Books and Literature, Culture

Jennifer duBois’s second novel, Cartwheel, is an example of psychological realism done right, that is to say, not locked into a desperate schemata designed to make each act of each character a Newtonian inevitability set into elegant motion within the heatless, frictionless word problem of The Way We Live Now; rather, it’s a fraught, cock-eyed rending of minds made ever more inscrutable the deeper we delve into them, a sort of dissection that ends with a pile of catalogued parts that can never again be whole. This is how the mind really works, or I should say instead, how it is, but too much realist writing has never gotten over Freud and sees consciousness as a knot to be untangled into a genealogy. Cartwheel is full of minds that make less sense as the book goes on, less sense to us and less sense to their own fictional selves. Superficially a novel about a notorious murder, it becomes a book about the obscurity and impossibility of motive, about the odd fact that self is as much a conceit as narrative; that as there aren’t actually stories in the world, neither are there selves.

The novel is both loosely and precisely based on the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, or put another way, on the Amanda Knox affair, reset to Argentina, but following the general contours of that case closely. I’d heard about but hadn’t read duBois’s first novel; I should be honest and admit that the descriptions of the thing didn’t especially appeal to me; the setup sounded like the sort of prize-bait I try to avoid. I should maybe give it a chance. But I like lurid literature—I mean, I’m not above rereading Call Me by Your Name for the sex, for instance—and I was slightly fascinated by the Kercher/Knox story, as, I think, any former exchange student must be. So I grabbed Cartwheel from the library as a wild card and figured I’d read it in a night.

In fact, the murder story is a sort of MacGuffin; though the details are changed, it’s almost immediately evident that we’re not going to stray too far from the Knox case. What we get, instead, is a series of chapters that wind in and out of the consciousness of Knox-manquée Lily Hayes, her sort-of boyfriend Sebastien, her father, and Eduardo Campos, the official prosecuting her case. All of them are thoroughly introspective, fully convinced of their own insights into their own motives, and thoroughly, tragically deluded. But—and this is the book’s neat trick, its welcome departure from the norm of American “literary fiction”: their delusions are never that they misapprehend something essential about their own character, that they believe themselves to be altruists, say, when they’re really egoists; that they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing good when in fact they’re just reenacting some evil done to them long ago.

Instead, they keep circling a core of self that isn’t there; they’re not orbiting a star, but a black hole, a well so deep and dense that it approximates solidity through a kind of nonexistence. They’re all reference and no referent; a set of contingencies reflecting only each other. Now, there are some predictable bits; the effect isn’t absolute. Lily and her family are burdened by the loss of an earlier child and sibling; Eduardo, the prosecutor is confounded by a fickle, disastrous marriage. And still, the pervading sadness in Andrew and Maureen Hayes, Lily’s divorced parents, feeds mostly on itself, even as they both—both of them intellectuals—cast back in hopeless hopefulness to the ur-tragedy of losing a child, while Eduardo’s dogged, moralistic pursuit of Lily in the murder case wills itself into a parallel with the flights of Eduardo’s wife rather than being naturally generated by them. Lily is the most obscure of all of them, and we can believe that she both did and did not murder that girl; that if she didn’t, she might have; that if she verifiably did, she might not.

This is a kind of fiction I wish we got more of: subversively resistant to the idea that human beings are a quantity to be known. In it, we are utterly alien to ourselves, and our lives aren’t hemmed in by the conventions of narrative and psychology, but keep messily, insistently transgressing them.

The Coincidental Fundamentalist

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture

I’m about to finish revising my novel, The Bend of the World, which I hesitatingly call my first novel, because really, it’s my third. I wrote the first (mostly) during my senior year at Oberlin and my second a couple of years later when I was back in Pittsburgh and insinuating myself professionally into the world of arts management—still my day job. They had in common only that they were gay (I mean that in both the sexual and the adolescent insult sense) and terrible. The first was called The Atlas of the End of the World, and yes, I ripped off that title for my current work, since it was one of the few redeeming qualities. It also had a pretty good opening line: “That night we drove as if the driving would save him.” Ok, maybe a little histrionic, but not bad for a twenty-two-year-old. It was a bad pastiche of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Berlin Stories and Portrait of the Artist—I’m trying to make a joke about my Stephen Hero being a Stephen Zero. And failing.

