Hazlitt Magazine

Signs of Life

On the surreal nature of secondary trauma.

Street Meat Stories

Writing and whoring—selling a body or a body of work—what’s the difference?

'I May Dwell in Darkness to Affirm its Opposite': An Interview with Eugene Marten

Talking to the author of Pure Life about brand names as verbal death, distrusting omniscience in fiction, and elite semicolon use.

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Signs of Life

On the surreal nature of secondary trauma.

“Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality.” —Andre Breton, The Surrealist Manifesto Hamade’s voice stayed warm and steady, even when he told us, “Four mortars last night. Thirty dead.” And later, “They will bomb the camp hospital today.” I wondered how he did it, how his voice could soothe even as it shocked. Maybe if I understood that, I’d stop flinching when he spoke. Pauline and Matej must know; Pauline’s face stayed smooth, Matej’s voice brisk. “Where? How did you hear? Which groups?” From our apartment in Turkey, Matej wanted to know everything happening across the border in Syria: Hamade’s sources, the exact locations of anticipated attacks, which groups were planning air strikes and which were retreating to the rubble of villages already destroyed by war. He—we—needed details if our teams were to keep working, keep trying to stem the country’s flood of losses. Outside, the sun was rising, seeping through our lacy curtains. In Syria, forty-five kilometres to the east, it lit up the Great Mosque of Aleppo, its marbled prayer hall blackened by rocket-propelled grenades. Syrians kept praying there anyway, the crowns of their heads kissing daylight and ruined stone. Elsewhere in the country, it warmed the faces blinking awake in makeshift camps. Warmed, too, the hands of bakers, already at work kneading manakish bread. Even in a war, signs of life. As the day went on, death tolls rising, I tried to hold onto this. * In the spring of 2014, I moved to Antakya, a border town in southern Turkey. In normal times, Antakya was only an hour from Syria, a smooth and lovely drive lined with cypress trees and small villages of stone. But that time was not normal. The war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebel groups was stretching into its third year. I heard that road was still pretty to drive, but not exactly pleasant, and definitely not relaxing, surveilled as it was by drones, soldiers, and a dozen militias, all relentlessly watching and waiting for one wrong move. One wrong move—in a sense, that’s what I was there to prevent. My employer, a French humanitarian agency, operated in Syria’s northern Idlib province, providing assisted walking devices and rehabilitation therapy to civilians who’d lost limbs in the fighting. Recently, they had also started a risk education program. Mortars, shells, and rockets that didn’t detonate on landing had become a sight so common, Syrians stopped avoiding them, believing them to be like all other debris of war: the rubble of collapsed buildings, the bullet-ridden walls, the downed power lines. Harmless—if hideous—relics. The damage, they believed, was already done. They were wrong. In 2013, the UN gave up counting Syria’s casualties. But the number who escaped a bombing or airstrike only to later be killed or injured by an innocent-looking scrap of metal was in the thousands—maybe tens of thousands. Risk education helped civilians recognize the devices for what they still were: objects of war, to be avoided at all costs. It was public health in a war zone—and I was in charge of it. But the closest I’d get to the war was this apartment in Antakya, full of frightening, eccentric details: blood-red ceilings, a statue of a snarling monkey in the entryway. In my room, a Barbie nightlamp, except Barbie’s face was stretched too wide, her smile taking on freakish proportions reminiscent of the Joker. And in the living room, a low-dangling rusted chandelier, its few remaining crystals gaudy and tinkering. Underneath, Matej and Pauline, my colleagues and housemates, usually hunched over their laptops, casting huge shadows on walls painted a dark, ominous purple. I tried not to hate it. Not only did I have no choice but to live here, but from the ghoulish living room that doubled as an office, I also managed, remotely, a team of twelve Syrian risk educators. I’d had the same job in Mali, except there, in the desert town of Sévaré, I’d been up-close, traveling every week to the nearby camps of IDPs—internally displaced people—refugees in their own country. But that wasn’t possible here: foreigners were not allowed in Syria. I had no idea how to do this—how to ensure others’ safety without ever putting mine on the line. How to manage a team I’d never meet. How to be the aid worker I’d always dreamed of—working to stanch the greatest humanitarian crisis our generation had seen—without ever encountering the crisis itself. I was twenty-six. I’d never had to contend with the limits of my body, my dreams, my reality. * For Freud and the surrealists of the post-war period, the line between reality and dreams was an artificial one, an arbitrary division carved by the forces of rationalism and convention undergirding Western society. To these intellectuals, dreams—including daydreams, dreams born in sleep, and nightmares—showed us our hidden desires and demons. It was up to us to listen, to reshape our reality towards what we really wanted, and to meet with grace and conviction what we most feared. Ultimately, they saw dreams as a means for remaking the world. * The days in Antakya began with a security briefing, the three of us crowding around Matej’s phone, taking care not to brush against each other as we rubbed the sleep from our eyes. We might hear each other’s snores and farts through the thin walls at night but in the daytime, we were humanitarians. Professionals. On the phone, Hamade, who spoke the best English of the Syrians, recounted the previous night’s fatalities: “Two families dead. A third is missing. They are still digging through the wreckage.” Then, calm as always, he forecasted the casualties of the day ahead. By that point, every town in the rebel-held province of Idlib had designated marasid, civilians who intercepted communications between government pilots and airbases. If an impending strike was discovered, the town’s mosques broadcast warnings on their loudspeakers. Based on this intelligence, the Syrian team suggested an itinerary for the day, which camps they would visit, and which they would avoid. Within the camps, the men usually went to hospitals and rehabilitation centres, and the women to makeshift schools and homes, often built of tin sheets and empty grain sacks. Like street preachers, they sermonized to all who passed by, showing them picture after picture of deformed missiles and firearms, warning of their dangers, their potential for all types of death: painful and long, painful and quick, painful to the point where time lost all meaning, all sense. And of course, before letting their congregants go, they exhorted them to spread the word among their kith and kin. At the end of each day, the Syrians sent photos from the camps, blurry images of dark eyes, water boiled over a fire of twigs, earthen floors turned muddy with rain. Sometimes, an unexploded grenade, casually sitting next to someone’s tent. Sometimes, a scarred face, a stump. Though I knew they were coming, the images were still a shock after a day spent before my screen, coordinating with other humanitarian agencies in Idlib, completing expense reports and updating budgets, and nagging headquarters for the steel-toed boots and solar-powered printers our teams desperately needed. Sometimes, as I mechanically crossed things off my to-do list, I almost forgot about the war, about the fraught project of survival for every Syrian still inside Syria, a survival which was not at all guaranteed, but an hourly gamble. When the photos came, I looked at each one for a long time. Next to me, my mug of Turkish coffee turned cold. From outside, I could hear the laughter of children released from school, could smell the Turkish pide they munched on their way home. In those moments, looking at a life and landscape so alien from the one I inhabited, the distance to Syria felt enormous, almost too vast for my mind to grasp. The fact of physical proximity seemed absurd—not false per se, but something else, something in that grey zone between truth and fiction. It felt, perhaps, surreal. * According to Merriam-Webster, surreal is the term most often-looked up by Americans and Canadians after tragedies: 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, COVID-19. The urge for clarity—for a logical articulation of what we’re experiencing, of a world suddenly beyond our understanding—is never stronger than in moments of tragedy. Of course, by definition, tragedy refuses logic, living in a space beyond comprehension, beyond fairness, beyond reason. *  May 13, 2014 Subject: An unexpected day Dear S, Today, I walked Kurtuluş Caddesı, the city’s central avenue. It’s lined with palm trees that always seem out of place to me, tone-deaf in their presence. They belong in some tropical vacation destination, Miami or Cuba maybe, not on a busy commercial street, not in a city so close to war. Here, I hunt for supplies to be smuggled over the border: first aid kits, flashlights, steel-toed boots to protect the team from stray mortars blowing off their feet. For the most part, I blend in: the war has made Antakya cosmopolitan, refugees and aid workers walking the same streets as diplomats and housewives. But today, for the first time, I encountered suspicion. I was trying to get flyers with pictures of ERW—explosive remnants of war—printed for the teams to distribute. The shop owner, beard henna-ed orange to mark a recent pilgrimage to Hajj, squinted at me. “You going over there to fight, my daughter?” he asked. I fled. Outside, the roundabout clogged with afternoon traffic. Beyond the city, the Nur Mountains rose, freshly green from spring showers. I thought of you—how you love the scent of air heavy with rain, that time we got caught in an afternoon thunderstorm coming back from hiking in the Juras, the way your hair curled in the damp. That last part was a lie. Looking at the Nur Mountains, I’d thought not of S, but of how many people would die that day on the other side of those hills. I’d guessed fifteen. Later, I learned it was eighteen. Close, I thought, and felt strangely proud—until my mind caught up to my thoughts and I wretched, folding in half and heaving and nothing coming out, nothing at all. * The term surreal tends to evoke surrealism, a style often associated with European artists like Dali and Magritte. In his best-known work, “The Persistence of Memory,” Dali foregrounds melting clocks against the cliffs of his native Catalonia. Magritte, in his “Personal Values,” barely contains a giant comb, drinking glass, and matchstick within walls of sky. And Cuban-born Wifredo Lam’s “The Jungle” depicts monster-like creatures, part-human, part-animal, that simultaneously emerge from and merge with a dense wall of vegetation. The power of surrealist art lies in how it renders the familiar bizarre—in the dissonance it exposes between the real and impossible. Such juxtapositions produce contradictory emotions in us: confusion, anger, desire, dread, each amplifying instead of nullifying the other, pushing us into new, uncanny territory. Not exactly real, but something more, or something beyond. * Just like in a dream, time was slippery in Antakya. There were no weekends: we worked every day, all the time. We wore pyjamas at all hours, the coffeemaker always dripping, the trash perpetually full, hummus-smeared plates piling in the sink. My butt was always numb from sitting, my brain tender and cottony. The purple walls were a permanent dusk. Only Saturdays stood out. Every Saturday, I updated an Excel sheet tracking the numbers of Syrian men, women, and children our team had “educated” that week. Also, the number of men, women, and children reported hurt or killed by ERW, explosive remnants of war. The cells tallying injuries and death were cumulative, rising over the months I was there from hundreds to thousands. Once, after updating the cell for “children reported dead from ERW” and watching it clock in at an even 1000, I sat unmoving. My chest seemed to fill with concrete, heavy and irreversible.  When I finally managed to get up, I walked to the kitchen, turned on the faucet to full blast and stuck my mouth under it, swallowing icy water until I thought I might choke. And still, I kept gulping. Only when I raised my head did I see Pauline standing by the fridge, about to bite into a sandwich. “Bad day?” she asked. I knew she didn’t expect an answer. We both knew there were no good days here. But I was learning some days were darker than others, dark enough to make you forget what the light looked like, its warmth on your skin. * Modern horror movies are profoundly influenced by surrealism. Hitchcock, for example, hired Dali to help design a dream sequence in his film Spellbound, scenes leaking with slashed eyeballs, rigged card games, and a cliffside morphing into a menacing face. Without surrealism, art critic and writer Jonathon Jones argues, we wouldn’t have “that inexplicable vein of cinema in which the physical world is violent, erotic.” But to him, the essence of horror is not in flesh-eating monsters or the murderer with the bloody knife. It lies in the tension between those things and the oblivious protagonists, blithely going about their days. The best horror, in other words, is where the mundane meets the monstrous. And this collision disorients, altering our reality—maybe momentarily, maybe forever. * In my second month in Antakya, I spent most of my days toggling between BBC, Al Jazeera, Kanal D, back to BBC, a quick visit to CNN, Al Jazeera again. We’d realized these networks sometimes knew of planned attacks in Idlib before our team did, giving us a chance to warn them away before it was too late. Sifting through news reports was the most useful thing to do in theory, and the most painful to carry out in reality. Imagine: day after day, looking at children’s faces twisted in fear, bodies unconscious in hospital beds, anonymous heads wrapped in bloody bandages. Other times, it was live footage of tanks rolling through deserted streets, the buildings Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes. Once in while, a picture of a family huddled in some dark corner appeared, their few belongings scattered around them—blankets, a yellow duck toy, a Quran. I’d seen some variation of these images on the news throughout my life—but this hit differently, a fist to the throat. After just a month, I could understand some of the Arabic that Syrians used in interviews. Layl. Night. Qatala. Killed. Allah yusaeiduna. God help us. I came to recognize the look they wore, a terror that was at once heightened and dulled from years of carnage. And on a map taped to one of the purple walls, I could pick out the towns under attack—Al-Fu'ah, Kafriya, Saraqib—names that had meant nothing to me just weeks ago. But now, I walked around with those names spilling from my tongue, hoping they still pointed to a place. At night, I heard sounds from that other world. It happened gradually. One night, the metallic pings of gunfire. Another night, a mortar crashing through a roof. I knew it was bad when I heard helicopter wings chopping the air, just moments before the rockets dropped. Whooshh. In the daytime, with sunlight filtering through lace-edged curtains, I could rationalize: Antakya was too far for the noise to travel. My brain was simply recreating the sounds from news footage. But in the dark, I lay very still, the sheets soaked with sweat. I was paralyzed, not by the idea of war coming closer—if that happened, I could run or hide or fight, do something. No, what frightened me was knowing that the horrors I was imagining, and worse, were happening just an hour away. Rubble burying, bombs incinerating. Everywhere, endings. And there was nothing I could do about it. I was far from war, physically. But still, it wormed into my consciousness, refusing to be brushed away into the realm of things abstract and distant and therefore ignorable. * Andre Breton, widely regarded as the founder of surrealism as a cultural movement, quotes French poet Pierre Reverdy: “The more the relationship between . . . juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” The greater the poetic reality, the closer it feels—and maybe is—to truth. * In the camps, our teams in Syria sought out children, easily lured by the glitter and unfamiliar shapes of shazaya. Shrapnel. They played a game with the kids: whoever could pick out the most objects in pictures that were not safe to play with got damak, Turkish chocolate studded with pistachios. I bought those chocolates. I’d volunteered to do it. Making kids happy would make me happy, I’d thought. Obviously saving their lives should make a person happy—shouldn’t it? But at the supermarket, standing before stacks of candy, trying to decide which one was tempting enough to stand between a child’s life and early death, my brain melted. I couldn’t face it. At the store, I drifted away from my body. That’s the only way I know to say it. From a few feet away, I watched someone who looked like me carefully stack the bars of damak in her basket. I watched her smile at the cashier eyeing her strangely, this customer buying five pounds of chocolate and nothing else. I trailed a few steps behind as she walked home, calling Hakan, the fixer who smuggled things across the border, crossing ruined fields of cucumber and olive groves by moonlight, his bag heavy with damak and ball point pens. Back at the apartment, my doppelganger smoothed her fingers across the chocolate, their wrappers smooth and cool to the touch. I watched her look around to make sure her housemates weren’t watching before grabbing a bar and rushing to my room, bolting the door behind her. Then, I stared as she devoured the whole king size bar—nearly a pound—in a single sitting, not tasting any of it. Later, if not for my churning guts and the wrapper sitting guiltily in the garbage can, I would not know what she’d done. * The old thought experiment: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What about the inverse: what if you hear the tree fall but you’re not in the forest? What if you see loss of life, clearly and viscerally, but death is nowhere close to you? “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality,” writes André Breton. The cultural movement emerging in the aftermath of World War I was built on Breton’s training in psychiatry, including his work with shell-shocked soldiers in a neurological hospital. To him, distinguishing the “real” from the imagined or misremembered was both impossible and unnecessary. Our imaginings—no matter how bizarre or implausible—were as much a part of our selves and the world as what our brains categorized as “real.” Breton would be adamant that the tree falling made a sound, regardless of who did or did not witness it. He’d argue, too, that death at a distance was as real as death close up. Not in usual terms, but absolute terms—surreal terms. That is to say, imagined events are rendered real by our reaction to them, whether that reaction is just a sigh, a flinch, or something more permanent: an altering of our neural pathways, a shift in our body’s rhythms. A break in how we experience the world. * On Sundays, I Skyped with S. So I wouldn’t be overheard, I went to a café in the old town known for its kunefe, a local dessert made from semolina and sweet cheese, warm and heavy enough to make me drowsy. S’s face, when it appeared on my laptop, jolted me awake. As the war took up more space in my mind, thoughts of him got pushed out. Until, in the middle of the night, listening for barrel bombs or god-knows-what-else, I’d remember him, the calluses on his hand or the curve of his neck, and just for a moment, I’d relax. My jaw unclenched, my shoulders melted away from my ears. Sometimes, I wondered if I’d made him up, a sweet distraction for my darkest moments. But on Saturdays, there he was on my screen, his beard longer than last time, his hair falling into his eyes. With him, I tried to keep it light, upbeat. “What you do for work is amazing,” he’d said when we first met. “Not many people would do that.” And then he’d kissed me. Would he still kiss me if he knew I was walking around half-alive, flinching away from my work, sometimes departing my body? I didn’t think so. Instead, I told S about my favourite person here, Jwan, the finance assistant. He and his mother had crossed over from Syria two years ago. He hated Turkey, hated the language and the cramped apartment he and his mother shared with a Turkish family. He came to our place every few days, mostly to escape his packed home, to struggle with me through budgets and procurement orders. “What should I put as the ‘reason for expense’ for your phone bill?” he asked once, smirking. “Um, you have to coordinate the teams? Like, that’s literally your job?” We laughed, rolling our eyes. This bureaucratic administrative crap had no place in a war zone, we huffed. But secretly, I enjoyed these tasks. They were the only times I felt to be real. In our ugly purple living room, filling out spreadsheets and giggling with Jwan, life felt like something I could hold in my palm. Another time, I told S how most nights, Matej, Pauline, and I watched The Penguins of Madagascar, a cartoon about four penguins carrying out bizarre commando missions to protect their home in the Central Park Zoo. Over three seasons, they battled a lemur with a foot fetish, a stoned alligator, a shamanic baboon—the list went on. We laughed so hard at Penguins that we cried, snot streaking our faces. It was such a release—maybe because it was the only one we had. The three of us never talked about our feelings—or anything, really, aside from work. I was glad for our silences, the places we didn’t go. I was afraid I’d either scream primally or sob hysterically if we ever discussed how it really felt to work and eat and sleep and shit in this garish apartment, far from everyone we loved, acting as glorified personal assistants to the people doing the real work on the ground, just an hour—an impossible hour—away, in one of the most brutal conflicts of the century. No, we couldn’t talk about those things. So, instead, we watched Penguins. When S spoke, I watched his eyebrows, remembering how they felt under my fingers, and his teeth, white and slightly turned out like a chipmunk. I had to be careful with how much of him I took in. It was too easy to want his life, plump with ease and impulse. I wanted to stop for hot jalebi on the way home for work. I wanted to go to dinner at Mumbai’s hottest new restaurant. I wanted to take the train across fields of rice and sugarcane. I wanted to be with him, doing those things together. But I couldn’t. I was here, doing the job I’d always dreamed of, even if it was also undoing me. After our Skypes, I meandered back to the apartment, trying to hold onto the memory of S’s face, his baritone still reverberating in my chest. Suddenly, the cobbled streets of the old town looked romantic. Even the Orontes river bisecting the city, dry and foul-smelling, appeared alluring in its promise to return. But joy couldn’t survive back at the apartment, where the hideous purple walls, the latest news of attacks and my morbid spreadsheet all awaited. As usual, when I entered, Matej and Pauline didn’t look up. I sank into a chair, fighting the urge to bury my head in my hands. What kind of life was this, I wondered? I worried relentlessly for my Syrian team, none of whom I’d met but all of whom I spoke to everyday, who lived close by and forever out of reach. The only two people physically in my life were Matej and Pauline, around whom I spent all my waking hours—but how much did I know of them, and they of me? They knew nothing of S or my life before Antakya. They didn’t know my mother’s name or that my father left us when I was in high school. They didn’t know my favourite smell was sandalwood or my favourite bird, the kingfisher. I didn’t know anything about their lives or families. We never hugged. I hadn’t touched another person in two months. It must have been even longer for them. Our real selves, it seemed, were reserved for our “real” lives—wherever those were. * By the end of my second month, I was constantly imagining the staff I was closest to—Hamade, Jwan, Nivin—dying. Not just dying, but dying violently. Shot down in Idlib’s streets or bombed in their homes or obliterated by ERW or, or, or . . . No one was safe, no matter how much they knew or how careful they were. My hands were always cold. Soon, I stopped sleeping altogether. All night long, I looked at Barbie and she looked back. Every night, as the sky lightened to dawn, I hurtled between confusion—how could I be haunted by things I’d never experienced?—and shame—was I appropriating others’ tragedies, taking their grief for myself? It was not normal, I thought. I was not normal. Matej and Pauline seemed fine. Even the Syrians had adapted. As journalist Rania Abouzeid writes, “The shelling, once unpredictable, was now as regimented as a television viewing guide. Syrians called it ‘the nightly schedule.’ It began a little after 11:30 p.m. . . . A second, then a third strike, each louder and closer, amplified in a night black because of the lack of electricity and otherwise nearly silent in a neighbourhood emptied of families.” Hamade often told us the fighting had its own logic, a rhythm invisible to outsiders. So, I kept hoping I’d adapt, become used to the cadence of attacks I wasn’t directly exposed to, but that still shaped my days and nights. I just had to wait, be patient. Let time normalize the unthinkable. * The unthinkable: Hamade casually announcing a hospital being wiped off the earth. Turkish chocolate and (un)dead kids. Turkish coffee in hand and satellite imagery of chemical attacks on screen. Soft tapping of keyboards during the day and detonations rippling through the nights. Forty-five kilometers close, a world away. * In S’s latest email, he’d signed off with “love.” I’d stared at the screen, my fists curling with joy. A minute later, an email arrived from Hamade. Nivin, one of the Syrian staff, wouldn’t be working that day, he wrote. The building next to hers had been barrel bombed last night. She and her family hadn’t been harmed, Alhamdulillah, but the explosion—the incredible noise and quaking earth and the sheer terror—had caused her to bleed. She was seven months pregnant. I sat, numb and unmoving for I’m not sure how long—maybe five minutes, maybe fifteen. When I clicked back to S’s email, I stared again at the word “love.” Now, I felt nothing, not even a basic recognition. I felt like I was reading a language I didn’t know. * One day, leaving the old town, I saw children lying motionless on the cobblestone. A moment later, they disappeared. On the way back, I passed a car and it exploded. I blinked, and there it was, intact. Back within the purple walls, I imagined a mortar crashing through the ceiling. I shut my eyes and prayed for respite.  * On surrealist images, Breton quoted Baudelaire, “Man does not evoke them; rather they ‘come to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for the will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.’” To Breton, this was high art, a pure production of the subconscious bypassing the rational mind’s tendency to filter and dilute. But the same helplessness over images that one does not wish to see—the tyrannical or “despotic” way they appear—also characterizes acute PTSD. Psychologists agree that repeated exposure to trauma stories, even if that exposure is only second-hand, leads to a “disrupted world view,” one wherein the world no longer appears benign. Now, when I saw people from or on their way to Syria—a woman in full niqab, children spilling out of the Arabic-Turkish language school, men with long beards—I sped up. Not because I was afraid of them but because I was starting to grasp that, in addition to the physical distance imposed by law, my sanity hinged on maintaining a mental separation from Syria. Before, I’d wanted to get as close as possible—or at least that’s what I’d told myself: a “good” aid worker would try to be as close to crisis as she could, all the better to help alleviate it. Now, though I was physically removed from tragedy, I suffered like I was at ground zero. “At any given moment we have only a distinct notion of [separate] realities, the coordination of which is a question of will,” writes Breton. I no longer willed to hold all these different realities in my mind. Now, I just wanted to be in the future, with S. * When I didn’t extend my contract, Matej was furious. “What are you going to do that’s more important?” he yelled. Later, he apologized, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. I had asked myself the same question, with no answer. The Syrians were more understanding. “Your parents will be happy to see you,” Hamade said. He was shorter than I’d expected and his eyes were blue, not brown as I’d imagined. He’d crossed the day before I left to pick up the colour printer that headquarters, after almost three months of my pestering, finally approved. Now, the Syrians could print their own materials instead of having them smuggled from Antakya. I was glad to see Hamade in person, to situate all of him, beyond just his steady voice, in my world. But some distances remained. I did not tell him, for example, that I was leaving not to see my family but to meet a man I’d only known for a few weeks in “real” life. In the taxi to the airport, my phone pinged with Facebook notifications. Friend requests from the Syrians. I accepted them immediately, clicking hungrily through their photos. A close-up of someone’s grandmother biting into an apricot, its juices running down her chin. Jwan standing in an olive grove, hands in his pockets, looking vaguely uncomfortable. (“City boy!” I thought, smiling.) Here was Nivin’s newborn, wrinkled pink. And Hamade standing on a rooftop, collapsed roofs behind him and his two young daughters, porcelain-skinned and smiling beside him. Relief came first, then shame. The Syrians’ realities—at least, as represented on Facebook—were vastly more varied than I’d pictured. Until then, some part of me had felt morally obligated to imagine their lives under war, shellings and dead children and all, even when those images and sounds went rogue, appearing randomly, not just when I allowed them in. I’d become trapped in the purest surreality as Breton defined it: “psychic automatism,” my imagination sputtering haphazardly, in every direction. All just to get it wrong anyway. * Experts agree the best solution to secondary trauma is minimizing exposure. In other words, limiting work hours, leaving your work at work. Obviously, living in our office, every waking hour consumed by the war, I never stood a chance. Now, I wonder why Matej and Pauline weren’t similarly affected. Some experts believe prior trauma, especially in childhood, heightens the risk of secondary trauma later in life. Now, I can see that I’d been burned out from Mali even before getting to Antakya. And growing up, I’d had a father who was violent, always at war with us, himself, the world. Maybe that history primed me in ways that Matej and Pauline weren’t. Or maybe they were affected and just hid it, the way we were always hiding our selves from each other. I’d never know. After I left, we didn’t stay in touch. I felt too guilty for leaving to reach out and they were probably too busy, too focused, too dedicated to their work to bother. They were the type of “good” humanitarian I was not: professional in contexts where professionalism seemed almost inhumane. I still imagine them now, slaving away within those purple walls. * It would be months before my nightmares abated, before I could talk about Syria or watch news from the Middle East without shrinking. Seeing S again helped. We met in Geneva. One part bliss: S in the flesh, his hands, his mouth. Geneva in summer, the sunset blush of Lac Leman. But another part was agony: I saw the Alps and thought of the Nur Mountains, which is to say, I thought of death. S and I ate Swiss chocolate, dark and bitter, but all I could think of was milky-sweet damak, which is to say, all I could think of was death. In Antakya, I’d tried so hard to push against the horror creeping into my consciousness. But this time, the sensations weren’t as unbearable, maybe because I actually allowed myself to feel them. Guilty, exhausted, ruined, and glad to be there, with S. A juxtaposition, I was learning, was not always a contradiction. But after three weeks, S had to return to India. Perhaps I could go with him, I ventured. I had no job lined up and enough savings to last me at least a half year. He touched my face and smiled. Then, gently, he told me he didn’t think that was a good idea. And just like that, it was over. * “The absolute rationalism that is still in vogue allows us to consider only facts relating directly to our experience,” Breton wrote, nearly 100 years ago. This still rings true today. If that’s the case, then Antakya was the closest I came to absolute irrationalism, months coloured by events and people outside my physical reach. As time went by, I expected my memories of those months, already swaddled in a sort of surreal gauze, to fade. But, instead, the opposite has happened: six years later, my memories of that time have sharpened, skin and skies and walls intensifying into technicolor. Across the years and continents, I can feel the weight of my boredom, my horror, my laughter in Antakya. I can feel the tenderness I was growing for S, its precarity and promise. In fact, I feel closer to all those things now than when I experienced them. A juxtaposition is not a contradiction; the surreal can be truer than reality.
‘I May Dwell in Darkness to Affirm its Opposite’: An Interview with Eugene Marten

