Talking to the author of Land of Big Numbers about blurring the boundaries between realism and fabulism, living in perpetual awareness of the state, and traveling in China as time travel.
Talking to the author of Land of Big Numbers about blurring the boundaries between realism and fabulism, living in perpetual awareness of the state, and traveling in China as time travel.
In her deft debut short story collection Land of Big Numbers (Mariner), Te-Ping Chen conveys a variety of tensions: between an individual and her community, a community and the state, an individual and the state; between siblings with different pathways in life, children and their parents, the fantasy of social and economic mobility and its harsher reality. Chen, who spent years living in Beijing, China, most recently as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, captures these tensions through the particulars of character and setting in stories that mostly take place in mainland China, with a few set in the United States. Many of the stories are realistic (in one, a woman mourns the death of her husband by trying to get to know his family, where he came from; in another, a pair of twins find their lives diverging as they use online communities in vastly different ways), with a few taking a more surreal or fabulist turn (another story is about a new fruit whose flavor calls forth evocative memories and experiences, tailored to each individual who consumes it), but each is fully imagined, its images precise: a woman is described as having “very ordinary hands, […] a little plump, like sugar cookies”; a young man imagines himself learning a new language, “opening up his mouth like a baby bird learning how to sing.” Writers smarter than I have written and spoken about the fallacy of stories being universal, and Chen’s certainly are not: they speak to particular places and cultures, class relations, and generational divides. Yet at the same time, they illuminate and trouble the relationship between state violence, community responsibility, and individual morality in ways that are relevant to people in so many nations. To some extent, people everywhere are always relating to the state or nation they live in. In reading these stories, however, I was reminded how many Western nations, and the US in particular, use the narrative of pure individualism as a way to obscure or leave unacknowledged the ties between the individual and the state. Chen’s stories often allude to state violence that is, in some way, always taking place out of the corner of a story’s eye. This doesn’t negate all the specific, individual, day-to-day realms in which the individual characters exist—it’s part of them. In “Hotline Girl,” for instance, there is a sudden, surprising reference to an unmarked government van carrying arrested protesters; in “New Fruit,” a farm is rumored to have been taken over by the government; and in “Field Notes on a Marriage,” a lone, haunting house in the middle of a landfill conveys a quiet, stubborn resistance. Over email, I spoke to Te-Ping Chen about language, storytelling, community, place, and the nuggets of truth behind some of the more fantastical elements of her pieces. Ilana Masad: I’m always fascinated by stories that manage to convey in English a life that takes place in another language, in this case Mandarin. I imagine that even if you didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin you would have had to speak it at least proficiently if not fully fluently for your work as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. What is it like, writing in English about lives that are lived in another language? Te-Ping Chen: Growing up, we spoke English at home. I did attend bilingual Mandarin-English school when I was young, and then attended Saturday school for years, which I loathed, and eventually gave up on. But I started studying the language in college again, and then really learned it properly after living in the country, first in 2006 for a semester as an undergraduate, and then in successive stints, including as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal. By the time I wrote the book, I’d spent years already working in the language and translating interviews and such for the newspaper, and so it was a fairly comfortable muscle. I did end up keeping certain Chinese words in the text here and there, in places where it felt like the sound of the word was important—that it would lose something if it were completely lost—or in places where it felt too artificial or stilted to translate. There were also lines here or there where I’d tried to translate dialogue or a term but it didn’t sound as natural in English, and needed finessing, and editors were helpful in pointing those places out. Some of the stories in Land of Big Numbers include details that to some readers might blur the boundary between realism and fabulism. For instance, I learned from your publicity material that funeral strippers were one of those stranger-than-fiction details you just had to include, but couldn’t find any info on the government Fitbit-like lanyards in “Hotline Girl.” How did you balance what seemed surreal to you about China with the fabulist or magical-realist elements in these stories? Did your editors ask you to clarify things for a non-Chinese audience? It’s curious—as you note, some of the details that are taken from real life are the ones that sound the most made up! But yes, funeral strippers are a real phenomenon, as are noodle-slicing robots. The premise