My second novel was called Be That As It May, and once again, the title is the closest it gets to possessing a redeeming quality. Ah, no, to be fair, it has one good scene involving a drunken cop and a small-town gay bar. It also has a couple of really bad sex scenes, one in a swimming pool; sort of a fanfictive prefiguring of some of the hotter passages in Call Me By Your Name. My boyfriend’s first comment after reading the first draft of my new book was, “It’s not as sexy as your last one.” This was a compliment.

To my own credit, I guess, I pretty quickly recognized these first two forays as shitty work, although I did send the opening chapter of the second to a few agents and am to this day a little staggered by the generous restraint required to reply with a mere this isn’t really the sort of thing we’re looking for right now. I then spent a few years forgoing fiction altogether, until I started noodling around with my ongoing novel, whose opening quarter I think I rewrote six or seven times, and whose latter half kept wandering off. Literally. Like, the characters kept going to North Carolina, Florida, New York. They had no business going to any of these places, but I couldn’t stop them. I really wanted Johnny to give a talk on UFOlogy at a lousy convention center in Central Florida. I really wanted a conspiracy to involve the lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Or maybe more to the point, Johnny really wanted to give that talk, and that lighthouse really wants to be part of a conspiracy. Snip, snip.

A confession. I’ve always been annoyed by writers and artists who yak on about their process, a word I associate with a cloudy concoction made of one part self-indulgence and one part self-doubt, but long before my book appears to the public, I’m beginning to see how unavoidable it is, and how it must pay to have an anecdote at the ready. My friends and relatives keep asking me what it’s like to write a book, and I don’t actually know what to say. I imagine myself gazing off into the middle distance as a NPR personality warbles in my ear, then answering bemusedly, “Well, Steve, it’s like . . . writing a book.” In fact, once I managed to get myself a deadline thanks to the hard work of an editor and an agent who seem to think that this thing I’ve made is actually somewhat better than not half bad, I found the work of it a pleasure and joy, although I can now say, months into editing, that I am getting awfully tired of the little fucker. As to what that work consisted off, well, I just don’t know. Of writing? And as for what it all means? Uh, my Corporate Sponsors have asked me to emphasize the following message: It Is What It Is.

Hang with me, guys. Thesis: there exists a desire to see the process of creating a novel through the lens of what we popularly suppose a novel is. There are preexisting narrative and psychological expectations. There’s an expected shape to the thing. Or: the form of the work is supposed to mirror the form of the work. The story of the writer’s encounter with his own writing should follow a psychic and temporal line. The author should undergo an experience of self-revision, emerging from the ordeal altered by the events. His process should itself be a story. He should, in fact, be a character. Well, as much as I bitch about the expectations of narrative and the deranging influence of too much realism, my book does have a plot of sorts, but you won’t be surprised to learn that I have an equally hard time answering the question, “What’s it about?” I don’t really know. The conspiracy narrative was the formal model. Everything ought to seem uncannily connected, but with the indelible sense that it’s all just coincident. Actually, this is my personal theory of narrative in any event: a conspiracy theory of reality.

Quest Into the Unknown

Books and Literature, Culture



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.

I’ll Show You The Life of the Mind

Books and Literature, Media, The Life of the Mind

One of my fonder memories of Oberlin College was taking a really tough neuroscience class in my junior year. It was an intermediate level course that I had no business taking without organic chemistry and research methods and suchlike; I’m not even sure how I managed to get in. Despite its reputation as a place where the disaffected queer stoner second sons of not-that­-rich Upper West Side professionals did independent majors in environmental gender veganism, Oberlin had a formidable undergraduate neuroscience program, and the courses were very hard. And interesting!

While not an intro course, it was technically open to non-majors (cf. me), and the usual lunatic sociologists and anthro kids in need of hard science creds gravitated to it. Although I was an English major, I’d been a big science nerd in high school, and I knew enough to know that I didn’t know shit about shit, so I sat halfway back and kept my mouth shut. Budding sociologists have no such sense or compunction, and they were forever interrupting the lecture on cell receptors or whatever in order to make wild extrapolations about human behavior and what one—I wish I could remember his name; I remember that he was shorter than me, and we may have made out one time at a Soccer House party—invariably referred to as “Society At Large.”

This was more than ten years ago, and perhaps in the intervening years the state of the art has advanced and propounded a psychohistorical theory of the mind, but I rather doubt it. The giddy extrapolations of popsci writers from Brooks to Gladwell are so deliriously just-so, and the idea that the evolved architecture of the human mind has something to say about whether a human becomes a Democrat or a Republican so completely bonkers . . . Well. A dog evolved to be a remarkable omnivore, but it eats shit because she’s hungry and the shit is there, if you know what I mean. When a writer comes bearing a PET scan and a bill of particulars, you have the right to remain skeptical. It is probably a con.