Talking to the author of Pure Life about brand names as verbal death, distrusting omniscience in fiction, and elite semicolon use.

Tune in online Tuesday, June 21, 2022 for Strange Light Presents: Eugene Marten in Conversation with Defector editor David Roth—registration is free. At first glance, Eugene Marten’s fifth novel Pure Life (Strange Light) might sound like a departure from the subject material of his previous books, beginning as it does with the archetypal ascent of a small-town high school football player to NFL stardom. Known to the reader only by his jersey number, Nineteen retires early, injured but seemingly destined to slide into what should be a life of fame and fortune and ease. But things go wrong, as the story demands they must. This is in the jacket copy, more or less, so it’s not a spoiler to say all this happens early in the novel: Nineteen’s playing days—and his fortune—are both over and lost before page fifty. What follows is an increasingly nightmarish descent into Nineteen’s brain-damaged psyche, pushed against the brutality of the world he’s leaving behind, in his lost career and family, and the world he enters into as he looks for a miracle cure for what is likely the same chronic traumatic encephalopathy suffered by so many ex-football players. His search eventually leads him to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, where in his desperation he finds yet another kind of violence, different than that of the playing field or the marketplace but with its own public-facing logic. Marten’s work possesses a kind of assured restlessness that I’ve always admired: his novels do not commit to remaining in only one mode, or to being about only what they seem to be on the first page. In Pure Life, as in his other books, what for many novelists would be spread over three hundred pages gets compressed into a third of that space, by virtue of a relentless onrush of events, and by Marten’s precision at the level of the sentence and the scene. This compression allows his novels to travel past their initial premise into new territories of aftershock and aftermath, into the deeper wanting that lies behind what a character tells themselves they’ve set out to achieve. His protagonists are flawed and susceptible to temptation, like all of us; they each carry their own personal shard of darkness that, turned the other way around, always catches the light of what else might have been possible. Everywhere his characters go and everything they do is rendered in Marten’s unforgettable prose style, a voice that I’ve long counted among the strongest in contemporary literature. I spoke to Marten about Pure Life by correspondence throughout the month of May. Matt Bell: One of the first things a reader is going to notice about Pure Life is your choice not to reveal your protagonist’s name, but to refer to him by his football jersey number, Nineteen. You also don’t name the professional team he plays for, although other players and other teams are named, and you frequently refer to people only by their title or role: Coach, the expatriate, the girlfriend, the Canadian husband, the Canadian wife. I’m curious about the distance this creates between the reader and the characters: is this you purposely holding the reader at a remove, as a novelist, or should we read this more as Nineteen, seeing people not as named individuals but as the roles they play in his life? Eugene Marten: I would answer yes to the last part of your question, and add that my characters are also referred to by the roles they play in their own lives. This may seem like a distancing device at first, but an initial anonymity to me is a better portal to the world of the book. So many names, even in books I love, sound simply too “made up,” more hiccup than handshake, more narrative convenience than connection. Some writers are better than others at it; you can't argue with Barry Hannah's names, or Joy Williams', and though Hemingway has some real clunkers, opening his best novel with the words “Robert Cohn” is a brilliant stroke. I should say, though, that some of the namelessness in Pure Life is not unqualified; Nineteen is likely unable to retain the Canadian couple's names because of cognitive impairment. I should also say, full disclosure, that the christening of characters is just something I'm not very good at. I'm usually not quite able to overcome that initial feeling of self-conscious artifice, but this is not to say I never use names, I just prefer they be “given” to me, sort of dropped in my lap by necessity, a requirement of the book revealing itself. If I have to look in the White Pages, or play mix and match with firsts and lasts, I'd rather not. Of course, this approach has been used in many short stories, but what happens when it's sustained over the length of a novel (if I'm not mistaken, Matt, you're not entirely a stranger to it)? Book sales notwithstanding, I like to think it doesn't keep the reader at arm's length, but results in a different kind of interaction, maybe one more meaningful than that afforded by the added fiction of a name. One might even imagine one’s own name for a character, just as one imagines how that character might look. As you said, the act of naming is important to me in my work too: I had a period of several years where I didn’t use a proper name for anyone. There’s a similar estrangement around brand names and the names of locations and other cultural references in Pure Life, which my own work generally shares. In your novel, it’s also a bit selective, coming and going in places. A minor example: there’s an unnamed automobile in the novel that’s clearly a Toyota, which I know only because I own one too, and I recognized the name of its entertainment system, which is named. There are many elements of your work that remind me of DeLillo’s, but one place all your novels feel drastically different to me is in their approach to modernity. If DeLillo simultaneously celebrates it and feels paranoid about it, your novels are doing something else. Is there a general stance in your fiction toward all the markers and signifiers of the branded, commodified world Nineteen and your other characters are moving through? I think modernity should be given its due, but to me brand names often constitute a kind of verbal death, like finding a bit of plastic in your soup, and I try to use them judiciously. (The sound of the brand, how it interacts with the other sounds, is also a factor.) So I'll use the words around them, suggesting, leading up to, pointing, but leaving the final utterance to the reader—not just so the latter can participate, but to give the object a kind of life, context—roots, if you will. It so often seems that to name something is to discard it before its time—which I suppose could also be the point—but I sometimes prefer to take it just so far and then nod to the reader: We both know what I mean, you take it from here. Now as far as the car you mentioned, it is identified as a Camry in an earlier paragraph, but even if it hadn't been I probably still wouldn't have said “Toyota.” This lends the vehicle the exalted status it has for Nineteen's girlfriend; you have to earn it to say it. On the other hand, the same make is freely mentioned in Honduras, where it has been secondhanded as a common taxi, repurposed along with the old American school buses, NFL jerseys, and other cultural hand-me-downs. So how's your soup? “You have to earn it to say it” is such a smart way to say it, and I love how you explain the esteem given to the different brands and objects changing in different contexts. You mentioned that sound is a factor in these decisions: one of the pleasures of reading your work has always been the power of your prose, and certainly that pleasure continues in Pure Life. There are so many places I could choose to quote from, but I’m going to pick a smaller moment because I think it’s the attention given to the small things that really shows a writer’s commitment to getting things right: When Nineteen is on the street in Honduras, he notes offhandedly once that “traffic was dangerous but purposeful; familiar red octagons said ALTO and were regarded as suggestions.” I’ve had a minor obsession with that semicolon there, with its half-stop that in this context feels to me so much like the country road rolling stop you see everywhere in the Midwest where we both grew up. No one would probably notice if a less interesting sentence was in that spot, but I’m glad for the amount of attention you paid even to this scrap of setting. Assuming it has, how has your approach to your prose itself changed over time? Do you feel compelled to push your sentences in new directions each book, or is it more a matter of trying to deepen and refine your stylistic desires? I like your take on that semicolon; it never occurred to me but makes beautiful sense. Thank you, Professor Bell. For me, the great joy of writing is working with sentences, finding the voice of the book, its sound. The way to the mind's eye is through the mind's ear. So never describe anything, render it. Don't describe a ship, build a ship out of words. Then go sailing. And study grammar. Two things that writers, including me, are often lousy at: typing and grammar. You can muddle through with the former, but every writer should learn the mechanics of his medium. It's the music theory of literature, and copy editors are a great resource for this. Each book I've attempted has always been a bit more difficult than the one preceding it, so the language will take me somewhere I haven't been. But I think, over time, I'm more and more disposed toward subtlety, refinement, sentences that are objects of integrity themselves without calling attention to it, that don't distract from what they refer to. The sublime can be very quiet. Think of a drummer like Steve Gadd. You hear this song somewhere and he seems to be keeping a simple beat, then you listen and hear these wonderful things he's doing with color and time, then realize you were hearing it all along. I suppose this sounds a bit Aesthetics 101, but for me the quest is for that ideal synthesis of form and content, the wine and its bottle, etc. Maybe form redeems content, resolves it, forgives it, loves it, but anyway, I should probably stop making musical analogies. It's useful to a point, but writing is writing. We're told all the arts aspire to the condition of music, but maybe music seeks to escape its condition. In 2016, you launched a Kickstarter with the aim of securing funds to travel to Honduras and the Mosquito Coast to research the second half of Pure Life. The Kickstarter ultimately didn’t fund, but I know that those of us who did back it stayed curious about the novel and about the research you’d proposed. Did you end up taking this research trip anyway, or at a later date? Reading the Kickstarter page now, having read the book, it seems like you had a good bit of what would happen in that part of Pure Life planned out: how did the novel change because of this trip, if you did finally go? (Or, if you didn’t, how did it change your plans for the writing?) I did go on that trip, several months later, and it would have been impossible to finish the book without it. I did have a general sense of where things were going to go once Nineteen made it to Honduras, but the exact logistics were unavailable to me and I couldn’t have just made it up (not to mention the particulars of just being there). I also knew that he was going to get into trouble in the Moskitia but wasn’t sure what kind, and still wasn’t sure when we returned. That part, I had to write my way into. In that same write-up of your intentions for Pure Life, you noted that “the theme of vocation is central to the book, as it is in all my work.” The only thing Nineteen is particularly successful at is football, although the money he makes playing affords him a temporary future as an entrepreneur and real estate developer. After he loses most of his money, it leaves him with another kind of loss, this time of purpose and usefulness to others. What is it about vocation that animates you, and how does that translate to animating your characters on the page? In our system you have to work. For the vast majority of us, it's a basic fact of life. I've had a good number of jobs in my time—I'd say fifty or so—mostly blue collar stuff, a lot of it menial, and there was a seemingly endless hand-to-mouth period where my wife and I supported a young family, were on the verge of eviction and what is now called food insecurity more than once, and bounced desperately from gig to minimum wage gig as though it were a matter of life and death, which case could be made. I lived in terror of homelessness. My story is hardly unique, and people have had it much, much worse, but that might explain my writerly obsession with what people “do.” Whether it's a job, or lack of one, vocation or avocation, labor of love or necessary evil, something that defines us or something to transcend, it's always there. As a novelist, I’m always looking for ways in which the book can be smarter than the protagonist, or have a bigger scope, and I feel what seems to be a similar want in Pure Life, as I did in Layman’s Report. In that novel, I’ve always thought the first chapter admirably widened the playing field of the novel, before we meet Fred; in Pure Life, there are several such times where we step away from Nineteen. The one that’s stuck with me most is when Nineteen is talking with a character in Honduras known to us as the expatriate: Nineteen asks the expatriate how he met his wife, which leads to a four-page paragraph of the wife’s backstory, a tale that “the expatriate didn’t know, though she had tried to tell him,” of the horrors the wife had passed through to get to the time and place where they met. A couple pages later, these memories get referenced again, when Nineteen declines to explain his playing days to the expatriate, pretending not to remember. But then you write, “In truth he remembered nothing as clearly, but he couldn’t convey it to someone who hadn’t played the game, any more than he could have known what it was like to cling to the ice-covered roof of a train roaring through thirty-one tunnels in mountain dark.” It’s such a curious moment, where Nineteen’s consciousness mirrors or perhaps rhymes with that of the expatriate’s wife, a character who never appears in the scene. This is a longwinded way of asking how you think of the limitations or possibilities of the novel: How big of a playing field have you given yourself here? How did you decide what was permissible and what should be avoided? The possibilities of the novel are virtually infinite, and for me this is also its limitation. There's such a thing as too much freedom. I distrust omniscience, it seems to me unanchored, loose, lacking in tension; too “easy” in a sense. So my preferred mode to this point is pretty much close third, generally sticking with one character throughout. We see the story unfold over his shoulder, if not through his eyes. The limitations this imposes help me find that voice (Branford Marsalis, on the notion that jazz musicians just get up there and play whatever they want: “There's no freedom in freedom, there's freedom in structure”) and the opportunity it affords to slip seamlessly between interiority and external action is unique to the medium. I also generally eschew multiple POVs for similar reasons. (I think there was a Russian filmmaker who, back in the Potemkin era, repudiated the importance of montage, saying it cut the world up into little pieces. The same might be said for multiple POV. It might be said the world is already cut up into little pieces, that it is in the nature of the novel to impose some coherence, put the puzzle back together.) The passage you mention, involving the expatriate's wife, is sort of an exception, but we hear her story by not hearing it, and, technically, never leave Nineteen's side. Another occurs later, involving multiple characters in an explicit departure at a critical point in the story, but these are elided one to the other without a break, sort of like single-take camerawork in a film, and we ultimately end up back with Nineteen. So it happens, I hope, in the same earned, qualified way I try to approach other aspects of the book, e.g., naming names. (There are also a couple of sections seen through a video camera, ostensibly online, which is the omniscient POV the internet now provides the world, for better or for worse.) But I think a novel of scope is possible regardless of its POV. (“Call me Ishmael”?) You just have to figure it out. I should also say that the book I'm planning now may contradict everything I said above. In the second half of Pure Life, Nineteen goes through a brutal kind of hell, a series of trials in which he is in some ways a bit character: the people acting upon him don’t seem to care that much that the person they’re doing things to is him, the famous football player. This made me think of Stanley Elkin, who once said he “would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope,” and that “all books are the Book of Job, high moral tests and tasks set in fairy tales, encoded as clues from the sibyls, all their tricky, forked-tongue talk, land-mined and unforgiving as golf greens, as steeplechase and game board and obstacle course.” Nineteen arrives at his own high-stakes, winner-take-all test in the Mosquito Coast deeply diminished in both body and mind, years past his prime in so many ways. Is there a particular interest in your approach to fiction in what happens to a person once they’ve overshot their success, or come down the other side of it? (Something like that happens in Layman’s Report too, I think.) All of your novels, in one way or another, include passages through various kinds of brutality, experiences for which your characters are not always ready. I'm glad you noticed Nineteen is at times reduced to a kind of bit player in his own ordeal/drama, a taste of the “normalcy” he craves, or at least thinks he does. That was my intention. Even his abductors, rather than simply parlaying his diminished celebrity to some advantage, take ironic pains to remind him he was, ultimately, an also-ran. AKA a human being. We expect him to step up, take charge, “redeem” himself, but for the most part the heroics we get are reminders of past glory. That Elkin quote fits him quite well (and might describe my writing career). I've always been drawn to people/characters in extremis; it's simply what generates narrative language for me. That it increasingly evokes twilight, the auroras of autumn, the sinking of the soul's vessel, etc., may be due in part to the moment I find myself approaching now, but also because we seem at times to be facing our own Götterdämmerung, as a society, as a species, or at least turning a very scary corner. So the writer calmly, dispassionately, asks of the page the proverbial question: What happens next? (Might as well make great music out of it. How's that for redemption?) All this said, I don't consider myself a pessimist. It sounds pat but I may dwell in darkness to affirm its opposite. There's a scene in Firework where the protagonist is enduring a performance of avant garde music which he obviously feels is a bunch of noise to be escaped from, yet I tried to write the section in such a way that the beauty/interest of the music would shine through both because and in spite of his reaction. Not the first time I've tried that, I think, and probably not the last. My favorite season might be autumn, but spring isn't bad either.
Strange Light Presents: Eugene Marten in Conversation

Join us to see the Pure Life author discuss his new novel with Defector editor David Roth in an exclusive virtual event.

Please tune in online on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, at 7 p.m. ET for the inaugural Strange Light Presents! Eugene Marten, author of Pure Life, will be in conversation with Defector editor David Roth to talk about this new novel. Registration is free—sign up here. *** ABOUT PURE LIFE A harrowing, intense, powerful new novel that reads like a classic, from one of the great writers of his generation. Nineteen battles his way into the pros, becomes the quarterback, becomes the myth. Marries the owner’s daughter, touches greatness few will ever dream of, retires into what he assumes will be the promised afterlife of days on the golf course, celebrity endorsements, and cushy real estate investments. But markets tank, family disintegrates, fame fades, and the holes in his mind and memory from a career of punishment on the field become too large and frightening to ignore. When he hears of a miracle brain damage treatment forbidden in the U.S., he travels to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras in search of a chance to restore himself to the man he was. Instead, he finds himself on a journey that plunges him into a darkness more violent and horrific than he could have possibly imagined—at once a fight for his life and to hold onto the shards and fragments of the life he’s fighting for. A sports saga, sprawling thriller, and existential reckoning with the rot at the core of the west, told by an unheralded, singular master, Pure Life is a daring, complex, and brutal confrontation with and demolition of our modern myths in the most primal of settings—one as perilous as it is imperiled.  Eugene Marten was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to European parents, emigrated to the U.S. before the age of two, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where he now lives again after stints in Oregon, New York City, Costa Rica (where the germ for Pure Life originated), Texas, South Dakota, and Los Angeles. In 2014, an excerpt from his novel Layman’s Report earned him an NEA Fellowship.
‘There’s Nothing More Human Than Being Infected with a Virus’: An interview with Joseph Osmundson

The author of Virology on science fiction metaphors, the fascism of wellness culture, and our intimate relationship to viruses. 