of that story [in which both these elements appear], “Flying Machine,” and its central character—a farmer who tries building his own airplane—also takes its inspiration from actual headlines. Over the years that I was living in China, I kept reading so many iterations of that story popping up in local media, about these incredible farmer inventors in the countryside—usually short, unsatisfying dispatches. I was always so curious about what lay behind those stories, so wound up trying to write one. “Hotline Girl,” [on the other hand, is] a dystopian story of an alternate China, but one that does contain elements that would be deeply familiar to many residents, including themes like surveillance. The "government fitbit" lanyards are made up, though I did have something specific from my own life in mind when writing that detail, namely these badges we had to wear when attending the convening of the National People’s Congress and CPPCC in Beijing, the government’s main political gathering, which occurs every spring. When you walked through security gates, sensors would automatically scan the badge around your neck, and a large nearby screen would flash your name and photo and identify who you were, whether you were a government official or a local or foreign reporter or what have you, and those images were all color-coded by your status, and I was picturing those when writing. In the end, I didn’t encounter many moments where editors asked me to make things more explicable to a non-Chinese audience. The only one I can think of is a small word choice at the end of “Hotline Girl,” when the reader catches a glimpse of protesters who’ve been rounded up in an unmarked government van. Originally I’d described those protesters more obliquely, because it felt so obvious to me, who they were and how they were being dealt with—in the years I was in Beijing, it was a common enough phenomenon. To be honest, I didn’t think much about audience or what they did or didn’t know, because I was really writing these stories for myself—and I was so consumed with those questions in my day job as a journalist, it was liberating to get to write without some of those questions percolating in my head. One of the themes that ties these stories together is the balance of individual and community life. How consciously did you bring in the way that individuals interact with community and vice versa, and how did you balance them? As humans, we’re always watching other people and aware of others watching us. Our attempts to try and make identity for ourselves are so inextricably bound up in community, and so it didn’t really feel possible to divorce the two. And in many stories in Land of Big Numbers, that’s where the tension arises. Community can be a source of comfort, and we see that in stories like “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which a group of subway commuters get trapped underground for months and end up forming this resilient sort of society among themselves. But that sense of solidarity can also be oppressive, enmeshing and entrapping people and—as we see in that same story—making it harder for the group to escape. Additionally, these stories all include—either subtly or overtly—the ways that individuals and communities are in a constant conversation with the state. Why did it feel important or true to you to write about state violence in some way? And were you at all thinking about parallels elsewhere as you were writing? In China, you always have an awareness of the state, even if it’s not in the foreground. You know it’s there, invisibly setting the terms of what’s permissible and what is not—in overt ways, like propaganda banners, but in many more subtle ways too. For those who get in its way, the consequences can be state force and state brutality, but for most people, that isn’t the lived experience, and any such implied threat hovers very much at the edge of the picture. I was trying to capture some of that feeling in these stories, when the day-to-day life can feel so bright, jazzy, and empowered in all kinds of consumerist ways, but with that sense of menace also in the background, and the knowledge that if you step out of line, all this could be snatched away from you and your loved ones. I wanted that discordance to be present, but at the margins—something that if anything, most characters view matter-of-factly and take very much for granted. I wasn’t thinking explicitly of the U.S. during most of the writing process, but many readers have said they do see resonances, and of course, China is far from the only place marked by that kind of state violence, which at once is so far-reaching in its effects and yet also can be difficult for most people to see. From a craft perspective, how did you balance the state’s presence in the margins with the weight of what each story was about? It really depended on the material. In “Lulu,” for example, the title character is grappling very directly with the state, but in others, as in “Flying Machine,” it’s more of a footnote in the character’s broader personal journey. As a journalist who spent many years consuming Chinese state media, I also had fun gently satirizing such outlets, including in stories like “Gubeikou Spirit,” in which you see state broadcasters working so hard to celebrate these trapped commuters and create this ersatz sense of heroism, which ultimately transforms the group’s understanding of themselves. Power isn’t necessarily a blunt-force instrument, and I was trying to evoke that in