I don’t know that I ever read any of Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker pieces, but I did read Proust Was a Neuroscientist. You will not be shocked to learn that Proust was not, in fact, a neuroscientist. Proust was an astute observer of human behavior and a meticulous reporter of human sentiment. Somewhat later, some scientists described some natural, physical phenomena which may partially give rise to certain behaviors and sentiments. Lehrer, like a good popscicle, proposes that Proust’s observations somehow pre-post-retroactively anticipated the discoveries of modern neuroscience. You see the logical fallacy. It’s like claiming that Hebrews 11:12 anticipated the Hubble Deep Field.

What does neuroscience have to say about the fact that it was fake Bob Dylan quotations and a habit of cribbing from his own work that got Lehrer marked as a fraud rather than the fact that his writing was total bullshit? His books and their theses were fabricated, and through them he became a public intellectual. Then he lazily rehashed some blog posts and misattributed some guidance-counselor pabulum about creativity to Bob Dylan, and for that you’re upset about his still commanding $20K speaker fees? Listen, for $20K, I would be happy to tell you that “our best decisions are a finely tuned blend of both feeling and reason and the precise mix depends on the situation.” Hush, girl. You don’t say.

I am in danger of violating my own best dictum here: never begrudge another man his successful scam. Lehrer and I are nearly exact contemporaries. While he was constructing this elaborate and profitable ruse, I was being a Cool Kid and going to openings and hanging out late and putting off finishing my novel. Now, even disgraced, he commands a single speaker fee that’s bigger than my whole advance! (Dear WW Norton et al., I am not complaining. Love, Jacob.) This is because America prefers a fiction that purports to be true rather than truth expressed via fiction; it is why Proust Was a Neuroscientist is more palatable than Proust. And Lehrer is certainly very smart, smart enough to understand the profit potential in a well-coordinated campaign of public semi-abasement. Y’all are just jealous that he got there first.

Journalism—the neologism-profession that Leherer stands accused of mispracticing—is one of those items of modern life that’s always more sinned against than sinning, and that oughta tell you something. Its arcane professional conventions have the malleable orthodoxy of a child’s game, both infinitely changeable and totally inviolable, lest someone or other throw himself into the wood chips and start bawling. Lehrer was a lousy writer, and that merited success and accolades, but when it was discovered that he was unprofessional, the collective moral conniption commenced. What does that tell you?

Jacob Bacharach’s next book, entitled Physician, Heal Thyself, examines how the words of Jesus Christ anticipated some of today’s most challenging medical and public policy problems.

Lightning Is Striking Again

Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Things that Actually Happen


So as some of you know and some of you don’t, I’ve written a book, about which I will engage in some shameless promotion later on. But in this book, there is a guy named Winston Pringle, who believes that the Point in Pittsburgh is a nexus of intense magical energy, an axis mundi, where the three phenomenal rivers and the fourth esoteric underground river join in mystical convergence. Anyway, my good friend John Allen and his friend Dave were in town, and in honor of the end of the Mayan long count calendar, we walked through a wild snow squall to the Point, whereupon we encountered that very–I thought, since I made him up–fictional conspiracy theorist. Actually, he claimed that he was Philip R. Ford, director of the semi-legendary Vegas in Space.

Well, he was just down there to soak up the energy and collect a little river water. We had a great talk. He also claimed to be the brother-in-law of Lou Christie, one of Pittsburgh’s great early pop stars, whom you probably know by his one big hit, “Lighting Strikes”, here performed by Klaus Nomi, because that’s what Phil would’ve wanted:

“I asked the park ranger back there if there were any events or celebrations planned today,” he said. He was resting on a park bench. He used a cane. He was wearing a sort of cowboy-cum-Homburg, a pin with the outline of a scorpion and a ring embossed with a black ankh. “But he said there was nothing.” We nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’ve got the energy all to ourselves, just the four of us.” Then he told us the roasting pans in his grocery bag were for a Christmas goose.

“I know times are dark,” he said, “But I happen to think we’re coming into a better age. Our collective consciousness is making the change. It’s going to be a more matriarchal period. I’m pretty sure about that.”

You could barely see the stadium on the other side of the river because of the snow. A construction worker down by the fountain kept trying to light a cigarette in the wind.

The loveliest sentiments are what the rest of us call mad.