It’s the afternoon of Thursday, March 12, 2020, and I’m in bed in my Brooklyn apartment. The bus releases air pressure just below my second story window several times an hour 24/7; after ten years in New York, the city of my dreams, this whoooosh is as soothing as crashing waves to me. I’m talking to Joseph Osmundson on speaker phone because I have tickets to the Tina Turner musical on Broadway tonight. And I want to go. And I’ve been doing a great job ignoring the reasons I shouldn’t. Inside me, an ethical seesaw is turning sideways, morphing into a nightmare carousel: Well, I reason, if we’re about to give things up for a while (a while being a few weeks, I reason), then let me have one last hurrah! I saved and budgeted and gave things up over the winter so I could afford these tickets. I work hard in this city, and my tradeoff is cultural entertainment. I deserve public fun in a room where professional bodies rhythmically inhale and exhale. So, I’m bargaining. Joe, who in addition to being part of my queer nonfiction writing cohort is also a molecular biophysicist who specializes in viruses, says to me over the phone, “It’s time for us to care for the collective body.” I met Joe in 2014 at a Los Angeles LAMBDA writing retreat (lambda, another variant of SARS-CoV-2). Our teacher was Randall Kenan, a gregarious man full of wisdom and sarcasm who had us write ekphrastic essays and called us his possums, and who would pass away early in the pandemic. Joe and I are almost the same age, two small town west coast weirdos lusting after the queer raunch and subcultural promise of the city, coming of age inside of an institutional metaphor of virus as punishment for hedonism. As adults, we have gorged ourselves on enough community and friendship and literature and movement action to understand that viruses are not vindictive. HIV doesn’t care about sodomy just as COVID-19 doesn’t care about elections or birthday parties or grandparents holding babies. Back home in New York, I got to know Joe the professor, the scientist, the podcaster, the Twitter scold, the cyclist who should really wear a helmet, and most of all, the writer. Joe is someone who organizes his life around being able to write, who just can’t not write, even after working, and biking, and drinking, and dancing.   Joe’s advice about the Tina Turner show was the first COVID moment that broke me: a moment at once global and highly personal, the moment when my floodgates of denial could no longer hold. I sobbed in bed, which was good, because Joe is famously a Pisces and it’s more than okay to cry to him; he might actually be annoyed if you didn’t cry. The intensity of emotion was about missing out on the fun I’d looked forward to, yes. What is grief if not disappointment about the way you expected things to go? But it was something else, too: it was the catharsis that comes from having people in your life who will tell you exactly what you need to hear so you can make your own decision to do the right thing.   Around 3 p.m., I accepted that I was going to give up my tickets. A few hours later, Broadway went dark. I wouldn’t have been able to go even if I’d chosen to ignore the gathering dread and take what I selfishly thought I deserved. There’s a reason I haven’t written about this moment yet, or any of my pandemic moments, privately in a journal or publicly in print. And Joe puts his finger on why in his new book Virology (W. W. Norton), as he himself publishes journal entries from 2020: “We were making (too much) meaning in real time.” I found it tedious somehow to write from within the hyperobject. It’s only now, in summer 2022, as I can reflect on summer 2020 as history being archived, that I feel ready to read a book about the era we’re still living through. The Broadway disappointment wasn’t the last time I would turn to Joe for virology therapy. I had been planning a move to California for a year. I had already uprooted myself, but didn’t know if it was safe or ethical to transplant considering how the world had changed seemingly overnight. I didn’t want to abandon New York. Then he told me: “This pandemic isn’t ending tomorrow or the next day. We have to live our lives.” It sounds like the opposite of the “care for the collective body” guidance, but it wasn’t. This is what it means to queer advice. Queer advice isn’t about rules. It’s not a binary of hedonism versus selflessness, self-care versus political warfare. Queer advice is risk aware assessments and reprogramming, adaptation and design. So, I masked up, and moved across the country. Two years and counting into the waves of emotion and variants and political geekshows of this pandemic, Joe has written the book of essays he was born to write. Reading it is like being at the club with Joe in the middle of the night, screaming over the bass about Sontag and quantum mechanics and poppers. It’s sensitive and rigorous, less a book about science than the humming mind of a scientist who happens to be a gay slut who reads too much. Joe’s prose reaches for both the grandest scale of humanity and the literal molecular levels of who we are. In it, he makes his queer advice canon, writing, “Quarantine is a social act, not a personal sacrifice.” In April 2022 I got COVID for the first time. My feverish brain wanted to make rueful meaning of that moment in real time. But Joe and other activists have taught me to examine the ways we talk about viruses. To not treat it like the enemy, to not attribute agency to it. The meaning of that infection was that I got sick for a while, I stayed inside, and I survived. A month later, just as the advance review copy of his book arrived in the mailbox of my new apartment in Los Angeles, Joe got COVID, too. I interviewed him over text and shared docs while he recovered in his Brooklyn apartment with his partner, Devon, and their dog, MAX! We talked about science fiction metaphors, what PrEP has and hasn’t changed, and the fascism of wellness culture. Tina Horn: At the risk (aware assessment) of acting in bad taste, I’m weirdly thrilled to be reading your virus book knowing your body is across the country literally infected with a virus right now. I’m a slut for a stunt, I guess. My brazenness is probably influenced by the fact that I, myself, got the novel coronavirus COVID-19 for the first time a month ago, and my cough is still rattling around, too. Joe Osmundson: “Novel” coronavirus in that it likes conventional narrative structures and believes sometimes fiction is truer than journalism. Our relationships to viruses, whether we’re infected or not, are intimate. The virus can literally get inside us. This virus needs us. It gets stuck to us. It uses us. We initially let it inside and then try to push it out. It eventually will leave us, either to die in thin air (a true wish I have for all my exes) or to move on to another “host.” I wrote an essay in Virology about how we treat viruses as invading enemies in a war of sickness and health, but it’s just as easy to use metaphors of intimate relations, which can of course be either joyous or benign or deadly as well. SARS-CoV-2 is inside me right now, replicating, speaking to my immune system, which is activating itself to respond. There is of course a danger in this—a danger of losing my breath, or of never fully recovering. But there’s nothing more human than being infected with a virus.   Before I got sick, my partner had COVID, and we were isolating in our tiny New York one bedroom. When I tested positive and got to open the door to his room and check on him and hug him and bring him food, when I stopped worrying about infection but just had an infection, it was both frightening but also an immense relief. So little about viral infection is simple. Many of us are in this newest, freshest hell: a triple vaxxxed, post-omicron surges, mask mandates lifting, everyone will probably get it and that’s fine or is it?! era. It feels disrespectful to those who have suffered and died—and those who still will and those who are grieving—to be excited about the literary/dramatic possibility of this conversation, you speaking about having COVID while we discuss your COVID book … but then again, your book is, among many things, about making meaning from tragedy. So, paint us a word picture, Dr. Joe. What is happening in the body and home of someone who is experiencing the symptoms of a virus he’s been educating the world about for two years of a generation-defining global pandemic? How are you and your queer family? I have to admit that I am deeply saddened by this moment in our public life. It was our great hope, in 2020, that the fractures made more clear by COVID-19 would lead to change, and that we would do simple things to care for one another instead of racing back to a false normalcy that was already deadly. And here I am, May 2022, cases once again spiking, and our political leadership rolling back even simple things—mask mandates, vax checks—as more and more people get sick. It is unavoidably true that our biomedical interventions—vaccines and drugs like Paxlovid—help many avoid the worst outcomes of this virus. It is also true that, as ever, biomedicine isn’t enough. We saw this with the HIV crisis: Who does biomedicine leave behind? Even with good HIV drugs for treatment and prevention, cases in the rural south—for example—are still rising yearly. We need more than drugs. My book is a case for mutual care for one another at all levels, including, not limited to, drugs.  Me? I’m a little sad about the fact that it seems like, if we want to live a faggot life in the world, going to bars or restaurants with friends, going to clubs or concerts, COVID-19 is something we are almost certainly going to face (and, frankly, even if we don’t). I said in 2020 that this virus could change what it means to be human; I think, in a way, it already has.  There’s someone in my life with whom I share, let’s say, some preferences for holistic healing modalities. A year ago, she told me to my face she would never let the government vaccinate her, and she doesn’t need to, because she “won’t give the virus permission to enter my body” (said with a little crossing of the arms over the chest). What I find most disturbing about this is how closely she and I think, in some ways, about health. And then the link between this kind of thinking about public health and the warped close-but-no-cigar ideology about trusting the government and the right to bodily autonomy. Especially in this fucking moment of federal reproductive injustice. Which laws do we want off our bodies? I would LOVE to rant about the fascism/wellness overlap in the 2020s Venn diagram. This bizarro horseshoe theory overlap is centered on a belief in freedom as entirely individual, in responsibility for health as fully our own (as if everyone can eat organic and do yoga!) and a (healthy) skepticism of government perverted into what I call a “freedom” defined as the ability to harm others with our “personal” choices. When holistic wellness is centred only on the self, what is it but another non-scientific fascism? Another way to make oneself the perfect body. But, of course, no body can be perfect; all bodies will fall ill. This is just another attempt to look away from the world as it really is. Right, and you explore “the freedom to harm others” in your essay “On Whiteness,” which is deeply relevant to both the Black Lives Matter civil uprising and to the commodification of self care. So this is something anti-establishment white queers like ourselves should be committed to interrogating.  The anti-vaccine “wellness” community turned a (often) healthy skepticism of science into raising a non-scientific epistemology (the vaccines are the virus) to the level of religion: the religion of one’s agency over one’s own body and health, which is obviously a lie. “I can’t trust doctors (maybe fair), so I can heal my cancer with crystals.” “I don’t believe the government actually wants to care for me and my health (fair), so I reject that government’s vaccine.” I've been thinking a lot about where healthy skepticism bleeds into dogmatic reactionary thinking because, in part, of those on the left still hanging onto desperate idiot ideas about the USSR being … good? And Cuba today being … socialist? I’ve seen this around “leftist” vaccine skepticism and “leftist” tacit support of Russia in Ukraine because the “west” and “NATO” “provoked” this violent, deadly, and expansionist war. All of this, I think, speaks to the abject failure of 20th century political frameworks to deal with the world as it is today. Humans on the margins, and most of us are in this context, are subject to an ongoing and life-threatening attack. We need a new politics. For me, this starts with close community and mutual care and will build itself up from there. Close community and mutual care and dismantling white supremacy: this is how we build queer futures! So, what it is about this pandemic specifically that inspires magical thinking, from Q-ANON conspiracies to the myth that the police protect us from harm? Facing the truth would require too much of us. It would require disruptions of the very frameworks of capitalism that let our lives hum along. Plagues force us to look closely at ourselves and one another when we have a whole late-capitalist society built on looking away from violence. I’m typing this on an iPhone made from mineral extraction and child labour. But in my day-to-day life I use my phone to look at porn more often than think about where this technology comes from.   We are desperate for a world in which COVID-19 doesn’t exist. I am desperate for that world. Remember going to The Eagle and kissing and dancing and not being afraid of getting a virus that could kill you? I do! And that freedom to be in public, to dance, to kiss, was precious and valuable and nothing to be ashamed of. But this is the world we live in. It has COVID-19 in it. And rising fascism and climate disaster and geopolitical threats, and also BO and stubbed toes and hangovers and broken hearts. I think (white) Americans are uniquely bad at accepting that the world isn’t a Disney movie and that no one is coming to save us. I spent so long waiting for my own prince to arrive and *snap* make everything better. But we are the grown-ups now, Tina. It’s horrifying. We have to save ourselves, which we can’t do until we can see the world as it truly is. Speaking of seeing the world as it truly is, I’m famously a fan of supernatural allegories for social problems. But in the early stages of the pandemic, I found the idea of entertainment as a response to what we were going through such a tedious prospect: the idea that basically all stories will be defined by this moment for the rest of my life. You talk in the book about some genre fiction metaphors: The Hot Zone and I Am Legend, the military response to disease, and viruses that make us zombies because of our hubris. Popular fiction is a place for us to work through our existential anxieties: nuclear fallout in the fifties, cold war paranoia in the seventies, and so on. Do you think the speculative fiction and big budget summer flicks of the 2020s will be more about plagues or more about social distancing? Or is the biggest horror that has emerged from this era the collision of the personal and political in the arena of public health?   My partner and I started watching the new Russian Doll last night, seven days into our COVID isolation. Idiot move. Too depressing. But it made me think about one thing, specifically, that’s been on my mind. That show is set specifically in the year 2022; it names the year. And yet it’s set in a world as if the panny never happened: no masks, no changes to life’s routines. We have had some incredible pandemic essays, we are now getting some essential pandemic books, but it seems to me that even art-minded mass entertainment like movies and TV is largely … looking away? For movies, it kind of makes sense to me: they’re literally asking us to come back into movie theaters where we share air with strangers. Makes sense that they might not want to remind us of the respiratory pandemic we’re currently still in. But I wonder about art (which can confront our most profound ills) and entertainment (which usually cannot) and the grey area between (which I believe does exist). Escaping our current and ongoing pandemic hell is important; we deserve pleasure and dumb superhero movies. I’m just not sure what type of art and entertainment will help us process, help us heal, and help us, as I say, not just face but rise to this, our one, but ongoing, precious moment in history.   I do believe it’s precious. Queer and trans people are under attack. The world is warming. The -isms are -ism-ing. Abortion is being rolled back, and abortion is awesome. We’re seeing a rise in moral and sexual panic. Fascism isn’t just rising here. This is our moment to dig in. What will we do with it? I had the same thought watching Russian Doll! The reason it’s so striking is that, as an intergenerational trauma time travel story that is also very New York, it makes specific material of the exact date and space: the Astor Place Uptown 6 train platform in 2022. And in behind the scenes promotional photos, you see the crew on location in masks. So, what does it mean for us to have this parallel universe of stories where 2022 is not defined by N95s on people’s faces and littering the streets? When the time loop movie Palm Springs came out on Hulu in the summer of 2020 (when we were in dire need of some fun new content to stream from our couches) there was some commentary about how it became unexpectedly resonant: we all felt like we were living the same day over and over again. Do stories help us relive the past without being doomed to repeat it? I love stories! But stories, like science, are a tool; they are not inherently good (or inherently evil). You have to consider what the story is, who’s telling it, and whether it reifies the status quo (which I would define as evil since the status quo is quite deadly) or challenges it (good, because this may help more people survive). I say this about science in my book, as well: so many view science as inherently good! “Follow the science!” they say. But this is, of course, not borne out by history, as I describe in great detail in the collection, particularly in the essay “On Whiteness,” which is about viruses and the deadly ways of whiteness. But stories do have great potential, and they are necessary in our political work. One example that comes to front of mind is the FX TV show Reservation Dogs. Full disclosure is that my good friend Tommy Pico writes for the show, but it would come to mind regardless. It’s an all-Indigenous American sitcom, with everyone touching the show coming from Indigenous communities, from the showrunner to the grips and extras. The first season fried my narrative brain. It was otherworldly and spiritual but literal and grounded in this world. It looked directly at the manifestations of grief and loss but included the ridiculous and funny in addition to the expected sobs. It has a vision of policing—policing!—rooted in community and justice. It was funny. Like really funny. Nothing like it has ever been made before. That’s the kind of storytelling that makes new worlds possible. Can you talk about the process of updating your 2016 Village Voice piece for the book? I’m interested in the craft of adaptation, but as a follow-up: does it feel different to have that piece archived in book form in the context of the other essays, as opposed to just living on the Voice’s webpage, especially since that legendary publication has since shuttered? Oh! I am so glad you asked this! Adapting or updating published or older essays is such an essential part of collection making, and I’ve talked about it with some writing friends, but I don’t see it discussed much out in the world. A few of the essays are updated for our current world, with the Voice article being one that needed a significant shift in thinking. I was writing that piece in late 2016, when PrEP for HIV was starting to shift the world profoundly; the book was written largely in 2020 and 2021, in the world shifted by PrEP and U=U (the notion that HIV positive people are the safest to fuck in terms of HIV risk) but now on a planet forever changed by SARS-CoV-2. What could that essay possibly say about this moment?  Well, I decided, a couple of things. One, it memorialized that moment in time, so I wanted to keep its perspective as one from that year. But a new lens of analysis was necessary: Biomedicine (namely PrEP and U=U) had profoundly and forever shifted the meaning of the HIV virus (at least for those with access to these interventions). So, the thinking became about how viruses shift over time, which added a layer to that essay. The first essay from the book (“On Risk”) is also cobbled together from three pieces written and published in a hurry in early 2020. I tried my best to keep the urgency and feeling of that moment but to add —again—deeper thinking that wouldn’t have been possible in real time. And then, in terms of the narrative of the book, I added something that was very difficult for me. The emotional weight of editing these old pieces, of looking back at the plot points of our own lives (so many of which are traumatic or horrible, as plot points often are) was heavy. In the essay, I don’t take PrEP, but manage my extra-relationship sex risk with condoms. Shortly after the essay came out, my partner at that time dumped me, and I had to start to make sex safer as a single person, my nightmare. So, I started PrEP myself. That last paragraph of that essay took months to write, not because the sentences are, like, so perfect and beautiful, but because I had to sit, and face the page, and write that moment—probably the hardest moment of my life— there for everyone to see. I’m feeling a distinct tension right now between, on one hand, relief that I can do the joyful things I missed during two years of public health restriction (like kissing at The Eagle, or going to Broadway shows!), and on the other disappointment, fear, and judgment about other people’s increased risk-taking. For example, I went to see Bikini Kill at the Greek Theater a few weeks back: it’s an amphitheater, live music is important to my mental health, it feels like the right moment to reintroduce life-giving activities like this. On the way in, staff were checking vax cards. Great! But my friend had forgotten theirs and I had a moment of dread: oh no, is my friend going to be turned away from a show they bought tickets to? But the staff person waved them in with a little conspiratorial shhh. Now, I happen to know for a fact my friend is vaccinated. But if the staff of this venue were being lax in that moment, have vax cards become a TSA-like theater of inconvenience assuring us of the feeling of safety without creating actual conditions of safety? One more note: at the end of the show, a strange man approached my friends and me to ask us basic questions about the band, quickly launching into a rant about his right to be there even though he didn’t have his vax card. We’re all punks with good boundaries so we just got the fuck outta there, but it was a disturbing mystery moment: what is motivating people to infiltrate spaces of entertainment to attempt ideological persuasion? This tension is the tension of living, I would say. For those of us who've been fags since the '80s, we know this tension: sex feels amazing! Oh, by the way, it can give you a deadly virus and there's no way to have sex without risk! HAVE FUN OUT THERE BABY GAYS! I think the tension is a good thing: It means you give a shit. That pleasure is important to you (because you're a person and people should be able to feel pleasure), but that you aren't willing to sacrifice or harm others to get it. We all want COVID not to be a thing, but it still is, and so we hold the tension as a positive marker of care and interconnection on this planet, until we can have simple and pure pleasure again. Like with HIV: for those with access to PrEP, sex got to take on a new meaning in a post-PrEP world. Sex truly (nearly) without risk! What joy! But, with COVID, we aren't there yet. And so: tension. How beautiful! Because it means we give a shit. And here's the other thing: Humans always fuck up! All of us! And so we need systems with robust protections. Like a concert outside with vaccine checks! Because, when one thing fails (oh, they didn't properly check your vaccine status), you're still at an outdoor venue which is way lower risk! My public health brain (very much not my formal training but very much my faggot-sex-brain training) is about systems robust to failure. You assume a human failure will happen at some point; when that happens, what other interventions will catch it to keep people safe? Because you can't rely on perfection, and you can't trust that nutty people won't act in bad faith (they will). So nerdy bureaucratic shit like public health systems robust to individual failures become actually a queer ethic of care! “Systems robust to failure” is also a great way to describe BDSM! So, in some ways, you have made it your mission to guide people towards a more precise, careful, and accurate way of using language to understand viruses. I’ve seen you on Twitter calling people out for describing COVID’s desire, or its morality. The book contains an entire essay, “On War,” exploring the horror, not to mention futility, of “fighting” a virus using the language of war. Paradoxically, your entire writing career, from Capsid on, is about using poetry and metaphor to experiment with how humans think and feel about viruses. And earlier in this interview, you said, “this virus needs us.” Which is it, Joe?! Susan Sontag asked us—in Illness as Metaphor—to remove metaphors entirely from our thinking about bodies and illness. She called being ill with a disease like cancer so thick with metaphorical thinking attached (at the time, a disease of “repressed feelings”), a “double illness,” the sickness, and the metaphors. I argue, in the book, that pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and fungi, are so small that they’re impossible to talk about without metaphor. When you think about staph bacteria, do you think about a single-celled gram-positive bacterium, or a wound? And even the word staph relates to the shapes of grapes on a vine, a metaphor for how the bacteria look under a powerful microscope. Coronavirus? Because, under an even more powerful microscope, it looks like a crown. This is metaphor baked into the language at such a profound level it cannot be removed, as Sontag might ask. So, it becomes not about a language devoid of metaphor, but which metaphors we choose. For HIV, in Capsid, I had to understand that virus (one I’d grown up terrified of) as something … almost like a lover. My life had given me the circumstances of many people I know who seroconverted. And I needed to love myself as HIV negative, or positive, both; to love the virus that might have already been in me, because when HIV infects you, it does become a part of your DNA. In this collection, the main undergirding metaphor I asked us to infuse in our thinking all the way to the level of our language is care. If so much language around pandemic, plague, and viral infection is driven by war (as we show), how can we change that language to be built from care, connection, and community, even in the face of unprecedented and risk-filled times? Because, whether it’s pandemic or climate change or fascism, we live in risk-filled times, and living well in them means resisting together and insisting on the right to care for every living person.
Street Meat Stories

Writing and whoring—selling a body or a body of work—what’s the difference?

"All these girls have to wait for is a man with $70 and an itchy cock. I have to wait for someone with $3 who reads literature." —Crad Kilodney, Excrement (1988) Writing and whoring—selling a body or a body of work—what’s the difference? Toronto, December 1983. Crad Kilodney, the legendary self-described “failed writer,” is selling his self-published book, Terminal Ward, from a vacant storefront on the Yonge Street strip, somewhere between Gerrard and Dundas. Hanging from his neck each day is a handwritten sign, and today’s placard reads, “Pleasant Bedtime Reading.” Other notable signs include “Books for Clueless Twits” and “Literature for Mindless Blobs.” In his memoir, Excrement, Crad writes, “I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in my most aggres­sive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people.” This—writing and selling his wares in the street, getting accosted by drunks, ignored by the masses, and making very few sales—is his full-time job. Crad comes back every day to sell his books, published by his personal imprint, Charnel House. By the end of his life, he’ll have written more than thirty books, and spent seventeen years selling them out on the street. [[{"fid":"6708541","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Like writing, sex work is a game of endurance. Whether in the club or on the street, scribbling in a journal or revising the last draft of a manu­script, the writer and the whore must learn to “stick it out” and be patient with the process. "For me, being on the street is like treading water: the object is to expend the minimum amount of energy and hold out as long as you can. This is why I don’t solicit people. I keep my mouth shut and just stand there waiting for someone to stop." Crad’s philosophy on selling his work sounds a lot like how I approach my hustle at the strip club: stand there, look pretty, and wait for a man to approach me. Sure, I could probably make more money if I hopped from table to table asking, “Where ya from? Want a blowie?” but I’m looking to conserve my mental and emotional resources, not expend them on timewasters. If you want me, come get me. I’m not casting my pearls to swine. Quality over quantity, baby. My introduction to Crad was through my boyfriend’s dad’s book collec­tion. He’d bought a few original works from Crad himself back in the ’80s when he was a University of Toronto student. I read Bang Heads Here, Suffering Bastards first. “The Story of a Man with a Broken Toaster,” about the tragic end that can befall teachers who dole out passing grades willy-nilly, gripped me by the throat. This is the kind of writer I want to be! I thought. I read more, voraciously, and while much of his writing struck me as in need of a good editor, I deeply appreciated Crad’s do-it-yourself approach to publishing. That he was part of what inspired Nicole, my creative partner, and me to self-publish the first edition of Modern Whore would be an understatement. Nicole’s father, Dan Bazuin, used to co-run a famous little bookstore in the Village called This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, one of the few shops that sold Crad’s books. When I expressed my newfound love of his work to Nicole, she told me Dan and Crad were friends. She’d actually met him a couple times. Wowee! I eventually got my hands on more of Crad’s work by trading copies with Pete, the strip club’s night-shift front desk guy, who had also bought books directly from the author. Thanks to him, I read Crad’s memoirs, Putrid Scum, Excrement, and the short story collection, I Chewed Mrs. Ewing’s Raw Guts and Other Stories. In exchange, he got my copies of Terminal Ward and Suburban Chicken Strangling Stories. It felt like dealing contraband. The strip club, of course, was the perfect setting for our clandestine Crad book club.  [[{"fid":"6708546","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] Not everyone is cut out for the hustle of the writer or the whore. For those who are, it can feel like a matter of life or death. Many writers feel they don’t have any other options—they must write, or they will die. Have you ever met a more miserable workforce? Writers love waxing poetic about the tortuous miseries of writing. Is there such a thing as a happy writer? At least I like whoring. Whoring is a means of survival, yes. When faced with the option of working more hours for less money with no control over their schedule, the sex worker may feel “forced” to preserve their dignity and return to whoring. For some, whoring is simply a means to an end: a way to pay the bills, put food on the table, and keep the lights on. For others, whoring is vocational: a calling, a connection to one’s higher purpose, the thing they are meant to do in this life. Evidently, Crad’s resiliency and determination to make it as a living writer—which is to say, both a full-time writer, and one who was also alive—suggest writing was his calling. "Whenever I considered giving up on the street, several thoughts hit me: I imagined myself in the future as another failed writer about whom it would be asked (as it was about every flash in the pan), “Whatever became of him?” I hated to think of myself as being cast into the hell of whatever-became-of. Then I thought of all the lousy jobs I’d had before walking out on all that to become a full-time writer. I couldn’t go back to another shit job; neither could I work up any enthusiasm for a better job requiring some commitment. All I wanted to do was write." Writing is a calling for me, too; whoring is somewhere between occupa­tional and vocational. Sex work is my job, the thing I do to pay my bills—and, it must be said, the frequent subject of my work—so that maybe, one day, writing—perhaps about something else!—can be my full-time job. May a whore dream? Sex work puts the mind, body, and soul on display—as does writing. Writers and sex workers are public figures ripe for dissection. We peddle our guts for a living, our incredibly intimate bodies of work for sale, whether it’s on Yonge Street, at the strip club, or on the shelves of Chapters Indigo. Buy my story. Buy my body. [[{"fid":"6708551","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] For the writers who claim their lives are misery, we, the reader, only validate and glorify that pain. We support their addictions, feed their demons, because they give us what we want: their body of work. Is the reader exploitative, then? Are you, dear reader, a dirty john? In early 2014, Nicole told me Crad was sick with cancer. Did I want to go with her and Dan to visit him in the hospital? I felt starstruck and intim­idated by the notion, so I said no. A few months later, after reading yet another one of his books, I mustered up the courage and gave Nicole a ring: I was ready to visit Crad. Too late, came the response. He was dead. Seventeen years on the street and thirty-three books later: gone. I was gutted. How stupid I was. In Crad’s name, I vowed I would never hesitate to visit someone—let alone a hero—on their deathbed. He would have liked me, I think. Street meat, just like him. Excerpted from Modern Whore by Andrea Werhun and Nicole Bazuin, out now from Strange Light Books. 
The Goodest Girl

“I’m not afraid of a dare,” I said. “I’ll do whatever.”