these stories, too. “On the Street Where You Live” is such a wonderfully uncomfortable story. Narrated from an American jail or prison, it also deals in a particular aspect of consumerism—the narrator designed a hit ride for theme parks. It struck me that this story gets at very parallel aspects of what you mentioned above—consumerism and violence existing side by side. There are other themes to the story as well of course (unrequited love, masculinity and its potential for violence), but I wondered if this story was a kind of inversion of the dynamic in other stories, in that here it’s an individual enacting violence rather than the state? Oh, that’s so interesting! It wasn’t a deliberate one, but I love this observation, and there absolutely is a mingling of both consumerism and violence in this story. When I was writing the main character, I was thinking most specifically of his identity as someone who’s cosmopolitan and rootless, who tries to decode the world around him in such flawed, distorted ways. And how he—like all of us!—so desperately craves connection and is seeking it through these consumerist forms, but not finding it. In some ways I see it as a story about idealism and its dangers, too, and how the ways we put things on pedestals can ultimately betray us. Class divides play a big role in many of the stories, as do generational divides. In “Land of Big Numbers,” the title story, both of these come to bear, as the main character, Zhu Feng, is of the generation born a few years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, while his parents lived through them when they were probably around his age or a little older. In addition to this knowledge gap, there is also a class gap between Zhu Feng and his childhood best friend whose father became rich. Zhu Feng looks down on “the shabbiness of his parents’ lives, their shuffling steps, the curtailed hopes that seemed to express nothing more than a desire to chide bao, chuan de nuan—to be full in the belly, to be warmly clothed,” which made me think about how much that is, really, to be full in the belly and warmly clothed, and whether that too was a generational factor for this young man who also might not have had the specter of famine in his direct past. Yes! On the one level, they’re such simple desires. And yet also hard-fought and hard-won for his parents’ generation, not something to be taken for granted. A friend of mine used to say that traveling in China was the closest you could get in some ways to time travel. You’d start in a city like Beijing or Shanghai—cities that in many ways feel like they’re constantly teetering on the precipice of the future—but could get on a train and in a matter of hours end up in a third-tier city that looked like it was stuck in the 1980s, or travel farther still and arrive in a village that looked like it hadn’t changed for half a century. So much of the experience of living in China was that sense of having so many experiences and histories and aspirations all pressed up in close proximity to each other, and sometimes—as in the case of the title story—in just one family. There are knowledge gaps, too, but I think of those in many ways as gaps in experience. For example, the father in that story is very much aware of the power of the stock market and the new wealth around him that his son covets, but he tends to perceive the risks more than his son, in part because of the gaps in their experience. Finally, I wanted to ask about the final story in the collection, “Gubeikou Spirit,” which you mentioned above. It’s a story that feels hugely allegorical and speaks to systems of imprisonment (both literal and metaphorical), to the strength of community on the one hand and to loss of individuality among groupthink on the other, to the desire to do good and help others but also stay safe and comfortable. These are themes that run through many of the stories, really. What about this tension—especially between a person’s need to do good or make change on the one hand, and their instinct and desire to stay safe—speaks to you? Is there a personal struggle for you between these things? It’s something I’ve wrestled with myself, as I think so many of us do; this question of where your allegiances should lie, to family or to society, risk or security, and as we see in “Lulu,” what does it mean to be a good person, and what’s enough and what is ever enough. As humans, we’re really good at tricking ourselves into thinking we’re doing the right thing, to absolve ourselves of any wrongdoings, either personal or those that surround us. And as in “Gubeikou Spirit,” it’s easy to become comfortable, and to tell yourself a story, and become convinced of the righteousness and inevitability of your position. Living in China, it’s very hard to avoid being confronted by these questions, but they’re ones I’ve thought about for a long time, and think many of us struggle with, no matter your position or country.
The author of Milk Fed on eating disorders, stand up comedy, and masturbating while your block is on fire.
