seemed alarmingly sophisticated.
A couple years later I ran into Neil on the stairs in Rice Hall. We were looking for the creative writing department, I think. I had to remind him of my name. We chatted briefly, and we went about bumping into each other here and there for the next year or so. I’m not sure how or to what end, really, but by the beginning of sophomore year, I’d developed an inexorable and unreciprocated crush. He was small; he had very fine features, but he had this ineradicable five-o’clock shadow that made him alluring and masculine. I was living in French House that year, and we occasionally hung out. On the last night of our first semester, he kissed me. Like, tongues and everything. Then he said something incredibly embarrassing. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” Something like that. Of course, it wasn’t embarrassing at the time. It was devastating. The next semester I went to Strasbourg. I wrote him one exceedingly overwrought love letter, which he claimed never to have received.
When I came back, he was dating a lovely girl—Rebecca, I think, was her name. He may have been doing a lot of speed; he’d always been a more committed druggie than me; I was just a dabbler, a dilettante. He looked hollowed out. We still saw each other and hung out from time to time. Once, we almost had sex. Junior year, third floor of Johnson house, in my big, vaulted dormer room, but I happened to glance out the window and see my friend Alex coming up the driveway. By then I had an inexorable and unreciprocated crush on Alex, so I made some hasty excuse and packed Neil out down the back stairs.
Anyway, we ran into each other at some barbeque at some off-campus house five years after we graduated. Some people were playing softball. Neil and I sat on a picnic bench. He looked fit, and he told me he’d seriously taken up boxing. Boxing? He and another classmate of ours were running some kind of web something or other in Brooklyn. We talked about other old acquaintances, and we talked about books, and I said, a little sheepishly, that I was reading a lot of science fiction. He laughed at me and told me that he loved science fiction. I mostly read scifi and fantasy anymore, he said. “I mean, I’ve read The Man Without Qualities. I’m supposed to be embarrassed that someone sees me with a Tor paperback on the train?” That’s the advice, by the way.
We talked about China Miéville, and I told him about Iain M. Bank’s Culture series, which he’d never read. Then, I don’t know. I went to some dinner or some party; he went somewhere. The reunion ended. We did become Facebook friends. Not too long after, just a year or two, he went to Thailand to study Muay Thai. Then he came back to New York, and not long after that, I got an email from my friend Alex. Did I know that Neil Chamberlain had been hit by a car? He had, in Brooklyn, late one night or early one morning. He died in the hospital about a week later. By the way, this is realism. There isn’t any point, really. Some shit happened, in no particular order.
Coincidentally, within an hour of reading Helen Rittelmeyer’s skeptical essay on “rhapsodies to the power of reading,” my old friend Arthur Silber sent me a link to Ian McEwan’s latest in The New Republic: “When I Stop Believing in Fiction.” Coming on the Louis-XIV-style heels of Papa Roth’s, ahem, retirement from the game, you’d be forgiven for reading the title in the tone and spirit of valediction. McEwan is only in his sixties, but he’s been a great critical and commercial success. Disillusionment, especially the public kind, is very often the affectation of guys who’ve already gotten pretty rich.
Has McEwan stopped believing in fiction? Reader, he hasn’t. Actually, he’s recounting something even more banal. After working very hard to write a novel, it often takes a few months of kicking around before he’s ready to start another one. The air in the cathedral is heavy with the scent of incense and the organ’s lower octaves, but beyond these barricades mysterieuses of the writer-priest lays every project everywhere ever. After I spent a week repointing that brick wall, it took a week to get motivated to sand the floors. After I cleaned out the basement, I took a nap. After a rough couple weeks at work, I took a personal day and went for a long bike ride.
It’s not, in other words, a matter of faith or belief, but a matter of interest. You train, you run the marathon, and then you take a week off and eat ice cream. Recovered, you start running again. There’s no mystical hocus-pocus, no “icy waters of skepticism.” Our hearts do not “fail” when we gaze at our cycling shoes or the box of contractor bags or the stack of over-wintered tomato cages in the unplanted spring garden. We might sigh to ourselves, and we might procrastinate, but we don’t go in for the Deus Deus Meus shit. At least, I don’t.
Are you surprised to learn that McEwan doesn’t perish on the cross, but rather clambers down, quotes an apocryphal Nabokov, and writes a book?
As one of his former Cornell students recalled in TriQuarterly, Nabokov would utter, “ ‘Caress the details,’ rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details!’ ” I’m happy to take that advice. I make no great claim for either sentence above, except to say they each marked the beginning of a thaw in my indifference. They are prompts, not revelations. What they share is their illustration of fiction’s generous knack of annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity. Both are third-person accounts that contain a pearl of first-person experience—the fault-finding light of spring, the shoes no longer alive and biting. Appreciating the lines, you are not only at one with the writer, but with everyone who likes them, too. In the act of recognition, the tight boundaries of selfhood give way a little. This doesn’t happen when you learn what a Higgs boson does.
Is that what fiction does? It “annotat[es] the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness.” How do you annotate a lattice-work? What are the “tight boundaries of selfhood”? Um, have you ever heard Nabokov’s voice? What about it reminds you of a cat’s tongue? Why do you have to drag the poor Higgs boson into it?
Like Rittelmeyer, I tend to frown in the direction of the rhapsodic mode when it comes to reading and writing. It suggests a dire lack of confidence, a need to hide the gaudy fantasy cover art behind an old issue of TriQuarterly, though in this case the woman in the fur bikini riding the dragon is the whole enterprise of writing fiction. If you feel the need to drape your chosen profession, or your art, in this sort of mumbo jumbo, then maybe this art is not for you, despite all your success at it. Well, here I am, taking shots at someone who’s sold a lot more books than I likely ever will, but I’ll say this much about my, uh, my process: it doesn’t keep me up at night, pacing the creaking attic, wondering what does it all mean?
Most people who write books do it because there’s a story they want to tell, or a character they want to create, or because there’s a great punch line that needs a long setup. Some people write for money. Some people are interested in consciousness, or conscience, or sex, or vampires, or sexy vampires. Some people just want to lord their book deal over the peers at the next Oberlin reunion. Most of us, however, do not get paid to realize that “things that never happened can tangle with things that did,” or that our libraries yet have room for both encyclopedias and poems. We haven’t got time for crises of faith. We have contracts. We have deadlines.
Literature has been in crisis pretty much forever, and there’s a neat racket in making outsized claims about its civilizing influence or social value or spiritual necessity, as if dressing the whole thing up in Anglican drag—“Like a late victorian clergyman sweating in the dark over his Doubts, I have moments when my faith in fiction falters and then comes to the edge of collapse”—will endow it with some kind of imperial inevitability. Listen, we should pray that literature doesn’t get any more like religion, another theater bleeding subscribers faster than it can acquire new ones. And if the purpose of good books is to colonize the souls of the not-yet-reading public, then fuck it, I’m’a find me a TV.