Kenzie was the last to arrive to the sleepover party, which I assured the girls was just “hanging out or whatever.” It was surreal seeing her again in the entrance to my house; she had been over all the time when we were kids, but now she seemed a million times taller, plunking her monogrammed TNA gym bag on the ground. (Where had she got that? We didn’t even have an Aritzia in town.) She slid off her UGGs. They were the real UGGs too, the ones that cost three hundred dollars and had the label on the back and felt like clouds and only came in camel and were ugly as sin and completely impractical for Canadian winters but were for some reason the outdoor footwear coveted by every girl in my grade. Kenzie was the only eighth grader to have a real pair; most settled for the grape or forest-green knock-offs. My mother offered to buy me a pair last time we were at the mall, but I begged her instead for a pair of hot-pink Doc Martens, which were half the price. She scoffed and asked if I really wanted to be one of “those girls.” I wondered if, in a bigger city, Kenzie would still be considered popular. She didn’t look like the girls in the teen magazines my mom subscribed me to, angular reality-TV starlets with long blond extensions, pink velour tracksuits, and chihuahua accessories. But Kenzie had a natural confidence that everything she was doing was exactly what she should be doing, as well as exactly what everyone else should be doing. And though I thought the sleepover was stupid, I was grateful she had shown up to give whatever was happening that night some legitimacy.  After pizza (Kenzie refused to eat the crust because she wasn’t “into carbs right now,” and Alyssa and Steph D. followed suit while I tried to hide that I had already had two slices), after watching Bring It On (“God that’s, like, so our lives,” said Alyssa; no school we knew of had a cheerleading squad), we set up our sleeping bags in the living room, sprawled out like a cross with our pillows at the intersection. Mom had decorated the room with streamers, which I had quickly torn down and shoved under the couch before anyone had shown up. Kenzie lay on her stomach on her sleeping bag, dressed in a floral tank top and matching shorts, propping herself up on her elbows. The rest of us mimicked her position on our own sleeping bags. “Are we sure Anita’s asleep?” Kenzie said. Hearing her refer to my mom so intimately jarred me. “Uh, I guess so?” I said. “She’s a light sleeper though, so we should probably be pretty quiet.”  “Perfect,” said Kenzie. She pushed herself up and reached into her TNA bag near the head of her sleeping bag and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. “It’s called Fireball. My brother got it for me. It tastes really good, not like beer at all.” “Is that . . . alcohol?” I asked, dropping my voice to a whisper. I looked around at Alyssa and Steph D., but they seemed untroubled. Excited even. Kenzie screwed the top off the bottle and took a swig. I had never had booze before. “Don’t worry,” she said. “My brother isn’t going to tell anyone.” She passed the bottle to Alyssa, who took an equally large swig. I didn’t know what would happen to a person when they got drunk. I didn’t know what would happen to me. On TV, characters seemed transformed from their regular selves, unaware of their actions, free from consequences until the next morning. The thought terrified and thrilled me. Would I know what I was doing? Would I be like a person possessed—completely out of control, at the mercy of a little voice in my head brought on by the Fireball—and do something really stupid like strip down naked, run out into traffic, and end up in jail? People did stuff like that when drunk. I’d read the news. Alyssa was next to me with her arm outstretched, passing me the bottle, and I realized they were all waiting for me. “I don’t know,” I said. “My mom’s right upstairs. We could get in trouble.” “Come on,” Alyssa said. “We’ll be quiet. She’ll never know.” “It won’t be fun if you’re the only one sober,” Kenzie said. “I’ve done this before. It’ll be fine. Don’t you trust me?” She was sitting cross-legged on her sleeping bag in her pyjamas, but sitting up straight, she had an authority to her. She seemed to have figured out eighth grade in a way that I hadn’t yet: how to drink, how to have boobs, how to simply live without fear. In that moment, I wanted to believe everything she had told and would ever tell me. I took a sip. It tasted pretty good, like cinnamon hearts. “That’s not gonna do anything,” Kenzie said. “You have to drink a lot really fast if you want to feel the effects.” I took a larger swig, winced as it burned down my throat, and passed the bottle on to Steph D., who squealed and clapped her hands, and Alyssa quickly mimicked her. I sat up a little straighter at their approval.  We passed the bottle around the circle three more times before deciding to play truth or dare. Kenzie asked Steph D. who her crush was, and Steph D. named Richard, a boy from our class we had all known since kindergarten. We all burst out into giggles—it was so funny, why was it so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing at how funny every- thing was—and Alyssa said, “He is pretty hot.” I didn’t know boys our age could be hot. I still associated Richard with the time in second grade when he threw up at our  class Halloween party after eating too much candy. I shud- dered. Don’t think about vomit right now.  “Alyssa, truth or dare?” Steph D. asked. Alyssa started to giggle, and the rest of us joined in—everything about the game continued to be the funniest thing in the world, my friends were so funny, my best friends, I was light and happy with my best friends and nothing bad would ever happen to us while we were safe on our sleeping bags—and then she said, “I don’t know. Dare, I guess.” “I dare you to . . . hmmmm.” Steph D. looked around the room for inspiration. “Get on your hands and knees and bark like a dog.” “Ew, that’s so gay,” Kenzie said. I flushed. I knew we weren’t supposed to be using gay as an insult, but it seemed like the wrong time to correct anyone, least of all Kenzie. Steph D. looked embarrassed too, self-conscious that her dare had been criticized. “I think it’d be funny,” she said, picking a piece of lint from her PJ bottoms. “How is that even a dare? You should dare me to drink more Fireball,” Alyssa said. Her words were starting to slur. How long did it take to get drunk? I realized I had no idea what time it was, how long we had been sitting there. Nothing mattered anymore, nothing except the taste of cinnamon hearts and playing the game. I looked at Steph D., who was still focused on her PJs, looking like she had done something wrong. “I’ll do it,” I announced, the words out of my mouth before I realized what I was saying. “You’ll drink more Fireball?” Alyssa asked. “I’ll be the dog.” “Ew. Why?” Kenzie asked. I sat tall, rolling my shoulders back. “I’m not afraid of a dare,” I said. “I’ll do whatever.” There was a moment of silence, and Alyssa looked to Kenzie as if to find out what her reaction should be. Kenzie burst out laughing.  “You’re so funny,” she said. “I forgot how funny you could be.” The other girls started giggling again too, and I joined them, a safe, warm laughter. I crawled onto my arms and knees and let out a little yap. Kenzie started laughing again. “You’re so good at that,” she said. “You sound just like Smarties. Do it again.” I yapped twice more, then stuck out my tongue and started to pant. I was making Kenzie laugh harder than I had ever seen her laugh, and it felt good. She jumped to her feet. “Wag your tail!” she commanded, adopting the condescending voice I had heard her use when talking to her family’s golden lab. I did as she commanded, and Steph D. clapped her hands. “Good girl, good Smarties!” Kenzie said, and I wiggled my butt even harder. Right then I knew I had to keep making her laugh, to keep that smile on her face as she looked down at me, to know I was doing a good job, the best job, everything that was expected of me, everything I needed to be doing. “I have an idea,” said Kenzie, and she turned and started walking out of the room. She stopped, looked over her shoulder at me expectantly, and ordered, “Heel girl!” before continuing. I crawled after her. Alyssa and Steph D. jumped to their feet and followed. Kenzie brought us to the kitchen, where she grabbed a cereal bowl from the cupboard and filled it up with water. She placed it on the floor by her feet. “Drink, girl!” I did as she commanded, lapping up water from the bowl, my hips still in the air. “Keep wagging that tail!” she said, and I obliged, listening to another chorus of giggles above me. “Good Smarties! Good girrrrrrl.” That last word fell out of her mouth a long drawl, and she crouched down to tenderly scratch me behind the ears. Her hands smelled delicious, like apricot body lotion and something else, something indescribably and uniquely Kenzie. I wasn’t able to smell her for long because Kenzie pushed my face farther into the bowl until my whole jaw was submerged, the tip of my nose feeling the cool wetness, and I was unable to do anything but follow orders and make Kenzie happy. “Keep drinking,” she said. “And that tail wagging, girl.” I lapped away at the water. I wondered if I could finish the whole bowl from that position. I bet Kenzie would be impressed if I could. “What the hell is going on here?” My mother’s voice stopped us cold. Kenzie released her hand from the back of my head. I started to raise my head, water dripping down my face, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at my mother, or to make eye contact with anyone at all. “Mrs. Selberg!” said Kenzie, her voice honeyed. “We were just playing this game. It’s something everyone is doing at school. We’re so sorry if we woke you. We definitely didn’t realize how loud we were—” “Have you been drinking? Where did you get that?” Still on all fours, I allowed myself to turn my head to see what she was talking about. Steph D. was holding the bottle of Fireball. It was half empty. The bottle swayed in Steph D.’s fist. No, not the bottle. My vision. The sleepover party was over after that. Mom split us all up; Steph D. and Alyssa stayed in the living room, their sleeping bags moved to either side of the coffee table. Kenzie got my bed. I had to sleep in my mom’s room, listening to her reproaches as I climbed under the covers of her big bed, tears stinging my eyes. “I don’t know what kind of sick game you were playing, or what on earth would possess you to debase yourself,” she was saying as I put the pillow over my ears, my body turned away from hers, shame like I had never felt coursing through my body. She was still going off as I fell asleep, the alcohol knocking me into a heavy slumber.  By the time I woke up the next morning, Mom had already driven the other girls home, an hour before they were scheduled to be picked up, and I somehow felt even worse than I had the night before. A hangover? No, guilt. No, both. Mom met me in the bathroom with a glass of water and a Tylenol as I kneeled over the toilet, retching up the cinnamon-scented contents of my stomach. Later, I came down to the kitchen, where a pot of herbal tea and dry toast were waiting for me. Mom was wiping down the counters. I started to speak—I expected she would want to talk about last night—but when she heard me enter the room, she made eye contact with me, frowned, shook her head, and left the room. We didn’t speak for the rest of the day. I was mostly ignored at school the next day too. I learned that my mom had told Alyssa, Kenzie, and Steph D.’s moms that we had been drinking, and they had all been grounded. They—and their friends, and by extension most of the grade—seemed to take it out on me, as if I were the one who tattled. The silent treatment I could handle; I never cared much about being popular, but the shame felt new. I didn’t speak to anyone except when I was called on in class until, third period, I was stopped by a voice behind me. “Hey, Lucy!” A pink-polished hand touched my arm. I jerked my head up. Kenzie had a serious expression. I opened my mouth to speak, to apologize—though I wasn’t sure what for—but she spoke first. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? About the dog thing. I mean it.” She looked in my eyes when she said this and took off down the hall before I could respond. Watching the back of her UGGs, it struck me in that moment that she could feel the shame too. Excerpted from Good Girl by Anna Fitzpatrick, out now from Flying Books. 
‘A Portrait of Dangerous, Painful Love’: An Interview with Fawn Parker

The author of What We Both Know on literary scenes, abusive relationships, and weary characters. 

“The closest thing to perfection is a relationship unexamined,” remarks Hillary Greene in Fawn Parker’s What We Both Know (McClelland & Stewart), a novel constructed to prevent its narrator from leaving any of her family relationships unexplored. Hillary is a writer who can’t quite think of herself as one yet—but in her new role as caretaker to her famous, literary-legend father, she has a chance to produce a very unique kind of book: her own father’s memoir, assembled and ghostwritten by her hand.    Leaving her life in Toronto behind, and dealing with the aftermath of her sister Pauline’s suicide, Hillary immures herself in her father’s rural home, excavating memories of his abuse and secrets from his notes, files, and increasingly distorted speech. As he fades into dementia, Hillary takes on the task of confronting the truth about her family and herself, and of constructing the last element of her father’s legacy on the page.    What We Both Know is Toronto writer Parker’s third novel, after two novels with Winnipeg’s ARP Press, both intense examinations of deception, family connection, and the small and sometimes poisonous communities clustered around the worlds of writing both on-campus and off. Parker returns to these themes with increasing precision and genuinely unsettling clarity, in a relentless novel that manages to be both gently funny and ruthless. Naben Ruthnum: Hillary is tasked with writing her father’s memoir in the book—he’s in rapid mental decline from dementia, and she’s taking his notes to assemble this final book for her father, who had a storied career as a sort of Mordecai Richler or John Updike-like writer—a 20th century “lion of letters” who also, perhaps unsurprisingly, was an abuser. As Hillary performs this task, she’s getting both closer to and further away from her own family story: does this allow her to see herself more clearly? Fawn Parker: I think that’s one of her fatal flaws: she doesn’t see herself at all. She doesn’t see what’s happened to her, she isn’t really able to look at her life. She describes herself as a terrible writer, and obviously we’re not supposed to think she is, but that might be what’s missing for her (from her writing): she just doesn’t know how to capture herself. I’m interested in how emotion and connection work in your books—both here and in your first novel, Set-Point—they’re both emotional novels, to me, but skimming the Goodreads I found what I suspected I might: what reads as richly emotional to me is interpreted as cold by many other readers. I do hear that feedback a lot—even about my own person. It’s important to me, when I’m writing, to not shy away from any emotion, because what I always want to read in a book is the most raw, intense feeling. That’s what a book is to me. There’s something about going at that that does feel cold to some people, and I do see that in the Goodreads reviews—they hate the thing in the book that happens with the dog, they don’t like a lot of the sexual abuse—it’s almost like it reads like overkill, like I’m not being sensitive at all.   Some of it is that—your narrators can be almost clinical in detailing what happens to them. At one point, Hillary says “When I am watched, it is as though I see myself from the outside.” These narrators also seem to write “from the outside.”  I think there’s definitely a distance. I think a lot of my characters are a little bit worn down. They can describe the emotion, but it’s not even affecting them anymore. I like to write a really weary character. You think that weariness is where a reader might find a gap in emotion on the page? Yeah. The characters are never going to break down and cry. They’ve already been there, a hundred times. Are there cathartic moments in this book?  I think so. It always happens in the aftermath, when Hillary is alone and she realizes something, or she goes over something for herself: that’s where her catharsis happens. It’s never really—I don’t think she’s present, a lot, in the moment. There’s genuine love and affection in certain scenes between Hillary and her father, which is one of the disturbing aspects of the relationship, especially as we find out more about him.   I think it’s really specific to anyone who has loved somebody abusive. You sort of develop a way to split and to love things about them. It can also, sometimes, deepen it, because of the intensity and the toxicity of abuse. It can keep you feeling very alive and very focused. That’s how abusers get people, they’re very charming, charismatic, and lovable in some ways. But I do think that I was signalling to a certain group of people who have experienced abuse—that you do, you do love in that way. I wanted to make this a portrait of dangerous, painful love.   And her father has different relationships to love and sex, including the transactional sexual relationship he once had with his ex-lover Catherine, who remains an important figure for Hillary. That stems from someone in my extended family, who used to do that. He would bring home sex workers, to the family home, and sleep with them upstairs as the rest of the family would operate downstairs as though it wasn’t happening. I thought that was so disturbingly beautiful, the chaos of that whole situation, the disrespect by the head of the household. I wanted to play off of that, this character from my family, and I wanted to explore what that would be for the sex worker—for Catherine. Who she was, who she is when she’s alone with Hillary. She’s another hurt woman, who admired this man.   You brought up something else I wanted to ask about: Hillary has this sense that something is missing from her writing, that she’s not good, though she does have these little glimmers of confidence. Stylistically, how do you capture the writing of a writer who thinks of herself as incompetent? I think when she has moments [of confidence about her writing]—she’s able to experience those moments through anonymity. When she’s writing as her father, she can see it as good and bad, because it’s not hers and her name’s not on it. When it’s just hers, she projects her own badness onto everything she touches.   We see her writing as her father in these excerpts you have of the memoir—but the narrative voice, I feel that’s also her writing. I think so too. I think maybe that part is a little bit of a joke, a bit of self-deprecation: the whole book could be bad. I struggle with that within myself too. With the excerpts from her father’s memoir: I think those were fun for me. They’re gross, they’re hyper-masculine. I wanted it to be something that she could see as embarrassing and over the top. Part of Hillary’s sense of being an imposter is the way she’s been earning her living for the past few years, before coming to be her father’s caretaker: she’s working an admin role in a creative writing department. She’s around writing and writers but emphasizes that she’s not actually involved. I wanted her to be stuck. She’s outside of Toronto, where she feels her true life is. She’s not in any sort of real relationship. Her only connection is with Catherine, her father’s past lover. She’s always on the outside looking in, especially in this writing position that she’s in, and I think that’s the place: maybe it’s where I feel I am sometimes, and I wanted to explore that in a more overt way. Hillary’s father has tendrils all over her life, including that job, and we get this sense that getting her that role in this department that he haunts—he stopped teaching there after a harassment scandal, but the department has never turned on him—it’s part of his controlling, abusive reach. Something I think about a lot—my previous novel is a campus novel—I think about campus politics and how that world operates. It’s not really changing at all: we keep firing men and then hiring new ones and firing them. Hillary has that moment where she reaches out to the coordinator and he just defends her father. It seems like satire, but it does seem to me like what’s actually going on.  I keep saying “Hillary’s father” because he goes by a couple of names in the book: his “real” name, Marcus Greene, and the name he used throughout his writing career: Baby. What are the origins of this pseudonym? That’s my dad’s name. He’s also adopted, he’s nothing like this character, but his birth name as a foster baby was Baby Davidson. They just give you the surname of the biological mother and the first name is Baby. I thought that would be so funny for a grown man to have to revert to this name because he’s ruined his other name, Marcus Greene, in his agent’s eyes. I like the part of story of how he “ruined” his name; it’s one of the lighter parts of the book. Can you talk about that? He had this past as an anarchist poet in undergrad, under his real name. He was in a troupe of writers called the Arthurs, who published a literary magazine, or zine. His agent wanted to sell him to New York as a big, American-style writer, so they tried to kill off that true identity and make a new one out of his previous identity.   It’s the Arthurs troupe part that I especially enjoyed—what part of literary culture were you touching on there? That just feels so CanLit to me, and hopefully that doesn’t sound like an insult. I love the idea of the Arthurs, even though I make fun of them. Canada’s so… no one ever wants to make it, and in previous generations it feels like there was so much collaboration and teamwork, and communities of people who really focused inward. You’d see the same people at every reading. I love the way that it operates, especially the Ottawa/Toronto/Montreal little cluster, and I think that it’s so different from the way that people who do make it to New York blow up, like Baby. The Arthurs are what I love about the writing scene. And you are involved in community things—not exactly in a troupe, but you’ve run reading series, and even represented authors? Oh God, yeah. I tried to. It didn’t go very well, but I did want to. I think I was doing more harm than good, but I tried to help. How did you do more harm than good? I just didn’t sell a book. I tried to be an agent for a year and a half. I edited some contracts, so maybe did some good there, but I told myself that if I didn’t make a sale by the end of the year, it was over.   What gap were you trying to fill? It’s sad to me than there’s no representation for poets, and there’s no representation for small press authors, and it’s so hard working with small presses—and hard for the presses too, because those houses are always operating on grants. But for the authors, they’re signing option clauses and they don’t know what that means, they’re getting $500 advances at best… I just wish that everyone had a little bit of a cheerleader with them, helping out. What could read as condescending about the Arthurs—which didn’t, to me—comes from a genuine fondness for this kind of community. Yeah. I do love it, and I kind of make a mockery of it. I kind of exist in both worlds, which is maybe a bad thing. Baby’s celebrity was another thing that I got stuck on, because there’s something nostalgic about it, like this memoir is not only a remembrance of his life, but of a literary life that’s increasingly rare. The kind of celebrity that Baby has is increasingly rare, boutique—what new writers have it? Sally Rooney, obviously, but it’s a very short list if we think of people in their twenties and thirties… And the ones who are there, it’s more fleeting, and I think because we all have access to this big conversation it’s more nuanced than just celebrity or not. I don’t think there is a Baby Davidson figure right now.   I think it also has to do with the fading cultural primacy of literature… which obviously concerns me. You too? Absolutely. It’s all I have, literature. It simultaneously concerns me and is quite beautiful, because as the group of us narrows, the connection becomes more intense. I’m so excited when I meet other writers who really love writing and literature. Aside from the authors, there’s a constant humour to What We Both Know: certainly not a jokiness, but moments of comic remove that both break and deepen the sadness.  My approach to humour is to demonstrate the things I think are so funny about people. When I write a character, I want them to exist in the humour. I don’t want to write a character who’s going to tell jokes—I know sometimes I do that—but I think the funniest thing is just the nuance of how people form a sentence, and the strange things they do.
The Magic of Alleyways

An ode to a vibrant public commons.