A few years ago, I heard author and Twitter celebrity Melissa Broder talk about what would become her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner) on a podcast. She said she was writing a book about an LA anorexic who meets a zaftig woman at her local yogurt shop and develops a crush despite, or because of, the zaftig encouraging her to eat. Melissa had spoken about this phenomenon before: her lust for the zaftig female figure despite her own need to be rail thin. It resonated, resonates. I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia and tend to be attracted to curvier women. I didn't really realize what was happening until Broder articulated it in her essay collection, So Sad Today. She wrote that given her own dysmorphic rigidity, there is something very sexy in a woman who lets herself eat. It's erotic. In Milk Fed she wrote a whole novel about it, and I ate it up like Domino's cheesy bread. Milk Fed’s protagonist, Rachel, is a comic who works at a talent management agency to pay the bills. She performs standup weekly, but most of her energy goes into calorie counting. It’s a life I understand well. When you're chronically underfed, food overtakes all of your mental energy. You don't have the bandwidth to think about other, heavier things, like what you want to do with your life, the fact that you're going to die, or whether or not you're a lesbian. Before meeting Miriam, the yogurt-shop zaftig, Rachel fantasizes about an older woman in her office. In the fantasies, the woman alternates between being a mother figure and a romantic one. Ultimately, Rachel wants the love of a woman who lets her be fully herself instead of encouraging her to shrink. She wants to be nurtured and, well, milk fed. Anna Dorn: You originally published poetry, then personal essays with So Sad Today and your Vice column, and now it seems you’re on a novel kick with The Pisces and Milk Fed. Can you talk a little bit about your recent trend towards novel-writing? Melissa Broder: It happened super organically. Poetry I used to write on the subway. I enjoy writing in places where I’m not supposed to be writing. And when I moved to Los Angeles, I started dictating in my car. I couldn’t type and drive; like on the 405, I wasn’t writing poems. So my language became more conversational. And that’s how the essays for So Sad Today were born. It just morphed by itself. The landscape and the physical living informed the writing. Do you have a good sense of when your writing is working? Yes, over time. As loose as I like my first drafts of prose to be, I go back and hone every line the way I do with a poem. And multiple times. It’s such an endeavor. Most lines get rewritten. And I’ve never worked so hard on anything as I’ve worked on Milk Fed. I think it was Nabokov who was like, “torture your sentences or torture your reader.” I’ve found that for myself to be true. It’s gotta be polished like a diamond. That makes sense because your work is very easy to read and I know that’s not easy to do. Right, because you have to work on the delivery system. In my first draft I’m delivering it to myself and to God or whatever. I’m just trying to be a channel. Then it becomes more about rhythm. I listen for the music the way I do with a poem and I’ll know when it’s not on. I’ll know when something’s not there because every time I read it, it sticks out. Over time, when nothing sticks out to me anymore, that’s when I know it’s as done as it can be. I read Milk Fed in two days and I never do that. Normally I just read because I feel like I should be reading and it’s a drag. But this was fun. I’m so glad it was a pleasurable experience. I feel like Milk Fed is the novelization of this passage from So Sad Today: It’s funny, because I hold myself to a completely different standard than I do others. Like, I really love a zaftig female body. The women I am most sexually attracted to are considered obese by today’s (and yesterday’s) standards. I don’t watch a lot of porn, but a typical search term for me is “fat lesbians.” That is a beautiful fantasy. To be accepted and embraced and adored as your biggest self, the most you. That, to me, is freedom. The ultimate letting go. It’s sexy as fuck. It really turns me on. And it’s a freedom I cannot allow myself, for whatever reason. In terms of my own body, I feel safest at a place of very thin. Yes. Rachel could say that. What made you decide to novelize this phenomenon? The story of Miriam and Rachel is a story I’ve always wanted to tell, through a Jewish lens. When I was 19 or 20, I wrote this horrifically bad short story about a woman who has an eating disorder who falls in love with a woman who is incredibly voluptuous. It’s probably the reason I wrote poetry for the next ten years. But that story, the interplay of hunger and sexual appetite, and how what we fear for ourselves is often what we’re attracted to in others, has been something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. And I guess it just bubbled up a couple of years ago. I LOL’d when Rachel is reminiscing about an ex-boyfriend: “I began dating him by default when one night, in his car, he put his hand on my thigh and I was too hungry and tired to deal with moving it.” This resonated. When you’re anorexic, food takes up all of your mental energy. You become passive as hell. You also aren’t very in touch with your desire. What is it about Miriam that plucks Rachel from her anorexic haze? Miriam stems from this horrible character I wrote when I was 20—Gaia. I named her Gaia, like Earth Mother. It was really bad. But Miriam is the embodiment of the fantasy of that freedom of food and also a feeling of warmth and acceptance and embrace. Miriam is free in a way that Rachel is not free. Rachel thinks Miriam is totally free. But, of course, no one is totally free. So Rachel comes to realize, she’s only free in the way that I’m not free. There are other ways she is limited too. She’s human! I have to ask you about the sex scenes. They’re HOT. And abject enough to avoid being corny. How did you do that? I write to turn myself on first and foremost. And then I do a lot of editing. Can you talk a little bit about how Rachel’s mommy issues play into her relationship with Miriam? It’s hard for Rachel to give herself permission to feel pleasure. It’s through our early relationships that we figure out: am I worthy of pleasure? I think Rachel is looking to be mommied and she’s looking for mommies in the world. And she has sexualized that. Rachel’s fantasy is to be loved unconditionally and for someone to say: you must have pleasure! So she can be like: I am the innocent one! She wants a woman to delight in her having pleasure the way a mother would on a maternal level. But for Rachel, it’s sexual because all these things are sort of mixed up. Sexual pleasure is another thing she can’t let go and experience. At first, Miriam has somewhat of a mommy role because she’s feeding Rachel and encouraging her to have pleasure. And that’s very scary and hot for Rachel. While Rachel’s fantasy mom is very nurturing, like, “you’re doing amazing sweetie,” her actual mother is sort of the opposite in terms of enforcing Rachel’s internal negative self-talk. I would say her mom installed the buttons. It was also Rachel’s interpretation of her mother’s message. But now Rachel’s like, at what age do I stop blaming my mother and see this is actually mine now? At one point in Milk Fed Rachel reflects on an earlier, more serious version of her anorexia: “But I was freezing all the time. I lived in the bathtub. A downy fur grew on my body. My period stopped. At night I dreamt of wild buffets. My hip bones chafed against my bed. At school there were whispers.” In the period the book takes place, Rachel is healthier. She’s functioning enough to have a job and she bleeds every month, but most of her thoughts are dedicated to calorie-counting. I feel like a lot of anorexics take this path from dangerously thin to physically healthy but still obsessive. Can you talk a little bit about Rachel’s version of high-functioning anorexia? Rachel, I would say, has gone from having an eating disorder to being a disordered eater. She’s like, I know I’m not normal, I’ve got these rituals, but how well do I need to be? It’s the big question of recovery. With the self-care industrial complex—and the Gooping and the healing—there’s this idea that there’s this place we arrive at, like we reach some state of enlightenment or wholeness. But even when we reach the best place we’ve been with food, that can always backslide. It’s like a working relationship because we have to eat to stay alive. And like all relationships, it changes. The question with Rachel is, what does it mean to be well? Her nutritionist is happy, she gets her period, people are off her back, but she still has this whole secret life defined by food. And maybe it is up to every person to decide for themselves; what is our breaking point? How much suffering is too much suffering and how much suffering is acceptable? Recovery isn’t about becoming a saint. And it’s not a straight line, nor is it a destination. Rachel is a standup comedian. Your Twitter is very funny. I was wondering if you’ve ever thought about doing comedy, and what it was like to inhabit this comedian protagonist? I had to rewrite the comedy parts so many times because they kept being the least funny parts of the book. They were just shit. And I was like, why did I even do this? Occasionally I’ll have a dream where I’m doing comedy or a poetry reading and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to say—like there’s a paper but I can’t see it or I’ve lost my ability to read—and I just start making shit up. And it typically goes better with comedy. What about in your waking life? I have no desire to stand on a stage. I mean, I’m a ham; I like making people laugh. But I don’t know if I need to be physically embodied. I can be funny. But do I need to stand on a stage to do it? Absolutely not. Better to be heard but not seen. I’m a writer. I wanna be alone! There’s a joke about how people on the East Coast always know about California weather before we do. That resonated. My mom is always like, “Are you okay?” And I’m like, “Why?” And she’s like, “The earthquake!” And I’m like, “I had no idea.” A hundred percent. There was a huge fire right by my street a few years ago. My husband was out and I heard these sirens and I just figured they were going to something else. So I’m like watching porn and masturbating, like I finally have the house to myself. And I finish, which is no short undertaking, and I have these texts from my husband like, “YO what’s going on up there.” I go outside and all of my neighbors have evacuated. I feel like I’m always the last to know. Maybe I err a little too much on the side of not paying attention. Like, if fire trucks and sirens are going by your house for a while, maybe put down the Hitachi. Do you tend not to pick up on what’s happening in front of your face? I’m very internally focused. I think as writers this can happen. Some writers are very good observers of the world. But I’ve always sort of been out to lunch. Like there’s this whole other world going on and it’s inside. So it’s hard to stay focused on the outside. It’s like living in two worlds. And that’s always been the case. Like when I was in elementary school, all my report cards were like, “Where are you? Earth to Melissa!” It’s not something I chose. I didn’t choose the two-world life. I read that you