            “Backstaged, the alley is the outback world of the unmentionable, if not the unwanted...” -Grady Clay, Alleys: A Hidden Resource, 1978     ACT I: “The Theatre of City Life”   On a cool grey afternoon in April of 2018, I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing in an alley. A tall bald policeman paced beneath my window, stretching out a bolt of shiny yellow tape. Other cops in gloves scoured the ground for clues, peering into crevices where little sprouts were flowering.   That night, my neighbours filled me in on everything I’d missed—a fight between some teens, a foot chase down the alley, the ambulance on Harbord Street that whisked the kids to safety. Then we tried our best to shrug the whole thing off: wasn’t this the sort of thing you just accept in cities, the price you pay for all the joy that urban living brings? Wasn’t this the sort of thing we all expect in alleys?  The one behind my building had never caught my interest, a no man’s land of garbage bins, utility lines and vines. But when the stabbing happened, I’d just become a father, and we had recently moved from the basement up to the second floor: a slightly bigger unit with an alley view. With a mixture of curiosity and parental concern, I began to reappraise the world outside my window: a hundred-metre back lane in the middle of downtown Toronto, bordered by modest apartments and regal dark brick homes. A world where a hidden city came alive each day. Flocks of manic songbirds squabbled in the bushes. Hunchbacked trees dangled fragrant purple fruit, luring hungry pedestrians and voracious raccoons. And because of the alley’s seclusion within the heart of the city, it offered a space where people escaped to be their most intimate selves. Dad rock-loving yuppies jammed out in their Volvos. Homeless can collectors paused to whisper prayers. At night, I witnessed the surreptitious butt-taps of couples in love. This was a microcosm, the city in miniature, and it defied my assumption, reinforced by the stabbing and countless Hollywood films, that alleys were hostile spaces. The setting I observed and started documenting—first in frantic iPhone notes, then a formal diary—was something more inviting, and so much more complex: a vibrant public commons, a backstage in what urbanists call the “theatre of city life.” It had moments of quiet drama and goofy comedic scenes. It had celebrations, demonstrations and a public health disaster—all the budding subplots of a new urban story, unfolding in other cities, and in other alleys, all across the Earth. Maybe that’s a lot to read into an alley. Maybe I was transferring my fears and my obsessions. But that, I’ve discovered, is what we do with alleys, what we’ve always done, chasing dreams and nightmares in the world behind our homes. ACT II: “Question Everything” My alley sits on the western edge of Toronto’s Koreatown, a block away from a sunken park where a river used to run. Walking past the flotsam and the jetsam on the ground—the spent fireworks, the Powerball receipts, the Day-Glo yellow straws for slurping bubble tea—I often feel the tug of deep historical currents. I picture the buried creeks that run beneath my feet, the first natural alleys of the region’s Indigenous Nations. I picture the narrow walkways of history’s earliest cities, rising up from the banks of another river region, some six thousand years ago. Ever since ancient Uruk, the world’s first major city, founded around 4000 BC in what is now Iraq, alleys have served as a borderland between private and public life. Uruk’s covered lanes, no more than eight feet wide, offered respite from the sun when residents walked to the temple, as well as a space to escape from tiny windowless homes. A place to meet and make mischief, tucked away from the plazas where power and privilege reigned, these were sites where urban ideals collided with human desire. That would never change. Even as the back alley shifted form and function, inspiring local variants in every urban culture—the “castra” alleyways in Roman fortress towns, the hutongs of Beijing, the terraced lanes of Istanbul with howling packs of dogs—it stayed the city’s unofficial social laboratory. The lower and middle classes of early modern Seoul defied a rigid caste system in narrow Pimagol: “Avoid-Horse-Streets” where nobles couldn’t ride. The alley coffeehouses of 17th century London fueled a newly democratic culture of ideas—a space, as poet and satirist Samuel Butler observed, where “gentleman, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.” With the rise of industrial cities in the mid-1800s, alleys began to assume their modern, mythic proportions: a synonym for squalor in working-class factory districts; an adjective affixed to mean and desperate acts (“back-alley politics,” “back-alley abortion”); and an impediment in the minds of urban planners, obstructing the execution of a new civic agenda: the realignment of city life around the automobile.   From the 1930s onwards, alleys were razed by the thousands in Western industrial cities, clearing a path for expressways and other commuter routes. As upwardly mobile citizens fled to the leafy suburbs, the alleys that remained became a potent cultural shorthand, immortalized in cop shows and “social problem” films, pathologized in studies on overcrowded cities, as demonized as the people of colour who often lived around them: the archetypal hellscape of the new “inner city.”    Yet even as the stigma attached to these spaces spread, there were lonely renegades fighting to preserve them. In 1978, a Louisville journalist and urban planner named Grady Clay published Alleys: A Hidden Resource, the first book to celebrate their history and potential. The slim, 60-page volume won a cult following in the 1980s and ’90s, prized by discerning architects and students of urban design, who were desperate for alternatives to the tyranny of the suburbs. At a time when even the most progressive urbanists thought and talked about alleys in strictly functional terms—a place to put ugly stuff—Clay predicted their story’s most unexpected twist: their growing usefulness as a communal space in the swelling, socially fragmented cities that we live in today. He predicted scenes like the ones I saw in May of 2020, when my alley served as a rest stop on Black Lives Matter marches; a site for water breaks, adjustments of PPE and discreet, restorative rips from comically large bongs. Amid the grieving tributes to the memory of George Floyd, the countercultural history of alleys sprung to life, spelled out on a poster carried by one of the marchers. The bright red placard spoke for all the dissidents who’ve huddled in these spaces—and the need to reassess the stories told about them: “QUESTION EVERYTHING.” ACT III: “Come On and Celebrate” If not for the efforts of earlier urban dissenters, those marchers might never have found a place to cool their heels—or a neighbourhood where they could spread their message. Like countless other alleys in North American cities, mine was slated for demolition during the 1960s, an obstacle in the path of an urban highway project. But thanks to years of lobbying by local residents and civic activists, politicians cancelled the Clinton-Christie Expressway and a wider network of freeways planned around it. Toronto was spared the fate of countless American cities, blighted and divided by “urban renewal” plans, and kept the rich inheritance I stare at every day: vibrant residential streets right in the downtown core, fronting a network of more than 2,400 alleys. For almost fifty years, the city squandered this gift, abandoning alleys to trash cans and overfed raccoons, until a population boom in the mid-2000s prompted an urgent need for green community spaces. Enter The Laneway Project, founded in 2014 by a young urban designer named Michelle Senayah. Over the last decade, this independent non-profit has led the revitalization of thirty Toronto alleys, transforming them into greenways and neighbourhood meeting places. More than just a rebrand of long-neglected alleys, dressing them up with planters and the elegant moniker laneway—an inherited Britishism widely used in Toronto—the Project’s featured lanes and public outreach efforts inspire neighbourhoods to activate their own. Residents now compete to name unregistered alleys, paying homage to figures enshrined in local lore—a Mohawk doctor, a Chinese laundry owner, a Yugoslavian neighbour renowned for his homemade wine. And when the sun comes out on weekend afternoons, children’s birthday parties spill onto the pavement, laneway walking tours explore their natural history, and local fashionistas vamp against the walls, framed by alley murals that rank among Toronto’s most Instagrammable sites.  It’s an alley renaissance in spray can Technicolor, and it reflects a global trend since the early 21st century, when the world’s population became majority urban. With exponential growth stressing infrastructure, and the environmental costs of sprawl increasingly clear, cities from Melbourne to Athens, Detroit to Bogota, are turning back to their alleys, finding new ways to imagine and experience public space. Once portrayed as a symbol of social and moral decay, alleys now inspire fawning media coverage, blogs and dissertations, and dedicated units in city planning bureaus. They represent a strain of utopian urbanism, rooted in the work of the late Jane Jacobs and other progressive critics of 20th Century planning: a growing belief that cities—dense, diverse cities—are good for the mind and body, and good for the planet, too. As a life-long urbanite, I’m inclined to agree. Almost four years on, the entries in my alley diaries read like little mash notes, lovestruck tributes to the pageant outside my window: to City workmen breakdancing on their smoke breaks; to youthful skateboard posses rolling through at twilight; to the full-throated chorists of the Church of the Pentecost, a West African ministry in a building next to the alley, tetris-ing their minivans on weekend afternoons. One April Saturday evening, the days finally lengthening after a brutal winter, I watched a group of parishioners suddenly break into song, serenading the alley while waiting for their husbands. An adorable little girl, wearing a frilly dress, spun around in circles as the women reached the chorus, stretching out her arms towards the dimming sky. “Come on and celebrate,” they sang. “Come on and celebrate...” For a brief, blissful moment, the city was transformed—not just a sociable place but a virtuous one. A place that looked and felt a little too good for this world. A place that looked and felt a little too good to be true. ACT IV: “The Hourglass” In his book Metropolis, a riveting history of cities released in 2020, historian Ben Wilson describes the urban hubs of the global knowledge economy through what he calls an hourglass: “lots of rich people at the top, not many in the middle, and a caste of low-wage immigrants making up the base.” It’s an image I often return to as my city euphoria plummets, crashing into reality between the alley’s walls. For years, it was the tourists rolling their bags up the alley, heading towards my building and our underground Airbnbs, the frequent, illegal bookings that helped my neighbours and I pay our exorbitant rent. Recently, it’s the realtor signs shimmering on garages, advertising homes that sell for over two million dollars. Often, there’s a man or woman lingering at the gate, plucking cans and bottles from blue recycling bins. The “binners,” as they call themselves in some Canadian cities, span ages, genders and cultures, as well as levels of need: full- and part-time collectors; the homeless and the housed; brittle, stooped retirees—mostly Chinese and Italian, in my neighbourhood—supplementing fixed incomes any way they can. Jutta Gutberlet, a professor of geography at the University of Victoria, studies the lives of binners in cities around the globe and estimates that there are “at least 11 million worldwide.” A group “treated like waste because they work with waste,” and a hidden resource, reducing our carbon footprint, the binners are, in so many ways, the alley in human form—a fixture, and a face, of its long and winding history.  But do they have a place in the alleys we’re seeing today, which are gentrifying on a scale never seen before? In many Western cities, there’s no more striking example of the transformation—and the corporatization—of the post-industrial landscape than the “showplace” alleys popping up downtown: places like Jade Alley, in Miami’s Design District, a warren of cocktail bars and sleek designer stores; and Washington, DC’s The Wharf, a $2 billion condo and restaurant complex, full of alleys meant to evoke the District’s historic laneways. Meanwhile, in cities like Lagos, Mumbai and Beijing, ringed by alley-riddled informal settlements, ’60s-style “renewal” unfolds on a ruinous scale. Residents are evicted. Protesters are beaten. Alleys disappear.  Toronto’s laneway upgrades are certainly more humane; in many ways, they’re a model of grassroots urbanism, initiated by residents rather than City Hall. But as the city morphs into a prototypical “hourglass,” ranking among the world’s most expensive places to live, laneway activations tend to concentrate in wealthy neighbourhoods with powerful resident groups and business associations—not the working class districts in greatest need of investment. Well-intentioned zoning laws permitting “laneway houses”—secondary buildings, housing rental units, on alley-facing lots—also serve the interests of affluent property owners, handing them an exclusive, lucrative income source without making much of a dent in the city’s housing shortage. As one of Toronto’s leading urban equity consultants recently put it to me, requesting anonymity for fear they might “ruffle some feathers”: “there’s a bit of a neoliberal vibe with a socialist veneer.”   Although my alley exists on the edge of the laneway boom—unnamed, unkempt, unmapped on Google Street View—it’s rife with examples of the same social fissures and the power dynamics that govern urban space: the female friends and neighbours who don’t feel safe at night, menaced by ex-boyfriends and masturbating men; the young Black man cuffed on the ground at gunpoint, one August afternoon, at the alley’s northwest entrance. The arresting officer, noting my concern, apologized to me, the white guy across the street. And then there is the binner I’ve taken to calling Luigi, in honour of his resemblance to my late Uncle Louie, a ruddy-faced Sicilian who drove a New York cab. This leather-skinned paisan is ubiquitous in the alley, wobbling up and down on his  battered yellow bike, but after years of failed attempts to greet him from my window—years of lame excuses not to run downstairs and meet him—I still don’t know his name. We’re twenty feet away yet live a world apart.   The longer I’ve observed Luigi in the alley—the pop of his red “CANADA” shirt in sheets of summer rain; the distinctive, endearing bend in his ailing, lower right leg—the more his weekly cameos have summoned nagging doubts, and the central question of our alley’s latest act: If this was what the city looked like during times of plenty, what would be in store when a real crisis hit? ACT V: “Speed Control Zone” Right from the very beginning, when the first blue surgical masks started to clog the gutters, the vast extremes of alley life were stunning to behold. Here were the local binners, more numerous than ever, hiking black garbage bags over weary shoulders; there, my upstairs neighbours, draped in bags of food, heading in to quarantine to gorge on sourdough. When Luigi showed up one day, in latex gloves and a mask, gingerly lifting the bins with the end of a pointed stick, the properties behind him were dense with winter shadows—the elegant houses dark, the parking spaces empty, the residents now dispersed to second homes in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic had breached the alley’s walls. This wholescale disruption of daily life and routine glued me to my window. I kept my fear at bay by noting signs of life: the soaring, honking skeins of Canada geese in April; the fat purple mulberries that ripen every June; the high pitched cackle of my diabolical toddler, hunting for worms in the alley after her daycare closed. The alley became a refuge, a place to slow my roll: a “speed control zone,” like it’s described on a sign. By autumn, when the yellow leaves from the ash trees turned to mulch, I was feeling something that no one ascribes to alleys; something I felt nowhere else in our embattled city, among the shuttered storefronts and empty subway cars: I felt a sense of awe.   And somehow, it persisted, this feeling of connection, this quiet sense of reverence for the world in all its flaws. Somehow, it endured another bleak pandemic winter, and all the microcosmic dramas of another year. On January 4th, 2021, I watched a man in a neon vest scale my favourite ash tree, sawing it down to a stump while I was stuck on Zoom. Four months later, a laneway house emerged, the first we’d seen in the alley, rising up through the gap the tree left on the horizon. Right about the time it hit the rental market—a two-story mammoth in psychedelic colours, listed for the tidy sum of $5500 a month—Luigi disappeared. The last time I saw him was a drizzly day in June, riding away in the fog. Faced with all these changes—these losses and erasures—I questioned why my sense of wonder hadn’t vanished, too. I knew that this was partly a reflection of my privilege—of having distance from the harsh conditions all around me. But was there something else, intrinsic to an alley, that brought this feeling out? Did these hidden spaces have a “spiritual” dimension, as Michael David Martin, a landscape architect at Iowa State University, put it to me once, describing certain alleys as an urban “sanctuary”? Even before the pandemic, mine had fit the bill, a place to still my mind and activate my senses. Now, in the midst of this unrelenting shitstorm, the alley tethered me to people, and cycles in nature, I used to overlook; my small, brief life to a bigger network of life. That, at least, was how it felt one afternoon last summer, stumbling down the asphalt, reeling from the news of the death of Michelle Senayah, the passionate young founder of Toronto’s Laneway Project. I’d interviewed Senayah only weeks before, a brief but memorable meeting, and now she was suddenly gone, at the age of 36. The same age as I was, that humid afternoon. Everything around me bristled with new meaning: the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk. All the mundane wonders that fill our senses daily, until the day they don’t. Halfway down the alley, near the gnarled remnants of that once-majestic ash, my attention rested on a faded purple stencil, a sight I’d passed a thousand times but never studied closely. In thick block letters, stamped on a garage beneath an insult to the cops, some fellow alley pilgrim had left a five-word message that I would once have resisted, and probably even mocked, but that now, after all these years of loss and transformation—all these quiet afternoons, living on the alley— read like a statement of fact: “THIS IS A SACRED MOMENT.” With special thanks to Fallon Butler, Zahra Ebrahim, Jutta Gutberlet, Bronwen Heilig, Christopher Hume, Pico Iyer, Michael David Martin, Sean Miles and the late Michelle Senayah.
Relatability Gambits Will Never Die

Nationalism, Suiting, Zelenskyy and #SadMacron.

Welcome to Untimely Meditations, a monthly column about fashion for people who hate fashion time, and are perpetually late.  There was a time when the French ruled the world. Now, it seems more like playacting. Enter #SadMacron, a collection of images from February and March that the internet memefied, poking fun at the French president’s seeming burlesque of seriousness. Taken by Macron’s official photographer, Soazig de la Moissonoière, the pictures show the president after a (seemingly fruitless?) conversation with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Missing his characteristic navy blue blazer, and attempting something that approximates human emotion, these images seek to launch Macron into the pantheon of historical importance. For those of us who missed Cold War myth-making the first time around, the #SadMacron images are underwhelming updates to the genre. Stealing Kennedy valour, Macron goes for the just-add-water mystique of legacy building. He colourizes and reverses Jacques Lowe’s “The Loneliest Job,” a photograph that sees JFK turned away from the audience, without internalizing why that image works. Steadying himself on the resolute desk, caught between two flags—the symbol of the people on one side, and the symbol of the presidency on the other—Lowe’s interpretation of Kennedy hinges precisely on the tension between the president’s strong silhouette and the gravity of his office. Cutting a shadowy figure, Kennedy is armoured in a midcentury suit, the look calling to mind his wife Jackie’s plea to designer Oleg Cassini to “PROTECT ME.” In contrast to Kennedy, Macron drops the jacket, and faces the audience, caught between nothing in particular. Bracketed by rococo cherubs, he is a “sober” intrusion into a world of pastels and gold. The removal of the suit jacket implies a “willingness to get down to work;” yet, without loosened tie or rolled up sleeves, it looks as if the president is posing. In other images of the #SadMacron series, we see furrowed brows and attempts at despair, all of which have the subtlety and range of a staged paparazzi shot. Yet, what is most compelling here is not what the president does or does not do, but rather the tension between the remnants of the Ancien Regime, and the codes of modernity, best exemplified through Macron’s crisp suit. * Unlike the gilded whimsy of an Ancien Regime interior, the contemporary suit means business. It is a triumph of the bourgeois mode over the aristocracy that came before it. Even without the accoutrements of work—namely, piles of papers, folders, and envelopes—the suit exudes seriousness. Changing little over centuries, the suit intrigues due to its simplicity of design, simultaneously obscuring and revealing the physique and character of its wearer, eschewing most ornamentation. For the architectural modernist, Adolf Loos, the suit was a holy garment. Per the fashion historian, Christopher Breward, Loos saw the suit as a “fundamental component of an enlightened existence…the suit had seemingly always been there to remind man of the responsibilities and prizes attached to his higher state.” It became the garment of masculine republicanism par excellence, with the psychologist J.C. Flügel remarking that it was a sign of “the great masculine renunciation,” which argued that from the late 18th century onwards, men abandoned the more ostentatious garments of the past, opting instead for sartorial minimalism. Flugel writes: “as commercial and industrial ideals conquered class after class, until they finally became accepted by the aristocracies of the more progressive countries, the plain and uniform costume associated with such ideals has, more and more, ousted the gorgeous and varied garments of the older order.” Despite being called “Jupiter” in the French press—a veiled reference to both a god and the French king, Louis XIV—Macron is neither. His penchant for the suit reveals the heart of a bourgeois technocrat whose proximity to the Sun King perhaps comes from schoolboy imaginings, lofty ambitions, and a certain inflexibility of temperament. We accept gods and kings to be more opulent in their presentation, but the suit is often an exercise in restraint. In comparison to the gleam of the crown, the contemporary suit is aesthetically parsimonious. It is the stuff of clerks, industrialists, and civil servants—hardly ordained by god to govern, but apparently the market is fitting replacement. Yet, the suit—as we now know it—has its origins in Restoration-era England, a sartorial salve in an era of instability. Though some date the birth of the suit to Revolutionary France and the Romantic era that succeeded it (or Beau Brummell, anyone?), the fashion historian David Kuchta argues that the three-piece suit emerges in the late 17th century, as a means of re-articulating aristocratic power following the English Civil War. Disagreeing with the “Great Masculine Renunciation” theory, Kuchta believes that the suit “shifted elite masculinity from a regime that valued sumptuous display as the privilege of nobility to one that rejected fashion as the concern of debauched upstarts,” instead inscribing modest consumption as a public virtue. And it started with a vest. Introduced by King Charles II in 1666, the vest, per English diarist Samuel Pepys, was an attempt to “teach the nobility thrift” by introducing a style that “[they] will never alter.” Consciously unadorned, the vest meant to deflect from condemnations of English aristocratic excess made by radical reformers such as the Puritans. Per Kuchta, the vest could also be seen as a way for the English court to combat French influence by introducing a distinctly English style. Lord Halifax wrote that “[the English must] throw off [French] fashion, and put on vests, that we might look more like a distinct people, and not be under the servility of imitation.” This economic and political rivalry with France recast luxury and tyranny as distinctly “French vices” that the English imported—at their peril—through dress. As the poet Sir Thomas Overbury wrote, “vainglory, new fashions, and the French disease are upon terms of quitting their country’s allegiance, to be made free denizens of England.” Sumptuary nationalism further solidified the trend, with wool becoming England’s “manly and moral fibre.” By 1688, extravagance in dress was seen as “base effeminacy,” with a gentleman’s reputation increasingly reliant on perceptions of their public piety, which was seen through the absence of adornment.  By introducing the three-piece suit, the restoration court, according to Kuchta, “temporarily reversed the relation between power and display.” In forgoing obvious luxury, the crown regained its moral authority, and grounded it in a particular vision of masculinity—one that deliberately did away with the ornamentation of old. * English mores eventually found their way to France smuggled in the works of Enlightenment era thinkers like Voltaire. Entranced with English pragmatism, French fashion changed accordingly. It embraced English styles like the frock coat, gilet, and greatcoat, and according to the costume historian, Aileen Ribeiro, the Anglomania of the 1780s influenced French dress towards the sobriety of the black suit, a look “worn by middle class businessmen and the professional man—the lawyer, the doctor, the official—which was to become the urban dress of the nineteenth century man.” Yet, unlike the suit’s ability to unify at a time of social upheaval, Anglomania was a symptom of a society coming undone.  Another influence on the suit’s design were innovations in military dress. The uniform retrained and refit bodies and minds for combat, according to Breward in The Suit: Form, Function, and Style, “the military uniform was a potent agent of court and state control,” allowing for the expression of the staunch hierarchy of the Bourbon era state. It was a sensibility that continued throughout the French Revolution and into the Napoleonic era. Drawing on the historian Daniel Roche’s comments, Breward notes that “Uniform is at the heart of military logic…when war is a necessary continuation of politics. Uniform constructs the fighting man for mortal combat. It imposes control, a source of efficiency in battle and means to social power….it creates through education, realises a personage and affirms a political project by demonstrating omnipotence….uniform is central to a utopian and voluntarist vision of the social which reconciles the conflict between automatic docility ‘and the concrete economy of the individual liberty in which the autonomy of each constitutes the measure of his obedience.’ It impregnates the whole of society.” For revolutionaries in particular, English style suits became the antithesis of aristocratic opulence; the simplicity and rigorousness of its tailoring made it the perfect assertion of the new order.        Countering the tyranny of an immaculately baubled aristocracy, the suit was infused with the austere self-confidence of neoclassicism—a new masculinity. As Barbara Vinken writes in “What Fashion Strictly Divided,” the Revolution did away with the sybaritic noble, reducing their symbolic power to mere trinket, instead promoting “the citizen-man—the only real man—[who] stands in a negative relation to the world of frivolous appearance. He is. He does need to represent.” The suit was no mere uniform, it became, in Roche’s view, part of a new delineation of public space, [establishing] distances, a code of human and social relations, and it was all the more persuasive in that it developed an aesthetic.”  * On March 14th, Macron swapped Kennedy-core for purposeful schlubbiness. Emerging for the press in jeans and a black French special forces hoodie, he looked uncharacteristically casual. Instead of memes, the internet noted a curious similarity between Macron’s new look and that of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, war hero du jour. As Oleksiy Sorokin of the Kiev Independent quipped on Twitter: “A month ago it would have been hard to imagine French President Emmanuel Macron trying to copy President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Now it’s the reality we live in.” Compared to Zelenskyy’s man-of-the-people greens, Macron’s new look reads as army man cosplay. It’s odd that the avatar of the “Jupiterian presidency” would even deign to be perceived in sweats. Stranger still is that anyone remotely deserving of a mythological moniker would dress like a post-Gordon Geckko style corporate raider devoid of sleaze and personality. Nevertheless, he persisted. Relatability gambits will never die. Though the internet lambasted Macron’s jeans-and-a-hoodie as an attempt to copy Ukraine’s wartime leader, his look was less post-Maidan everyman, and more 2000s tech bro. A fashion revolution of a different kind, the tech bro uniform of t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, and Patagonia vests implied the same Protestant impulses as the proto-suit, with a decidedly amoral twist. Uninterested in the hereafter or any particular religious statement (unless relentless optimizing and money is your god), its “dogma,” wrote Hannah Murphy in the Financial Times, is that “minimalism and monotony yield extra productivity.” Social media titan Mark Zuckerberg famously stated, regarding the monotonousness of his dress, that his intention was to “clear [his] life to make it so that [he had] to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how best to serve [the Facebook] community.” He continued: “I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life.” Though he shed the suit, he never shed one of the most potent ideas behind it; that you are what you do, not what you appear to be. By relentlessly simplifying until there’s barely anything left and posturing at a kind of anti-fashion, the tech bro uniform undermines the suit’s potency, highlighting in the latter a kind of stuffy pomposity and lack of intellectual rigour. This sentiment calls to mind Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s disdain for CEOs in suits. As he wrote in Zero to One regarding how his company chooses to invest: “pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings.” It’s a similar logic that underpinned criticisms of French aristocratic fashion during the French Revolution; if you are what you say you are, contend the investor and the critic, then why are you laden down with needless accoutrements? If power in Silicon Valley derives from mental acuity and obsessiveness, slickness and attention to detail in dress suggests a lack of intellectual virility; a need to preen and pose, and a lack of attention to what really matters, vision and code. As Thiel wrote, “there’s nothing wrong with a CEO who can sell, but if he actually looks like a salesman, he’s probably bad at sales and worse at tech.” The tech bro uniform suggests a shift in where real power lies. The symbols of the past cannot hold. Instead, power belongs to those who create and control the attention economy: tech titans, and those best placed to surf the fickle waves of the discourse. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to seem “real,” or at the very least, “disruptive.” That’s something that the likes of Zuckerberg got, and what Zelenskyy in his army greens understands. Perhaps it’s fitting then that Macron aimed for war hero and emerged instead as dweeby tech despot. Thank god he didn’t go for a vest, bulletproof, Patagonia or otherwise. After all, we’re in the midst of a social media war—where it’s as much about creating spectacle as it is combating it. So why not pay tribute to those who ultimately shape what and how we see? Why not don the guise of the new gods? Jupiter is so passé.
The Life, Death, and Rebirth of MTV Books

How much influence did MTV expect to wield when it came to young readers’ literary interests?

In 1996, fifteen years after its seismic launch, American television network and cultural kingmaker MTV surprised viewers and skeptics alike with an untypical announcement: it was hosting a fiction-writing contest. Embarking on a new creative endeavour was not, in and of itself, unique to the brand. After all, MTV’s very existence was born from a brazen experiment uniting popular music, visual culture, and a brassy, free-swinging attitude. By the mid-nineties, the brand’s reach had unfurled in a variety of directions—often adjacent to music culture, but by no means focused on it—perhaps most famously those of animated programming (Beavis and Butthead, Æon Flux) and reality television (The Real World, Road Rules). But literature is a domain often regarded, however snobbishly, as antithetical to the sorts of stimulations available on MTV. What’s more, the lofty, cerebral associations of the written word did not align with the channel’s bawdy reputation. The knowingly provocative music video for Duran Duran’s 1981 single “Girls on Film” initiated what critics regarded as a catalogue of garish smut. As early as 1983, journalist Steven Levy described MTV in a Rolling Stone cover story as “the ultimate junk culture triumph.” The channel won a Peabody Award for its 1992 “Choose or Lose” programming, which sought to mobilize young voters, and succeeded in its aim—at MTV’s inaugural ball, newly elected president Bill Clinton declared, “I think everybody here knows that MTV had a lot to do with the Clinton–Gore victory.” Still, the channel’s efforts to achieve something so serious as heightened political awareness were widely lampooned. But MTV did not cower before mockery. And though its faltering start augured an uncertain future, the brand’s imprint, MTV Books, ultimately captured the hearts of its target audience of elder millennials who kept their dog-eared copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower close and lovingly at hand. I was among them. A fickle fan of MTV’s television programming, I wondered whether MTV Books could offer me the nourishment I only occasionally found in the channel’s prodigiously splashy media. It did. And, in so doing, it secured my allegiance to that hell-raising colossus that loomed at the back of my generation. MTV Books was the MTV I wanted. *** Together with its cosponsor, Pocket Books—the entity through which MTV would found its own literary imprint—the music entertainment behemoth solicited entries for “The Write Stuff” from aspiring, yet heretofore unknown, writers. The contest winner would sign the inaugural MTV Books contract, launch the imprint with their debut novel, and reap a $5,000 advance in the process. In the twenty-first century, these spoils might seem meagre, even exploitative, but a book contract, especially one tethered to such mighty commercial influence, is a seductive prospect for any labouring writer. So too is fame—and this MTV intimately understood. To qualify, “The Write Stuff” entrants were required to submit three chapters from a work in progress and be under the age of twenty-four. The latter stipulation accommodated the brand’s glorifying emphasis on youth and youth’s weightiest and most cutting-edge preoccupations. In other words, MTV was in the market for prose that aligned with its programming, so predominantly focused on the tangled, horny sociality of kids coming of age in the nineties, like the contestants on Road Rules or, when the animated sitcom premiered in 1997, Daria. Maybe the characters of a future MTV Books title watched MTV—if they had cable television, that is—or maybe they thought MTV was garbage. Regardless, targeting teens and early twenty-somethings made it more likely that the submitted manuscripts would express the current milieu. But whether due to lack of access or disinclination, the so-called “MTV Generation” hesitated to participate; at first, turnout for the “The Write Stuff” languished at two hundred entries. As the deadline neared, the New York Times ran a short article about the contest which noted, with mild derision, the shallow pool of manuscripts. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that every misunderstood youth must be in want of a publisher. Or is it?” the piece asks, as if with eyebrows raised. Then-MTV executive Van Toffler expressed a similarly detached bemusement. “Apparently they’re taking their time,” he told the Times. “There’s no denying it. Literature is not the most popular art form with our audience.” The adolescents and young adults of the mid-nineties—the audience in question—had long been maligned with the rest of Generation X as inert and intellectually disengaged. Writes Jonathon I. Oake in his 2004 article “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator,” “Thus, the deviance of Xer subculture lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing’. . . Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict.” The prevailing assumption—accurate or not—was that young, would-be literary stars were too busy watching MTV to pick up a pen. Tepid press is press nonetheless. Despite its brevity, and its equivocations, the Times write-up must have roused interest in MTV’s new venture. Ultimately, “The Write Stuff” yielded over five hundred manuscripts, and Robin Troy, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, was named the winner. Connecticut-raised Troy’s debut novel, Floating, imagines a dinky, dusty town in Arizona where its comely protagonist, Ruby, falls in love with her husband’s estranged, cowboy brother. One might imagine it adapted for late night on The WB, after Dawson’s Creek, Tiffani Amber Theissen and Skeet Ulrich smoldering against a sunset. Surely MTV Books hoped, as any imprint would, that its first title would be met with a warm reception. But when Floating was published in October 1998, it and, by extension, MTV Books, inspired brittle critique. “One of the differences between cake recipes and novels is the greater likelihood of actually getting a decent recipe from a contest,” begins Kirkus’s trade review. Individual critics were similarly grim. “If this is the future of fiction, bring on the music videos,” writes Patrick Sullivan for the Sonoma County Independent. Sullivan’s review, devastating in its sneering dismissal of Troy’s book, also insinuates that MTV’s primary cultural contributions are too feeble to portend the brand’s success in the intellectually elevated domain of book publishing. In fact, he likens Floating to a music video, referring to it as “its literary equivalent . . . full of quick cuts and perspective changes.” Whatever its accuracy, this comparison heaves with the weight of MTV’s spotted reputation, one that largely turned on the critical response to their music videos. As early as 1984, video director John Scarlett-Davis belittled the channel’s main fare as “masturbation fantasies for middle America.” Many agreed with his assessment and claimed to be repulsed by the videos’ reliance on sexed-up, scantily clad women and the broadcasting of so-called loose morals. In 1998, MTV’s viewers thirsted for replays of Brandy and Monica’s music video for their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine,” and teenyboppers panted after a glimpse of NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys as they hopped and thrusted through their choreography—but as is so often the case, this searing popularity did not coincide with highbrow assignation. If Floating’s structural template was an MTV music video, it was doomed to sink. Yet Troy is not to blame for this fumbled literary entrée, insists the Kirkus reviewer, who nonetheless sinks their teeth into the book and leaves puncture wounds. Rather, it is MTV Books who is responsible for sending “this novel-like object” into the world and perhaps “[devastating] any ambition [Troy] might have had.” By sharing her debut with that of the MTV Books imprint, Troy shouldered a prodigious burden. Implicit in Sullivan’s review is the belief that MTV had trespassed into territory beyond its expertise, dabbling wantonly where more robust powers of creative discernment were required. As the first expression of this breach, Troy’s work was bound to attract skeptical scrutiny—when, indeed, it garnered notice at all (Floating, like so many other books written for young readers, did not receive much critical attention). The shortcomings of any novel can be wielded as evidence of larger lamentable trends; this sort of intellectual synthesis is an expected function of literary criticism. If Floating was regarded as the crude effort of an undeveloped writer, it doubled as a symptom of MTV’s thought-annihilating influence on literature. In Sullivan’s estimation, MTV Books was not so much committed to telling stories as it was concerned with perpetuating its brand aesthetic. “As a physical object, Floating seems designed to provoke the same reaction as a stuffed animal (or a Backstreet Boy),” he writes. “The book is little, it’s funky looking, but most of all, it’s terribly cute. The chapters are all roughly ten pages long (just about right for perusal during a lengthy commercial interruption).” Rather than existing for its own sake—for the sake of a narrative, and for the possibilities exclusive to writerly craft—Floating seemed designed to complement MTV’s programming. Perhaps MTV earnestly hoped to encourage the habit of reading, so long as the practice did not infringe upon its raison d’être, that is to say, televised programming. But how much influence did MTV expect to brandish when it came to young readers’ literary interests? The success or failure of one book cannot predict the life trajectory of an imprint. If Floating’s prickly reception was not auspicious, surely it did not indicate doom, or anything else, for that matter. Readerly attention is finicky; so is the ebb and flow of cultural preoccupations. As a result, meteoric success eludes most published books, whatever their flaws or strengths. Floating might have been more elegantly crafted—and it might not have mattered. *** Then, on February 1, 1999, MTV Books published The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a slender, epistolary novel by debut novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Chbosky. And whether due to the narrative’s easy resonance with many among the MTV viewer set—the main characters are white, suburban high school students—the intimacy of its language, or some unquantifiable alchemy, it was a hit. To date, Perks is MTV Books’s best-selling title, and the most recognizable of the imprint’s nearly forty novels and short fiction collections. Rapid, fervent popularity amongst teenage readers fostered robust circulation; by October 2000, MTV Books was printing Perks’ hundred-thousandth copy. And twinned rivulets of momentum, cult readership and educator enthusiasm, solidified the book’s material success: after the production of a high-profile film adaptation in 2012 and a stint atop the New York Times bestseller list, the title is ubiquitous. Even without the confidence of hindsight, this commercial success would come as no surprise.  Perks emerges from MTV’s crowd of early aughts literature as an eager shepherd, scouting out its flock of pubescent misfits: the guileless, the preemptively jaded, and the rest of us wobbling from one emotional pole to the other. The 2012 film adaptation, written and directed by Chbosky, cemented the book’s stature as a darling among contemporary bildungsromans, although initially, critics did not receive it with unanimous enthusiasm. In fact, Perks’ trade reviews weren’t much better than those lobbed at Floating. Kirkus called it a Salinger “rip-off,” and Publisher’s Weekly accused it of being “trite.” Then again, the sort of reader who finds Perks “trite” might prefer the irritable machismo of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. An epistolary novel is structured by the pursuit of human connection, and in the case of Perks, the gesture is unvarnished in its earnest, almost puppyish, hopefulness. Chbosky’s narrator, Charlie, writes to his unnamed recipient—someone he has never met, but has reason to think well of—just as he trepidatiously begins freshman year of high school. Charlie’s only friend has recently died by suicide, and his own experiences of trauma and mental illness are growing evermore unwieldy. He is befriended by two seniors, stepsiblings Sam and Patrick. But as Charlie sinks into the novel joy of these intimacies, his determination to be an attentive and loving friend churns with a twinned, subterranean urge for self-obliteration. As a character, Charlie is emotionally generous, but he also prefers not to think about himself, and to instead commit to passive observation (he is, of course, the titular wallflower). However, this is a coming-of-age novel, and so all that Charlie carefully avoids, he must ultimately confront. As an adult, I find the novel warm and, at times, rather effortful. At sixteen, I thought it was a perfect triumph—and that, perhaps, is the appraisal that matters more. When teenage me encountered Charlie’s now-famous pronouncement, “I feel infinite,” the words hummed, carrying me to the lip of synesthesia. I received this expression of tranquil, comradely bliss—vague, yet invitingly capacious—as both revelation and yen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower was, in my adolescent estimation, the Rosetta Stone of teenage angst, the Key to All Adolescent Mythologies. And, as its issuer, MTV Books had distinguished itself as a purveyor of unabashed truth. Charlie’s journey towards self-understanding, strewn as it is with romantic missteps, hallucinogens, and live Rocky Horror Picture Show performances, plausibly coincides with MTV’s carefully cultivated brashness, but his wide-eyed earnestness might, at first, seem at odds with the acerbic cool so central to the brand. Then again, perhaps MTV Books was heeding the zeitgeist’s elevation of things red-heartedly sincere. For, although the nineties are canonically understood in terms of disaffection, many sought respite in softer territory. James Cameron’s Titanic, exultantly melodramatic, debuted in 1997 to near immediate, orgiastic obsession and cleaned up at the following Academy Awards. Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster’s suitably extravagant love theme, was inescapable, practically atmospheric. The Billboard Top 100 was flush with similarly impassioned declarations: Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight;” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply;” K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life.” In the meantime, America gawked at the scandal surrounding President Bill Clinton’s pungently insincere sex life and the simultaneously public excoriation of Monica Lewinsky: dismal proceedings which perhaps inspired us to scout out sweeter expressions of humanity. With Perks, MTV Books sauntered nearby, pairing coming-of-age sensitivity with of-the-moment stylishness. *** It would have made sense if, after finishing Perks, I had scouted out more of Chbosky’s work. Once besotted with a literary work, this tends to be a reader’s next move: investigate the author’s back catalogue and nurture a bit of fandom. Granted, Chbosky was a relative newcomer, and in fact, he didn’t publish a second novel until 2019, twenty years after his first (this follow-up, Imaginary Friend, was published by Grand Central Publishing, not MTV Books). In 2002, the results of any research would have been lean. But I confess that I did not seek out more of his writing. Instead, I meandered the aisles of Barnes & Noble in pursuit of more titles from MTV Books, the entity that had delivered Perks’s keen fluorescence into the world. This was the first literary imprint I had ever recognized as such. And although I lacked understanding of the logistics, I was receptive to the whispers of its branding. Surely my response was no coincidence. In an interview with Variety’s Jonathan Bing, Kara Welsh, then-deputy publisher of Pocket Books, explained that Perks’s success derived partially from the imprint’s kinship with MTV. “It’s a coming-of-age story aimed right at the MTV audience,” she noted. Bing then emphasized the prodigious advertising potential generated by such porous boundaries. “MTV produced an on-air spot for the book,” he explained, “a marketing coup enjoyed by few novels, especially first novels by little-known writers.” Implicit in these remarks by Welsh and Bing is the potency of the MTV trademark and its enticing associations of stylish audacity and cultural relevance. *** The guiding principle of any brand is this: be distinct, visible, and seductive. The MTV of the early aughts achieved this end. Still unimpeded by Napster and the gradual digitization of music, it reigned as the chaotic angel of entertainment. Its logo was—and still is—unmistakable: the solid loom of the “M” pressed against that hurried, inky dash, “TV.” Every weekday, Total Request Live (TRL) commingled the anticipation of a top-ten countdown with the tomfoolery of celebrity guests. And thanks to the exposure of MTV’s Time Square studio, it whipped Midtown Manhattan into an ecstatic frenzy. The MTV Video Music Awards, MTV’s answer to the Grammys, offered more feral pageantry and commitment to shock. When, in 2001, Britney Spears strutted across stage with the thick rope of an albino snake draped across her shoulders, viewers spoke of little else. I can’t recall whether I watched Britney’s performance on the night that it aired; my television privileges were spare and strictly monitored. But as an elder millennial living in suburban Virginia, I harboured an abiding influence in MTV’s programming events, like The MTV Video Music Awards, or a thrilling celebrity guest appearance on TRL. If I was home alone, I would turn on the channel in search of boy bands and Daria reruns. And if the programming ever seemed crass, absurd, or try-hard, well, I was captive nonetheless. MTV enjoyed a near-monopoly on American music television (with the exception of its more benign sister channel, VH1). If one wanted to hear the buzziest hits, and if the radio felt too unpredictably curated or one-dimensional, MTV prevailed as a brash sensory playground. Of course, my peers and I complained about its provisions. The music was redundant and vanishingly deprioritized; Carson Daly presided over TRL like an amiable automaton set to power-save. And by the early aughts, happening upon a spate of music videos felt as rare as a sighting of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the same room. As Amanda Ann Klein writes in Millennials Killed the Video Star, MTV gradually supplanted music videos with reality shows like Laguna Beach and Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Market research suggested that “millennials wanted to be a part of the media they consumed.” If this was my generation’s majority opinion, then I heartily dissented. Above all else, I chased the music video’s walloping glut of sound and fleeting images. And despite increasingly paltry offerings, I continued to watch. For a cloistered high school junior, MTV—even this diminished iteration of it—signified worldliness. Its programming instructed me in how to be young and how to pretend I enjoyed it. MTV Books piqued my interest because they had published Perks, but my curiosity was amplified by their affiliation with this popular culture juggernaut whose material endorsements guided my hand and my babysitting cash. For despite my quibbles with their early aughts lineup, I loved MTV. My musical tastes were sufficiently omnivorous to be satisfied by TRL; I knew that Tori Amos and Smashing Pumpkins weren’t likely to gain airplay, but Shakira and Britney Spears would. When, in 2000, MTV broadcasted their first feature-length film, 2gether—a satirical rendering of the boy band phenomenon perpetuated by the channel—it was an urgent cinematic affair. And although I doubted that Daria Morgendorffer and Jane Lane would have given me the time of day, I admired the animated series as the epitome of perspicacious wit. Surely, then, an MTV literary venture would unite good storytelling with a youthful, uniquely de nos jours attitude. Perks bore out this hypothesis, and so I was motivated to follow the thread. Over the years, I had consumed a healthy dose of young adult literature; although, in 2002, that taxonomy was not so ubiquitous, at least not among my peers. (Yet American librarians have been referring to adolescents as “young adults” since the 1940s, and the term “YA literature” has long been in circulation.) There was no shortage of decent—albeit homogenous—writing for and about adolescents when MTV Books launched in 1998. And while I treated my copy of Perks with attentive ardour, it had never previously felt necessary to read about modern life in order to locate emotional or dispositional familiarity. Why had MTV Books turned my head? At the risk of ellipticity—because MTV turned heads. The allure of MTV Books was always, to some extent, aesthetic. And it’s not surprising that an imprint with MTV’s influential heft would understand the craft of packaging. As their name suggests, Pocket Books creates mass-market paperbacks, soft and easily tucked in a coat. MTV Books’ offerings were designed according to this model, and in the years following the imprint’s launch, they manifested a reliable artistic calling card: candid, lowercase typeface, thick monochromatic blocks, and scraps of imagery loosely relevant to the narrative. They were “perfect for sliding into your messenger bag clad with pins and patches,” recounts one of my high school classmates, a fellow elder millennial. Any book can be wielded as an accessory, but MTV’s paperbacks complemented a particular look, one that was punky and chic. And for someone like me, hapless in her polo shirts and humdrum shoes, they supplied an air of subversion. The irony of this—brandishing slickly designed, commercial paperbacks to adopt a more alternative posture—sailed over my tidy, pony-tailed head. Teenage rebel I decidedly was not; subversion only interested me if I could practice it in good company. MTV seemed to assure me that I was. Although its fiction traded in misfits—Perks’s Charlie, Brave New Girl’s Doreen, the titular Fuck-Up—MTV Books was offering its alienated readers a means of fitting in. What a heady, beguiling paradox: come as you are, and you can be like us. I was addicted to the possibility of belonging and resonance, particularly when it was stained with rebellious aspirations. Relatability is more pleasant when it rhymes with validation, when the person on the page reminds us of ourselves, if only we were more audacious or capable of poignancy at the most cinematic moments. Hungry for that poignancy, we lonely millennial readers chased the unruly narrators of MTV Books. Narrators who listened to The Smiths and The Pixies, who wielded “fuck” with confidence, and who pontificated self-seriously the way we did on LiveJournal. Narrators who were existentially stymied and frustrated and bewildered by eros. Narrators who were emotionally bruised, who had survived traumas that, perhaps, vibrated in time with our own. Narrators who were love-voracious yet flinty, who bore shields of self-sabotage and well-whetted wit. In return, MTV Books hailed us, offering itself as both the drug and the dealer. *** In recent years, MTV Books has abided, at least publicly, in a quiet lull, without marketing razzle-dazzle or new releases. The imprint’s most recent output was a hardcover edition of Perks commemorating its twentieth anniversary, released in September 2019. We may, however, be at the lip of an MTV Books renaissance. In January 2021, various literary media outlets broadcast the imprint’s imminent “relaunch,” to be helmed by industry veteran Christian Trimmer. I confess, I am skeptical. In a cultural milieu brimming with screen-based diversions, how can the brand wield even a portion of its early-aughts might? Does Generation Z want their MTV just as its predecessors did? With the glut of accessible digital media, I’m inclined to say no. What’s more, in a marketplace now flush with YA literature, and so many authors, both seasoned and debut, triumphing within the genre, I wonder how this new iteration of the MTV Books imprint will distinguish itself, tethered as it is to a diminished pop culture giant, a relic of a society oriented towards cable television instead of YouTube and Instagram and TikTok. *** I discovered MTV Books nearly two decades ago, when my peers and I stood unknowingly at the cusp of a great digital onslaught. But for the time being, we wandered mall food courts and Blockbusters without the truss of a cell phone, and internet activity was oriented around winking AIM chat boxes and legally dubious mp3 downloads. Dawdling in Barnes & Noble served as another reliable pastime for a bookish teenage girl too callow for parties or heavy petting. My best friend and I would station ourselves there on Friday nights, drawn to the sugary scented hodgepodge of the café’s Starbucks coffee and baked goods and the ready supply of magazines—Cosmopolitan, Glamour, NYLON—which I preferred to read at a distance from my father’s skeptical gaze. But we would also roam the aisles of books, announcing themselves like so many slick, bound promises of intellectual sophistication and worldliness. One evening, mid-meander, no doubt riding the rush of a cinnamon bun the size of my face, I spotted the MTV books; they were housed together, like a serial—The Baby-Sitter’s Club, if Kristy, Mary Anne, and Stacey were soused in cigarette smoke and sexual longing. The early aughts marketing does register as libidinous: it flirts, tosses its hair, and urges starry-eyed obsession. “Like this is the only one,” razzes a bulletin at the back of one paperback, before listing the rest of the imprint’s catalogue. “Don’t even pretend you won’t read more,” teases another. And to be fair, they had my number. After finishing Perks, I seized upon Louisa Luna’s 2001 novel, Brave New Girl, highlighter in hand. I visited Arthur Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up (1999) on intermittent bookstore visits, eyeing it like a shy girl at the high school dance. I didn’t dare bring it home. Yes, my parents would have reeled at a book entitled The Fuck-Up, but perhaps I was shrinking from an agitating boundary. Did I trust myself with such provocations? “I don’t feel like putting on MTV because all they play is trash,” narrates Luna’s protagonist, the fourteen-year-old Doreen. Another provocation, lobbed casually, and presumably at the author’s discretion. And yet its placement seems almost fastidious, as if the result of a pointed conversation. MTV hovers like a paternal spectre, insistent on performative accommodation. “We can take Luna’s joke,” they seem to say. “See? Look at us, taking it.” When I read that line as a girl, I was thunderstruck, even though I understood that this broad-swathed disdain suited Doreen’s character. She likes what she likes (The Pixies and Ted, her only friend) and is unimpressed by the solicitations of mainstream culture. I may have recognized that a behemoth like MTV could tolerate mild ribbing, that the suits in the room harboured no illusions about their motives or their product. Still, it unmoored me, this recognition of permissibility. Louisa Luna could lampoon MTV in a book they championed. But of course, this cheeky line was hegemonically sanctioned. Rebellion in MTV Books rarely takes too outlandish a shape, and it predominantly manifests in white, middle-class, able-bodied characters who are inevitably more attractive than they perceive themselves to be. Beck, of Rachel Solar-Tuttle’s 2002 novel, Number 6 Fumbles, self-medicates with booze and the company of frat boys, but still dazzles her UPenn professors with papers dashed off at the eleventh hour. In Fake Liar Cheat (2000), Tod Goldberg situates his everyman protagonist, Lonnie, in a bourgeois variation of Bonnie and Clyde—note the rhyme—but events devolve into such outlandish tumult that the narrative reads not so much as an anti-consumerist critique, but rather as the noirish wet dream of an aggrieved office drudge. Alongside Claire, a comely, chameleonic femme fatale, Lonnie frequents glitzy Los Angeles restaurants, dining and then dashing without paying the bill. When, eventually, his sneaky accomplice frames him for murder, there’s little surprise. At base, Fake Liar Cheat is a nihilistic tale for young men who want to have sex with beautiful women and then blame them for ruining their lives. Like Goldberg’s Lonnie, the unnamed narrator of The Fuck-Up nurtures a diffusive, hyper-masculine dissatisfaction that propels his undoing. He flings himself through 1980s New York City, seemingly hell-bent on bludgeoning his life, but his every predicament arrives after limpidly evident bad choices. Ultimately, he is offered salvation and takes it. MTV Books chronicled all manner of suffering in the early aughts, most of it cruel and undeserved. It was also the suffering of the systemically blessed. Despite the exploits within, these are primly woven stories that deliver snug denouements, implicitly rendering the characters’ subversions controlled and validated, their hardships, if not easily solved, then at least socially legible. Perhaps we ought not be surprised: their packaging—audacious and distinctive yet streamlined and contained—seems to promise these tidy, digestible rebellions. And for MTV Books’ target readership, so vastly dominated by white, upper- and middle-class school kids, this was a digestible, satisfying dosage. Donning the solipsistic lenses of coddled adolescence, resonance and familiarity can easily masquerade as literary virtuosity. A trendy book cover might look like an invitation to a new home, one that feels safer and intrinsically true. At the start of The Fuck-Up, Nersesian’s narrator—comfortably separated from the novel’s sordid events—briefly appraises the circumstances of his domestic harmony. “Recently we celebrated our seventh anniversary together with a decent dinner and a not dreadful film,” he recounts. The vicissitudes of a placid adulthood: a dinner that tastes good, but not great; a film that entertains but doesn’t transport. This sort of mundanity might send you searching for Charlie’s beatific infinitude—searching, perhaps, in a rowdy little paperback whose logo promises wild delights. And when you’re sixteen and full of ache, you’ll believe in them.
The Loneliest Man in the World