already sold the TV rights to this book. Do you imagine your work on the screen when you’re writing a novel? Never. Nev-er. I more see it as a way to get health insurance. When we were talking about casting for The Pisces they asked, “Who do you see as Lucy?” and I was like, “My middle school librarian.” My assumption is that you’re happy about having to do a Zoom book tour versus an actual book tour? Totally chill with that. I don’t love travelling. I don’t really have the “wanderlust.” I much prefer the Zoom events to being in a bookstore. More people show up to online stuff and people can just turn off their camera. It’s a win-win for everyone. They don’t have to listen to anyone read literature, and I don’t have to be alone. Perfect! Do you like going to readings? I thought I did but then when my marriage became monogamous again I sort of lost interest. There’s no potential for sex and I’m sober, so I gotta really like the art.
I’ve spent most of my life reading literature that made me laugh. But something has changed.
“If there was nothing, there was everything to be made.” Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says I was ten years old, living an unremarkable life, in an unremarkable rented townhouse, in an unremarkable part of Toronto, when my mother, in her own way, showed me how reading could save my life. One day, a small package arrived encased in cardboard. It looked serious. It had an aura about it. I knew not to trouble it—besides, it wasn’t addressed to me. My mother said nothing about the package for several days. It remained on our kitchen table, stolid and puzzling, radiating mystery like a moon rock. Eventually, I was given permission to open the parcel as my mother and sister looked on. Inside was a burgundy-bound hardcover book with inlaid gold font on the cover: World Book Encyclopedia. “If you read enough books like this, you’ll be somebody one day,” my mother said. I looked at it, sliding a probing finger along its spine as she continued: “Don’t you want to be somebody?” I immediately ran up to my room and hunkered down with the book. I flipped through a dizzying array of articles, mesmerized by photos and random facts, delighting over biographical entries. This went on for some time. Mother must have purchased the encyclopedias on a pay-as-you-go plan. The books seemed to come whenever they pleased. The “A” volume might arrive in January; “E” and “D” came in April. “B” arrived, inexplicably, in late summer. So my reading, even at the very beginning, was always sporadic, always eclectic. In those encyclopedias, I found a much-needed lifeline from the sadness and isolation that had silenced my home. My mother and sister were depressed and mostly alone in the world. I didn’t know why this was; I didn’t know the origins of their maladies. But I knew our lives weren’t like others; I knew we were somehow marked by difference. Because of their struggles—and by extension, my own—we lived on a veritable island. Few people entered our home, and, with the exception of going to school, church and work, we seldom ventured out. While visitors were scarce, books found a way in. With time, I moved beyond my fascination with the encyclopedias, only to find myself completely enthralled with Bible stories and then comics. With my meager allowance, I started to buy my own books. I collected all the Choose Your Own Adventure, Beverly Cleary, and Judy Blume books I could lay my hands on. I developed an early love of reading newspapers and Reader’s Digest, even if I didn’t always understand everything I read. As a child, I didn’t know of any Black writers; I could not have conceived of them back then. But as I moved into my teen years, I discovered popular books by Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley, and later, a much-loved volume of African myths and folktales. In time, a whole universe of Black writing started to emerge. In our cloistered existence, this early reading cast a revealing glow upon my own life, so that when I witnessed my mother struggle to come up with rent, or if there was no food in the fridge, or if the silence of our home became too much to bear, I would remember how the people I read about had endured their own struggles and ordeals with grace and fortitude and, most crucially, with a sense of humour. Recently, I discovered what Frantz Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: "Sometimes this literature of just-before-the-battle is dominated by humour and allegory; but often too it is symptomatic of a period of distress and difficulty, where death is experienced and disgust too. We spew ourselves up, but already underneath laughter can be heard.” As a child, searching for a way into something that might resemble happiness or normalcy through reading, I loved to listen for this laughter. II I didn’t come from a family—immediate or extended—of readers. They were always too burdened and consumed with eking out livings and raising children to be readers in pursuit of anything that might be called pleasure. My cousin Eddie, who was almost my mother’s age, was the only exception. He was the only semi-serious reader I knew growing up. Eddie was unique. The lone wolf in the family, he had been swept up in the Black Arts movement in the ’60s after arriving in Canada. He was known, I’ve been told, to wear the occasional dashiki and to speak openly and brashly of white people being untrustworthy. He was forever writing a book—a grand novel—even though no book ever materialized. Eddie was opinionated in that way readers often are, and he had a habit, whenever he saw me, of telling me what I should be reading. “Books are weapons,” he would tell me with a whimsical smile. “Never be without one.” It was Eddie who gave me a copy of V.S. Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, the story of a man whose ambitions to be a writer and homeowner in pre-independence Trinidad and Tobago were frustrated by family entanglements and deep-rooted expectations within his Indo-Caribbean culture. It was the first book of fiction I read that felt close to my own Caribbean heritage. I understood its setting and themes intuitively. I knew, intimately, the daunting chasm that lay between Biswas’s desires and his material circumstances. I devoured the book. Even though the Indo-Caribbean experience was not mine, I knew it belonged to a broader, transplanted Caribbean experience that had nurtured me growing up. I knew well that sense of striving against poverty, that desperate need to overcome the cramping smallness of family life while clinging to some form of dignity. My mother had demonstrated this kind of holding on in so many ways. Of course, I knew nothing of Naipaul’s bigotry at the time. That knowledge came much later. But what endures about his novel is its comic power. Infused with a biting and unique brand of humour Trinidadians refer to as picong (from the French, piquant), the book was the first in a long line of works that illuminated for me how humour can help us to persist and strive against significant odds. It was the first book to show me that life’s challenges could be laughed at, could be made light of through storytelling, even when life was bitterly unfair and cruel. Through humour, I eventually came to realize, we display our understanding of what it means to be human. I wouldn’t have been able to define or use a big word like tragicomedy back then, but I knew it in the way one knows a thing without having words to describe it. As I moved through that early reading, I felt like I was being let in on a secret, a feeling I can now recognize as something deeply subversive. I knew that the stories mocked a rigged world, an existence I’d always felt in my gut was gerrymandered. I knew that these stories used humour—sometimes straightforward, sometimes dark—as code among those who had shared in struggle and disappointment. I knew that the use of jokes and playfulness were not merely comic relief but were meant to uplift and encourage, were meant to provoke movement in our thinking about our circumstances and ourselves, even when everything surrounding our lives seemed immovable. George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin had a similar impact on me. The story of “G”, a young man coming of age in a small village in Barbados, could easily stand in for what I have learned about my mother’s childhood. The narrative sings with delightful humour, even when relating stories of disastrous floods, of illness, and of entrenched poverty. Play and buoyancy are at the core of Lamming’s coming-of-age tale; there is a spirit of “getting over” by way of tenderness, through smiling or smirking knowingly in the face of colonial oppression. The novel’s magic lies in the way it shows the sheer stupidity of British colonial life: the manner in which it exposes its bizarre norms and racist plantation logics, and the ways in which it examines how conformity to imperialism stunts and narrows one’s life. Ousmane Sembène’s God’s Bits of Wood, Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman, and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners—where the experiences of West Indian emigrants arriving in England during the 1950s are characterized beautifully through devastating satire—are some other examples of what I loved to read: literary expression through humour. These writers became the shibboleths of my university experience, where, now in the company of other Black students who also viewed books as refuge, my reading became more political. In my twenties, beyond the isolating silence of my mother’s home, reading took on a different purpose. At a friend’s small apartment, just off campus, a group of us would converge to discuss books, art, and the politics of the day. Laughter masked our worries about unpaid tuition and already damaged credit scores. Essays were due, but the reading and book swapping and learning we indulged in together somehow seemed more important. Amid the tumult of our dubious prospects, we relied on our books as anchors of joy. We turned constantly to humour like castaways looking for shore. I found similar books at the public library. I sustained myself there for hours on snacks and water until lights were flickered for closing time. There I discovered the work of Derek Walcott, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, and closer to home, Dionne Brand, Lillian Allen, Dany Laferrière, M. Nourbese Philip, Cecil Foster, among others. I came into a startling and liberating understanding of “post-colonial” literature. I learned that my Blackness was not only Caribbean or Canadian, but diasporic as well. Reading became an addiction, attending my lectures and seminars, a distraction. The university never felt safe for Black students, but we found community in the undercommons. Harold Bloom once wrote that reading is a “selfish rather than social” practice. This was the exact opposite of our experience. For us, reading was entirely social. We had no money. We struggled—sometimes with family and