Watching Irrfan Khan over the years

A man is calling home from the phone booth of a hospital. He is in the emergency room, but doesn’t want to scare his wife, so he tells her that he has a stomach problem, nothing more. The wife blames herself for not being there with him. He smiles and presses one hand against the glass partition of the booth. “Really, it’s not that bad,” he says. She asks him about the doctor. He pauses before answering. If not for the pause, you’d never suspect that something else is at stake. Now you understand that the man is lying: “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.” His hands are fumbling inside the booth for what he can’t bring himself to say. Since Irrfan Khan died in 2020, I have returned often to this moment from The Namesake. Something about the man’s tact—part of what Khan once called the “rhythm” of every character he plays—has remained with me for months: something about those hands. Khan’s career was in many ways studded with tragic roles—a doomed lover in Maqbool, a stubborn outlaw in Paan Singh Tomar, a hands-on billionaire pursuing a dinosaur from a helicopter in Jurassic World—and yet I keep replaying the one death scene where his character doesn’t let the audience know what is about to come. The man persuades his wife that he is alright before putting back the receiver. Then he withdraws his hands into his pockets and walks away from us. There was Khan fifteen years ago, just when his film career was starting to take off, somehow able to embody the sense of an ending. He would come to repeat the performance, this time for real, once he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. In a span of two weeks, his calendar changed: his life, as he wrote then, quickly became “a suspense story.” He moved with his wife, Sutapa Sikdar, to London for treatment. But a year later, he was back in India, shooting a film, looking happy on set. For a while, as in that scene in The Namesake, his demeanour seemed to betray nothing untoward. After his death, Sikdar revealed that his medical reports “were like scripts which I wanted to perfect.” In his last months, while coming to terms with his illness, Khan was sparing his future biographers any qualms about pacing. Actors’ lives do tend to mirror the imagined arcs of their movies, but Khan’s trajectory seems ultimately more redemptive than the elusive men he portrayed. To those of us who grew up in India at the turn of the millennium, Khan first proved that it was possible to be a protagonist in a popular film and not sing and dance in the rain; that a character could be brought to life as much by what they said as what they didn’t; that a scene you watched unfold swiftly on screen often involved years of contemplation and restraint. When Khan took up roles in international releases like The Namesake and A Mighty Heart, he didn’t undergo much of a makeover. He was still the outsider, born to middle-class Muslim parents in Jaipur. He seemed worlds apart from the prancing heroes of Bollywood musicals, the handful of families who maintained an incestuous grip over the studio system in Bombay, or the older generation of cosmopolitan Indian actors who spoke Edwardian English and contented themselves with supporting roles in British period films. In just over a decade, he became a presence on screens all over the world, with appearances in The Warrior, The Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire, Haider, Life of Pi, Jurassic World, even a sizeable part in The Inferno, where he outshone a glib Tom Hanks in scene after scene. *** The first time I noticed Khan on a screen I thought he screamed like Al Pacino. Not the Pacino of Scarface or Dog Day Afternoon, braying out threats all over the place, but rather the don in The Godfather Part III: older, lonelier, the bravado all but invisible, howling skyward when his daughter dies in his arms. The scene I watched Khan in, from Life in a Metro, didn’t feature any deaths, but the moment I remember was inflected with a similar sadness—a need, paradoxically private, to exert one’s lungs out. Khan’s character, Monty, has dragged his work friend Shruti (played by Konkona Sen Sharma) out to the rooftop of their office building in Bombay. Shruti happens to be dealing with multiple disappointments in her life. Her sister’s marriage is falling apart; the last man she dated lied to her about his identity. “Who are you angry with?” Monty asks her. “Somebody in particular? Or just your luck? Whatever it is, just let it out.” At first, Shruti is reluctant—“It’s not so easy,” she tells him—but then the two of them scan the skyline for a moment and start shouting together at once. Their voices ring out in the quiet. The building is tall enough to drown out the city’s sounds and impose a simulated silence. When Shruti breaks down halfway through, you sense that she is facing up to her pain. But Monty’s yelling is tinged with the weariness of having tried a trick one too many times and still being doomed to try again. From that moment on, you know that Monty and Shruti will fall for each other. The scene on the roof crackles with the thrill of seeing and being seen, the vulnerability usually associated with a first kiss. Later in the film, Monty asks her why she ghosted him after that first date. She replies that she’d caught him staring at her breasts once. “That?” Monty bursts out shouting. “You rejected me for just that?” Then he grins and steals a glance at her body again. Khan’s eyes carry that scene. You can’t really tell whether they seem glazed over because of the smoke from his cigarette, or because he is pretending to be upset. I fell quickly for Khan: those pauses, those eyes. How they made you think there was more to him than he let on. As a teenager, I’d spend days watching the Godfather movies on a loop, mouthing Pacino’s lines, memorizing his gestures to try on friends. Now I modelled myself on an Indian counterpart who didn’t even need a good line to be noticed. When I moved to Bombay for college, I remember walking around the sea on my first evening and finding myself at the exact spot where they had filmed Monty confronting Shruti about her rejection of him. It felt like a meaningful sign in a city that seemed to desperately believe in portents. Everywhere you went, you could glimpse in people’s faces either a placid certainty or a fear of transformation. Inside crowded trains during office hours, unsure if the incoming rush will part for me to get down at my stop, I’d overhear lonely men consoling one another with their plans of getting married and rich. Couples lined the promenades and beaches late at night, their backs turned to the bright lights on land, as if their time together made more sense in the dark. Each time you passed by the studio lots, rows of would-be actors sized you up around the gates, in case you were a casting agent looking to give someone new a break. I, too, had come looking for a break. But what was it that I wanted to do? One week I’d design a billboard campaign for an ice cream brand, aspiring to end up in an ad agency. The next week I was a documentary filmmaker, getting arrested while shooting undercover in a temple. I longed for the exhaustion of experience: perhaps a job where, at the end of the day, someone might invite me to the rooftop of the office building and let me yell my feelings out. Khan’s antics exuded depth, an air of having seen and lived through so much—precisely the image a college student, hungry for life, yearns to project. Once, I asked a woman to meet me early in the morning near the waterfront. The idea was to find a quiet place and, I remember texting this, shout “our inner demons out.” It must have been a confusing message and yet she showed up more or less on time. We sat on two chairs overlooking the beach and risked stern glances from morning joggers to awkwardly launch our voices across the sea. The sun was already blazing on our backs and soon we gave up trying to impress one another. We started going out not long after, but never spoke of that day again. *** Irrfan Khan was born Sahabzade Irfan Ali Khan at a time, long ago now, when Indian Muslims were perceived as Indian above all. His father was a lapsed aristocrat who had given up his family land and privileges but still liked to go on frequent hunting trips. His mother was more introverted and usually at home. Little Irfan, the second of four children and the first boy, would have liked nothing more than to be affirmed by her. “I desired to be close to her,” Khan once said in an interview, “but somehow we’d end up fighting with each other. I used to imagine her patting my head in approval—I think I’ve been looking for that feeling all my life.” His mother imagined that her children would settle not far from her in Jaipur, taking up modest jobs that just about paid the bills. Years ago, her brother had travelled to Bombay, looking for work, and never returned. Her husband’s early death only added to her fear of abandonment. Irrfan was nineteen then, and as the oldest son, expected to look after his father’s tire shop. But his hopes had been stirred up watching leading men in Hindi matinees: a grandiose Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur, a raffish Mithun Chakraborty in Mrigayaa. Someone told Khan that he looked like Chakraborty: tall, dark, un-photogenic. He began to style his hair like the hero. After high school, he joined evening theatre classes in a local college and even witnessed a couple of Bollywood shoots in town. He wrote to the National School of Drama in New Delhi, bluffing in his application about plays he hadn’t acted in. They offered him a scholarship and Irrfan moved out of the house. In Delhi, Khan nearly got his big break. The director Mira Nair had come to campus looking for actors to cast in her debut film, Salaam Bombay. One day, she noticed Khan in a classroom. “He wasn’t striving,” Nair later recalled watching him act. “His striving was invisible. He was in it.” She cast him in the main role and Khan went to Bombay in the middle of the semester to train with the crew. But after two months of rehearsals, Nair decided that Khan didn’t look the part. In the final film, Khan appears for a grand total of two minutes, as a letter writer who dupes the child protagonist. In life, however, it was Khan who might have felt deceived: he had travelled all the way to a new city, thinking he had bagged the role, only to end up on the train back to Delhi before the shoot. His first role, as he would say later, also “became my first setback.” Nair took another twenty years to cast him again in The Namesake. That Khan would rough it out for so long should not come as a surprise, for actors remain dispensable in Bollywood, unless they become box office gold or belong to insider families. Squint at the backdrop of a scene in any Hindi film and you will spot a good actor—good, in spite of their measly roles. “Talent is insignificant,” James Baldwin once wrote. “I know a lot of talented ruins.” Thirty years ago in Bombay, around the production offices in the western precincts, you were likely to find just as many untalented plinths. There was the shirtless scion of a famous scriptwriter who showed off his abs in every other scene (and keeps doing so these days opposite women thirty years younger than him). There was the son of a powerful producer who became the country’s most bankable director by having his romantic leads tussle it out on a basketball court—then a rarity in India—and heralded the industry’s turn away from rural audiences to richer, albeit equally conservative, Indian expatriates. Then there was the middle-aged director who liked to appear in medias res in all his movies. He would pop up halfway through a song or a scene, staring at the camera from under a sun hat, just so you didn’t forget you were watching his film.   Khan tried his best to find an opening in this milieu. He was told, for instance, that the showman director in a sun hat had seen Khan act somewhere and was apparently considering him for a part. He spent the next few months waiting in vain for the director to call. Casting agents would glance at his portfolio and chide him for taking on diverse roles. He was told not to fiddle with his looks and angle for essentially the same character in every film. He survived those years doing television gigs, daytime soap operas where the action happened once in real time and then again—twice—in slo-mo, so that viewers could follow what was going on with their eyes closed. What was an actor’s actor doing in that world? Producers would tell Khan off on those sets for pausing between his lines. Cinematographers wanted him to look at the camera while talking. He met Sikdar, a screenwriter, in drama school, and by the end of the millennium, they were married and had a son. Sikdar even brought him aboard a couple of shows where she was employed as a writer, but Khan didn’t land a leading role throughout the ’90s. One time he was so desperate for work that when someone pointed to a TV tower on a hill and joked that Khan might get a job there, he actually trekked up the mountain. I know that tower on a hill: it was the landscape of my childhood. My mother worked as an engineer for India’s public broadcaster. Every few years she’d be transferred to a different TV station across the country, which meant that we had to move from one housing campus near a TV tower to another. At the same time Khan was struggling to find his bearings in soap operas, my mother was helping beam those episodes into homes week after week. Later, when he talked about these shows in interviews, I’d recognize their names, but have no memory of their protagonists or storylines, never mind any flashback of Khan stumbling through a scene. What I do remember is the tedium, the eternal blandness of those afternoons and evenings when a cricket game spread over five days would seem like the least onerous thing to watch. Cable channels had arrived some years ago with the opening up of the economy, but their content was still lacklustre: turgid comedies, lachrymose adaptations of Hindu myths, stale reruns of Santa Barbara and The Bold and the Beautiful. On weekdays, kids had just an hour of Disney cartoons—mostly DuckTales and TaleSpin—while on Saturdays, they could skip school to catch up with a preachy local superhero moonlighting as a buffoon in glasses. Looking back on his lost decades, Khan felt that his biggest challenge was remaining interested in his craft: “I had to come up with ways to keep my inspiration going.” The first time he got paid for a role after moving to Bombay, he bought a VHS player, apparently to avoid getting “bored of my own profession.” The Indian viewer in those days was just as bored. I remember making do with little: listening to songs from forthcoming films, then watching the video sequences of the same songs on TV, so that by the time we caught the movie in a theatre, we’d get our money’s worth whistling and crooning when the songs came on. The world opened up, at least for my generation, with the prevalence of CD and DVD burner drives on computers that freed us from the tyranny of television and the next Friday release. By the time I was eleven, I was hanging out at a friend’s house every afternoon just to copy out discs from his older brother’s collection of MP3s. Vendors on the street would sell bootlegged prints of everything from Rashomon to Home Alone to Deep Throat, and soon enough, grainy camera recordings of the newest movie in theatres, for the exact price of a balcony seat. *** I remember watching a pirated print of The Warrior, the film Khan credits with reviving his career. The scenes were gorgeously rendered: Khan, long-haired and lanky, brandishing a sword in a forlorn expanse of sun and sand. Then later, with his hair cut, looking both lost and determined as he treks his way through cascading woods in the Himalayan hills. Khan didn’t need to puff up his arms or chest to play the part of an enforcer to a medieval warlord. His eyes gleam with menace when he goes plundering across villages on horseback, and afterwards with trauma, when he is forced to watch his little son being executed in an open field. Silences suffice in this world of mythical beauty and carnage. Feelings are conveyed with the slightest of frowns and hand movements; everyone speaks in hushed tones despite the bloodshed. When the director Asif Kapadia—who later made the Oscar-winning documentary Amy on the singer Amy Winehouse—first auditioned Khan, he thought he looked like “someone who’s killed a lot of people, but feels really bad about it.” Kapadia had discerned something essential about Khan’s appearance in any movie: the story of a film often played out on his face.     The Warrior was never released in Indian theatres. (US rights were bought by Miramax, where it became another film that Harvey Weinstein shelved for years.) But a couple of new directors noted Khan’s ability to evoke menace and cast him in two films that gave him a footing in Bombay: Haasil and Maqbool. His characters in both films have killed a lot of people, but it is in Maqbool, where he plays the lead again, that you get to see how he feels about it. There is a moment when Maqbool is staring at the corpse of his best friend, having himself ordered the hit, and he imagines that the dead man has opened his eyes again. Maqbool falls tumbling backward in shock. Apparently on set, Khan was so persuasive while doing the scene that his co-actor Naseeruddin Shah thought he had really lost his balance and held out his arms to support him. Shah had been one of Khan’s idols in drama school, and there he was, taken in by the latter’s performance. “You’re bloody good,” he told Khan. By the time I saw a pirated print of The Warrior, Khan had impressed many others with his breakout roles. He stood out in The Namesake as the withdrawn father. Wes Anderson wrote a part in The Darjeeling Limited just for him. He was cast as a cop in both A Mighty Heart and Slumdog Millionaire. In India, Life in a Metro showed that Khan need not always play the brooding murderer. He even appeared in a TV ad that became very popular because of its setup: sixty seconds of Khan just impishly chatting up the viewer from a screen. Those were indulgent days. Bollywood was finally catering to the country’s craving for realism. Filmmakers could hope to break even by releasing a movie only to select audiences in cities, which meant that they could steer clear of big studios and song-and-dance routines, and instead cast new actors as leads. In Bombay, a decade ago, I often had the sensation that we were making up for lost time: all those hours squandered in childhood when we were deprived of things to watch. I lived at the YMCA with a roommate who was glued to his laptop all day and night, watching something or the other. D. had a couple of 500 GB hard drives, stacked with torrent downloads of the latest Japanese anime series, episodes of every American TV show aired in the last thirty years, and an unbelievable archive of international movies grouped in alphabetical order by their directors’ last names. He would be at his desk early mornings, sipping tea, his eyes blazing red from the memory of the show or movies he had stayed up all night to watch. On weekends he’d head out to a friend’s place in the suburbs, to replenish his stock of content. The diligence with which he’d finish a series in the span of a day, or go looking for a director’s deep cut: I never thought of him as a passive binger. To D., watching was work. Khan, too, was putting in the work. In Bollywood, this often involved playing to the gallery, for as he once admitted in an interview, “You don’t need nuance here as an actor. Attitude is enough.” He disliked repeating himself. If he was asked to do eight takes for a scene, he’d do them in eight different ways, letting the director figure out the rest. Even with subtler roles, Khan didn’t believe that an actor could always become the character and trusted his imagination more than research. Before playing an Indian-American man in The Namesake, for instance, Khan had never travelled to the US. He understood that getting the clothes and the accent right could go only so far in conveying the inward rift of an immigrant. He fell back on his memory, recalling a previous trip to Canada where he had noticed some dour-looking immigrant workers in shops. “Something stayed in my mind,” he told TIME magazine in 2010. “A strange sadness…A rhythm that middle-aged people have.” In The Warrior, he didn’t quite believe the scene where his character watches his son being killed. He approached the moment by telling himself that the experience of shooting a film was like life, and “sometimes you have to live a life because you have no choice.” My favourite Khan anecdote is from the set of 7 Khoon Maaf, where he was cast as the third of the seven husbands of the protagonist Susanna, played by Priyanka Chopra. Khan couldn’t relate to his role: a “wife beater” Urdu poet. The poet was just supposed to be persistent with his abuse, so that the audience could empathize with Susanna when she killed him. While getting ready for his scenes, Khan happened to be listening to a random ghazal by the singer Abida Parveen. “All of a sudden,” he told Kapadia later, “that ghazal created a whole world around me.” The song helped him delve into the inner life of the poet, find a pattern to his behaviour. He was able to transform himself within moments. On talk shows, Khan would often recount the story of inviting his mother to the premiere of The Namesake in Bombay. After the screening, she apparently asked Khan to introduce her to the director, Mira Nair. “Let me talk to her,” his mother told him. “I want to ask her why, of all the people in the world, she had my son killed off in the film?” His mother was joking, of course, but something about the recurring deaths of his characters can seem, at first glance, manipulative. The scripts that came his way seemed to repeatedly indulge the fantasy of his eventual disappearance. But death is also the script everyone wants to perfect: it is the endpoint of “striving”—the word Nair used to contrast the experience of watching Khan act in drama school—and if you dig deep into many of Khan’s roles, you’ll find a striver, a man relentlessly searching for something. Whether he is projecting nonchalance (Maqbool), pain (The Warrior), or disdain (Slumdog Millionaire), signs of hustling are always evident. In Life in a Metro, Monty is even striving to find a wife. Towards the end of the film, Monty encourages Shruti to move on from her bad relationships and try dating someone new. “Take your chance, baby,” he tells her. You almost feel that it is Khan talking, counselling the viewer to keep looking for all there is to find. *** What was Khan really striving toward? He seldom gave any straight answers. In public he offered zen disquisitions about the mystery of life. Hours after his death, a scene from Life of Pi, in which he delivers a heartfelt monologue about “letting go,” went viral. He went back and forth on his name, adding an extra r to “Irfan,” dropping the “Khan” because “I should be known for what I do, not for my background or caste or religion.” In Bombay, he refused the trappings of a star despite his American fame. He lived on Madh Island, a ferry ride away from the studio lots and the inland neighbourhoods where celebrities usually splurged on landmark mansions and apartments. The distance was partly self-imposed: he never got over his disdain for messianic Bollywood heroes. For all his cameo parts in franchise movies abroad, Khan first tasted blockbuster success in India with Hindi Medium, which was released just three years before his death. He didn’t seem to mind being typecast in big Hollywood projects, turning up invariably as the “international man.” But he turned down roles in The Martian and Interstellar when their production dates clashed with smaller projects. And there was that unforgettable photograph of him looking sullen when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture at the Oscars, while the rest of the crew are smiling and exulting around him. Both In Treatment and The Lunchbox make good use of this enigma: the way Khan couldn’t help but look slightly disaffected everywhere. “He’s got the loneliest face I’ve ever seen,” Paul, a therapist played by Gabriel Byrne, says of Khan’s character, Sunil, in one episode of In Treatment. And indeed, Sunil is alone, even though he lives in Brooklyn with Arun and Julia, his son and daughter-in-law, six months after his wife passed away in Calcutta. Every few episodes, Sunil sits in Paul’s office and grudgingly reveals his woes—how his wife had in her last moments made sure that Sunil would move in with their son overseas, how he can’t stand the fact that Julia gives him a weekly allowance and monitors his time with the grandkids, how she goes around calling his son Aaron, how he is absolutely certain that she is having an affair. There is something bleak about Sunil’s obsession with Julia: his eyes visibly light up when he describes the way she talks, the visions he has of “smothering” her when he hears her laugh. The showrunners keep circling back to the creepiness of Sunil’s fixation, but they miss the fact that this revulsion gives him a reason to wake up every morning in a new country. Just for a while, he can forget that his wife of thirty years has died. The deeper rift is between Sunil and Arun; Julia is just a proxy for the repressed feelings. The son has travelled too far, too soon, and the father can’t keep up. The distance between Sunil and Arun is precisely the one Khan covered in his lifetime: from Jaipur to Jurassic Park; from the rooftop of an office building in Bombay to a therapist’s couch in New York; from playing a melancholy gangster in Maqbool to swishing in and out of boardrooms as Simon Masrani in Jurassic World. Together his roles encompass the story of South Asian globalization in the last three decades: these are men whose lives look nothing like their fathers’. For all their striving and ambition, their private lives are stunted. They don’t quite know how to be well-rounded in a rapidly changing world. The journalist Aseem Chhabra writes in his book, Irrfan Khan: The Man, The Dreamer, The Star that Khan was squeamish about doing sex scenes. Perhaps this is why so many of his characters are literally learning to love. In Paan Singh Tomar, he has to teach his wife how to kiss. In Road to Ladakh, where he plays a fugitive on the run, a lover must demonstrate the correct way to lock lips. “I don’t suppose you watch too many movies,” she teases him in bed. “We watch movies to learn these things.” In The Lunchbox, Saajan Fernandes neither cooks nor watches movies. He is a widower, with no children, no friends. He plans to retire from his job soon and move out of Bombay. Years ago, when his wife was alive, she used to record her favourite TV sitcoms on tapes, so that she could return to them on weekends and laugh at the same jokes again. Now he stays up at night watching those old tapes, smoking on his porch, counting the hours until morning when he can go back to work. (Saajan is what Monty in Life in a Metro might have become if he had never met Shruti. Sunil, from In Treatment, can also look forward to a similar existence once he is deported back to India.) After a lunch delivery service misplaces their orders, Saajan starts exchanging letters with a youngish housewife, Ila. He tells her about his past, how he keeps forgetting things because he has “no one to tell them to”; she shares her darkest impulses of sometimes wanting to jump from her apartment window upstairs. They decide to meet and run away together to Bhutan. They arrive at the same café for their first date, and he sees her waiting alone at a table. But he can’t bring himself to walk up to her and reveal his face. He sits at another table and watches her scanning the door for his arrival. He fears that he is too old for romance.  ***                             Saajan may have missed his chance with Ila, but Khan’s performance in the movie was universally acclaimed. The Lunchbox won an important award at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution in the US where it did good business during Oscar week. The reviews in the American press were all so gushing that I couldn’t help but slightly wonder about the applause. Why were people in New York and Los Angeles connecting so much to this portrait of a loneliness I associated with Bombay? After all, not too long ago, Slumdog Millionaire, a lacklustre musical even by Bollywood’s standards, had been championed at the Academy Awards. But my doubts mostly stemmed from an immigrant’s anxiety about their new home, for by then I was a graduate student in the Midwest. From the moment I first landed at O’Hare Airport, I was conscious of being mistaken for someone else, someone who fitted a perceived notion of being Indian. “Creative writing, really?” The immigration officer who stamped my passport did a double take while scanning my I-20 form, no doubt more accustomed to incoming Indian students enrolled in engineering and life sciences courses. My landlord in Iowa City picked me up from the nearby airport and seemed surprised that I spoke “good English.” It was in Iowa City that I first saw The Lunchbox, in a narrow one-room theatre at the Ped Mall. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood had been screened earlier in the afternoon, and a section of the audience, which included an author who was among the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, had stayed back to catch the evening show of an Indian film. After the screening, the author and his wife waved me over to their seats. We fell into the usual post-show chatter about the film. “Watching it I felt so hungry, you know,” the author said, “The food! The spices!” He turned to his wife. “Honey, do you mind eating out tonight?” Where I had glimpsed something ineffable—two lonely people in a city—he had spotted something expedient: his dinner plans. And indeed, later that night, when I passed by the only South Asian restaurant downtown, he was seated at a table by the window, stuffing his face with a naan. When I watched the movie again, I realized there were barely any close-up shots of the spices or the food: mostly you saw Ila filling up the containers of the lunchbox in the mornings and Saajan licking his fingers clean at lunch. I guess, for the author, the spices were a part of what was clearly an Indian night. *** “You look like the guy from Life of Pi.” I heard this often enough in Iowa City to know that it wasn’t just an old white man thing. Baby-faced theatre majors part-timing as baristas in cafés, international writers staying over on a residency during the fall: they’d all recall the last time they had seen an Indian on screen, moments after meeting me, and offer what they no doubt thought was a compliment. The child in me wished that they were talking about Khan, though they probably meant I reminded them of Suraj Sharma, who plays the half-naked kid stranded in the middle of the ocean for much of the film. I looked nothing like Sharma, but did feel some affinity for Pi during the shipwreck. Before boarding, the boy had watched his father’s zoo being loaded on the docks, all those animals that they hoped to carry over into their new lives. I missed Bombay, and worried about forgetting the place during my time away. In the stories I wrote during those years, I was recreating the city in my head, street by street. To workshop those stories in the Midwest was to receive an education in distance: I grew aware of the difficulty of things travelling through intact, the quixotic task of carrying over one’s past. There was the time twelve graduate students sparred in a room for over two hours on whether my characters should be talking to one another in Hindi. Or the afternoon I lost my patience when someone suggested that a story by another writer about an Indian family in Alaska could be improved if the children ate more curry. Each morning I might return on the page to the roads and promenades I had moved through for years, but the American reader would be stuck wondering—this was a verbatim comment I received on one of my stories—if “the city of Mumbai allowed double parking.” I thought of Khan buying a VHS player decades ago, to keep up with actors abroad, or my friend D. staying up all night and watching movies in Bombay, to keep up with the world. We might spend our lives back home bridging the gap with the West. But not many here were keeping up with us. *** The years just prior to Khan’s cancer diagnosis were his busiest. According to Chhabra, Khan acted in sixteen projects between 2015 and 2018. He turned producer with Madaari, a jingoistic thriller where he positioned himself as a man taking on a nexus between politicians and businessmen. In Haider, an adaptation of Hamlet set in Kashmir, he embodied the part of the ghost, apprising the protagonist of his uncle’s betrayal. Judging from his roles in films like Piku, Hindi Medium and Angrezi Medium, he was branching out in this period as a comic hero. The loneliness was again evident: his droll characters don’t come across as clowns so much as men cracking jokes to fill up an awkward silence. Awkward silences were becoming a norm in Bollywood as India was succumbing to Hindu nationalism under a new leader. The country’s biggest actors and directors held their peace when more and more films began to be censored after Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014; they refrained from commenting when mobs of armed policemen stormed university campuses, when Muslims were stripped of their citizenship and lynched on streets; they chose to appear in group selfies with Modi and call him a “saint,” even as multiple dissenting activists ended up in prison without a trial or, worse, dead. They didn’t even speak up when a young male actor died of suicide in 2020, and his girlfriend, also an actor, found herself being vilified night after night on partisan TV news channels. One woman took the fall in a media trial fueled by wild insinuations and blinkered opinions. She was blamed for swindling her boyfriend’s finances and accused of practicing “black magic.” In the end she was arrested, allegedly for buying him marijuana, weeks before a crucial election in the deceased actor’s home state. I watched this tragedy unfold month after month back in the country where I was less likely to be confused for someone else. To assert that a place has changed in your absence is perhaps the oldest truism in the world, but the vitriolic mood of the Modi years is undeniable. In newspapers you read every day of someone being arrested or beaten up or killed because they hurt “Hindu sentiments”: victims of hate crimes get treated as accomplices. Cities like Delhi and Bombay are now unrecognizable. Those old buildings and seafronts where Khan’s characters had once reflected on their misspent lives are being razed as colonial hangovers. If you stare into the horizon, you won’t see the TV towers of my childhood. Everywhere you look, the skyline is obscured by creepy portraits of Modi. The values of this new India—violence, patriarchy, resentment, a paranoiac fear of others, a toxic mix of capitalism and religious conservatism—are exactly the ones promoted by devotionals and revenge sagas from the ’80s and ’90s, the movies that Khan had once found himself shut out of. And if the influence of some old box office heroes has waned, it is partly because Modi has annexed their passionate cults of personality. Years ago, I’d wonder at the crowds waiting outside actors’ houses in Bombay, people who had travelled hundreds of miles away from their homes just to catch a fleeting glimpse of their idols. Now I recognize the same loud fervour in Hindu men who swear they’ll always vote for Modi.             After Khan died, it struck me that his last two films—Doob and Angrezi Medium—were going against the grain of patriarchal South Asian expectations: those oppressive social mores, reinforced by celluloid, that allow parents to dictate to their adult children who they can marry and what they can eat. (I still wince at the coercive tagline of a blockbuster movie from the 2000s: “It’s all about loving your parents.”) In both films, Khan plays a flawed father who is refreshingly worried about the ways in which he might be failing his children, how he might have scarred them with his choices. For a change, we see protagonists striving to be helpful to the generation after them, endeavoring to be more empathetic parents. There is a terrific scene in Doob where Javed, a troubled filmmaker, realizes that his teenage son is being bullied in school after the parents’ divorce. He tells his son to make him out to be a bad father, but the son knows better: he knows that his parents were stuck in a miserable marriage. Angrezi Medium is not as nuanced, but the bond between generations again seems compassionate. Khan’s character is a single father to a girl who seems to be reprising Khan’s own childhood in a sleepy Indian town. She, too, has dreams of seeing the world, and her artless father and his friends struggle to get her admitted to a college in London. They beg, borrow and steal, until the daughter realizes that she doesn’t need to empty her father’s savings for a degree abroad. When she tells him she’d rather study in India, you’d think any father would hug his child in that moment, but no, Khan just smiles and leans out of the window of the cab they are travelling in. He glances away, holding it all in, looking happy for once.
Central Park During the Pandemic

“If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany.”

When the coronavirus came to New York City, I began spending more time in Central Park. For much of 2020, it was one of the few places to escape the sound of sirens, safely unmask, and inhale the scent of a hyacinth rather than your own halitosis. That patch of Manhattan, between 59th and 110th Streets and Fifth Avenue and the Avenue once known as Eighth (now Central Park West), has always felt sort of miraculous. The fact that you can be in the dizzying tumult of midtown one moment, and then suddenly lying in Kentucky bluegrass with your shoes and socks off, or gazing at a Great Egret gliding across a pond, is wondrously absurd. 18,000 trees. 843 acres. 2,373 squirrels, according to the last census. Its creators called it “the lungs of the city.” It’s also been described as a “synthetic Arcadian carpet grafted onto the grid” (Rem Koolhaas), an “Eden for everyone” (Cynthia S. Brenwall) and “#3 of 1,291 things to do in New York City” (TripAdvisor.com). During the Pandemic, the place has not only felt lovelier, but more necessary than ever. I’ll also say what everyone’s been thinking: It was especially nice without the tourists. When the pandemic hit, armed with a trusty foldable map, itself larger than many actual urban parks, I began treating Central Park as an actual destination. For the first time in eight years, I took a proper look at the carvings in the New Brunswick sandstone at Bethesda Terrace, the cast-iron filigree of the Ladies’ Pavilion, the mortarless cyclopean stones of Huddlestone Arch. I noticed the 500,000-year-old mounds of bedrock that punctuate the park, and admired the chalky-handed boulderers who have a different name for every climbing route (the Polish Traverse, Nipple Twist, Smack the Dragon). When concert halls shuttered, I realized that the Park is the most exquisitely diverse live music venue in the city. On any given day, you might hear “Moon River” on ehru, or an aria from Carmen reverberating off the tile ceiling of the Bethesda Arcade, or some white dude playing “No Scrubs” on keyboard. I include the pitchy clanging of the Delacorte Clock’s seasonal playlist in this too. Plus, nearly everywhere you go, the sweet sound of sax. One saxophonist, calling himself Young Nomadic, told me in between songs that he aspired to create a suitable “soundtrack to paradise.” I’ve become better acquainted with the Park’s wildly diverse array of sculptures, from the characters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, polished by sixty years’ worth of clambering little palms, to King Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, looking like he’s about to gallop maniacally off his plinth straight into Turtle Pond. I must have perused every plaque inscription on every one of the Park’s 9,000 benches (a quote from Kung Fu Panda, on a bench in the Ramble, is a favorite) and, though I haven’t yet sampled from the Park’s veritable smorgasbord of foragable herbs, greens, nuts, berries and mushrooms, I still might. All the while, I began to grasp the enormity of the work of the Central Park Conservancy, who plant tens of thousands of flowers a year, weed, hedge, prune, mow, till and irrigate, not to mention perform a terrific range of non-horticultural jobs, like maintaining the regulation pitching mounds in the North Meadow Ballfields, or stabilizing the Park’s 193-ton granite obelisk from ancient Egypt. During the pandemic, the essential work of caring for the Park simply carried on. In an otherwise intensely confined and claustrophobic time, I especially appreciated the Ramble, the 36-acre simulacrum of an upstate forest, a kind of Disney World Adirondacks. It is the Park’s most eloquent riposte to urbanity: a place of nonlinearity, mystery, discovery. Sure, you can navigate with the help of street-referencing digits inscribed on the lampposts (whose luminaires, by the way, were redesigned in the 1980s to be “a kind of botanical event”). Or you can get pleasantly, wonderfully lost. (Incidentally, the Disney analogy holds up, in the way that the transverse roads and operations buildings are “planted” out of view, and the way those strolling the Mall in the 19th century could also glimpse Belvedere Castle in the distance, made to look farther away with Disneyland-esque optical tricks.) Most profoundly of all, I feel like I finally understood the Park as a designed work of participatory art and artifice, a scripted experience with the visitor as the protagonist. I became aware of the way, upon entering the Park, the visitor is often coaxed away from glass and steel to grass and sky with a shift in topography. Wander those meandering pedestrian pathways, and you realize the Park’s designers, working in 1858, were intentionally creating an enchanting kingdom of chlorophyll as an antidote to the stultifying rigidity of the Manhattan grid. “If you come into Central Park in a rush or with any kind of citified agenda you’ll be eaten alive by the botany and the labyrinthine design,” tour guide Speed Levitch told me. “It’s as if the designers of the park are saying, ‘You're not getting out of here without convening with nature. You will convene!’” * It’s fitting that the fountain at the very heart of Central Park is a symbol of healing. Since 1873, the Angel of the Waters has stood on her fountain-top perch looking over Bethesda Terrace, beckoningly visible from the promenade of the Mall. From the positioning of her feet and the upsweep of her dress, it looks as if she has just landed there. Her arm is outstretched, her palm downward, a beneficent gesture that seems to say: “Chill out, my dudes.” Originally, the Angel referred to the rejuvenating qualities of water conveyed to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. But it’s easy to see her as a more general representation of the Park and its soul-soothing powers. (Pigeon-repelling spikes on the Angel’s mighty wings undercut the beatific vibe a bit, but on the other hand: badass.) Central Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, envisioned the Park as a respite from the increasingly crowded city. Olmsted wrote, with a sometime journalist’s penchant for alliteration, on the need for relief from the “cramped, confined and controlling circumstances of the streets of the town,” promising a “specimen of God’s handiwork” for New Yorkers who couldn’t easily take a trip up north to actual nature. Originally, the land did not look destined to become an idyllic pleasure ground. The Ramble was an unpromising pile of rocks. The Mall was quicksand. There were bone-boiling works for the recycling of animal carcasses on the west side, and even the pigs in the area, it was noted, were gaunt. “The stench,” Olmsted noted, “was sickening.” For 15 years, a small army of workers wrestled with around 2.5 million cubic yards of stone and earth, laid down more than 40,000 cubic yards of fertilizer, and planted 270,000 trees and shrubs. The land’s rocky outcrops were sculpted into grassy knolls, and topographical depressions were transformed into tranquil lakes. When you think of Central Park as an elaborate artifice, its outsize ambition starts to feel as egomaniacal as New York’s soaring skyline. No nature? No problem! We’ll make our own. The gently cascading waterfall in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, to pick one example, emanates from a valve hidden among artfully placed rocks, having traveled through miles of buried pipes—and gets switched off, as unceremoniously and easily as a bathroom faucet, in the winter. * Long before 2020 turned it into a pandemic catch phrase, “We’re all in this together” was already the implicit message of Central Park. Olmsted wrote proudly of parkgoers’ “evident glee at the prospect of coming together, all classes largely represented, with a common purpose … each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of all others, all helping to the greater happiness of each … poor and rich, young and old, Jew and Gentile.” Vaux fantasized about the Park not even having walls. Unfortunately, there are walls, and the problems of the wider world, and America, don’t just stop politely at them. In 2020, in the Ramble, a white woman threatened to call the police on a Black birder after he asked her, as per Park rules, to leash her dog. It was an awful thing, made even more appalling because it occurred in Central Park, where today’s New Yorkers go to escape this kind of interpersonal friction. Historically, incidents in the Park tend to be over-reported by the media. “It shocks people,” as a park police precinct captain explained more than half a century ago, “like crime in heaven.” But there’s plenty of darkness in the annals of Central Park’s history. Of course, the park is psychically linked with the Central Park Five case, the wrongful conviction of five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem. Until very recently, a statue of Doctor J. Marion Sims—who performed gynecological exams on 12 enslaved women without anesthesia—stood on the Park’s perimeter. And, for all of Olmsted and Vaux’s democratic aspirations, the acquisition of land for Central Park involved the displacement of the people of Seneca Village, a community primarily made up of African American property owners. The Central Park Conservancy has worked, with the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, to uncover and display the stories of these displaced people in that section of the Park. Doctor Sims is no more. (In 2020, #BlackLivesMatter protesters streamed past the now-empty spot.) Similarly, this January, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by two nameless African and Native American men, was removed from outside the American Museum of Natural History, across from the Park. These are welcome healing gestures, comforting in their symbolism. But the humane spirit of Central Park is on display year-round. You simply have to pay a visit on a pleasant day, and drink up the sight of New Yorkers enjoying literal common ground with other New Yorkers. This is the real attraction of the place. The catch-and-release fishing, sailboat-racing and snowman-building; the basketballers shooting hoops, archers shooting arrows and dancers shooting TikTok content. Joggers circling the billion-gallon Reservoir, cyclists hurtling around the bike track CONVERSING VERY LOUDLY, Instagram influencers doing whatever it is they do. The birders, moving in flocks, in silent pursuit of the latest celebrity bird, and Beatles singalongs at the teardrop-shaped parcel of land called Strawberry Fields. (Let’s be thankful it’s a Beatle who gets a memorial in Central Park, and not, say, a member of Bachman Turner Overdrive.) And all the parkgoers strolling the elm-lined cathedral nave of the Mall where parkgoers have strolled for 150 years, where youngsters once enjoyed goat-and-cart rides and where future generations will, I guess, zip along on hoverboards. A lot of my knowledge of the Park was absorbed from the “parkies,” like Birding Bob, whose ornithological email updates I receive every couple of days; “Wild Man” Steve Brill, who was once arrested in the Park for eating a dandelion; and Janet Ruttenberg, who has been painting Sheep Meadow for twenty years with a paintbrush the size of a broom, drawn to that spot, she told me, by the “humanity.” On any given walk, I’ll be politely asked to take a photo, invited for a game of chess, or offered a free hamster (I declined). So, sure, Central Park is an escape from the city. But, at its best, and even in the midst of a pandemic, it’s a thrilling and vibrant part of the city too. This was surely what E.B. White was getting at in Here is New York, in which he writes of the “magical occasion” of an evening on the Mall, lovers on a bench “swathed in music,” strollers and popsicles, breeze-ballooned skirts and bare shoulders. Frankly, Matthew Perry puts it more succinctly in Fools Rush In. “Stay here long enough,” he says, “and the whole city walks by.” Right now, crocuses and daffodils are emerging from the soil, turtles are clambering onto rocks to get some sun, and the Ramble is a veritable Grand Central Terminal of avian passers-through on the Atlantic Flyway. Before long, the first buds of the Yoshino cherries will blossom, the boats (and that one gondola) will venture back out onto the Lake, and thesps will be treading the boards of the Delacorte Theatre in the Shakespeare in the Park production of As You Like It (“tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones”).’’  Sitting in the shade of a tree planted 150 years ago, I’m reminded how the very existence of the Park was an act of generosity and optimism for the future. That the forward-looking New Yorkers conceived of it fundamentally as a gift to… well, us. When it seems that all is lost, I feel lucky to make the most of that gift, and grateful for a part of the city that does everything it can to remind you that life is beautiful, and will go on. Unfortunately, the tourists are truly back now, but I guess you take the good with the bad.