partners, sometimes to buy books or food, sometimes within our own minds. We were in the university, utterly unconvinced of our welcome. But our books and the raucous and supportive circles of love and laughter they helped to create were our salve, our salvation. III Because my mother was from Barbados, the late Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke reserved a hallowed place within that formative reading. The brilliant and unbearably funny Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack may have been one of the first autobiographical books I read, followed closely by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In Clarke’s novel, The Meeting Point, I encountered the protagonist Bernice Leach, a domestic worker who runs up against the many racial and cultural pitfalls that Black people faced in 1950s Canada. She may as well have been my Aunt Lu, who also suffered bad treatment at the hands of a Jewish housewife under the notorious Domestic Scheme. My aunt was reluctant to talk about her experiences, but I had Clarke’s novel to fill in the gaps. Clarke was particularly special because he sparked in me (and others who aspired to write) the notion that such an ambition was possible, if not entirely plausible, for Black people in Canada. He was of an older generation, yes, but he was one of us, and we claimed him proudly. There was something about his unlikely achievement in becoming a leading man of letters that made the vocation of writing both worthy and admirable. And, more importantly to me, his early stories were terribly funny. In Clarke’s early work, particularly the short stories, his characters understood how badly the cards had been stacked, how utterly uninviting and inhospitable their so-called new homes could be. But they possessed an indomitable spirit, a “wink-wink” fortitude that was delightful to discover. But this literature has changed. At some point, the humour stopped and the laughs dried up. I recall reading Clarke’s Giller Prize-winning novel, The Polished Hoe, published in 2002, and realizing—not without a deep sense of loss—that a decidedly somber shift had taken place in Black Canadian writing. When I read contemporary Black Canadian literature, it feels like there are no obvious equivalents to that marvelous, comedic bent that was so central to its formation. Certainly, Black Canadian writers—some whose heritage is once or twice removed from the Caribbean or Africa or other parts of the world—have produced a number of well-regarded books across multiple genres over the last few decades. And the melancholic themes they have taken up no doubt provide an important window onto the ongoing struggle for Black freedom. But in reading more recent works—both fiction and non-fiction—there are moments when I struggle to connect such themes to the humorous, vibrant, and playful literary tradition that preceded them. Thinking now of how that previous reading sustained me, and reflecting on how it provided a much-needed respite from worry and depression, I go in search of a comedic romp or a satirical yarn or a tragicomic tale, but there are none to be had—only notes of despair that seem to have become the default tone of our literary production. These recent works aim to take up the seriousness of our times. That much is clear. Sentences, poetic lines, and paragraphs are weighted down with this seriousness. Theoretical concepts like afro-pessimism, critical race theory, post-modernism, queer theory, and other big ideas from the university underlie their narratives, undergird their plots. The work openly demands that we take it seriously—maybe a little too seriously. IV As a writer myself, I often wonder about what other writers ponder. What do emerging Black writers in Canada think about? Do they focus on being taken seriously by literary agents, editors, publishers, and, later on, their readers? Does this commitment to seriousness influence and sometimes restrict their imaginative labour? Does it form a kind of literary lodestar? Do they think of tradition, of where their work is situated? Are they aware of what has come before? Does that even matter? I don’t know. The truth is these are really questions more suited to the critic than the writer. The writer pulls on personal experience and knowledge to produce something of value. That is all. Why it is that comedy has largely disappeared from Black Canadian writing is a socio-cultural question that exceeds the writer’s purview. Writers do their best to craft narratives derived from specific frames of reference. Ultimately, it is the role of the critic to situate and assess the quality of the work, to think about relation. And that has always been part of the challenge with Black writing in Canada. Beyond those who work within university departments, there are few Black literary critics capable of assessing the value of such writing. There is no critical mass of popular Black critics who might show how such writing is connected to works that have come before, how recurring themes of struggle and survival have been nurtured across a varied landscape of literary modes and textures, including comedic ones. I suspect the mostly humourless tonal strain found in Black Canadian writing today is the result of a kind of cultural amnesia, an inability to remember, and therefore respond to, a rich and complex literary tradition. It is also, if I may say so, evidence of an overreliance on academia—and its particular language and intellectual concerns—to do the heavy-lifting of supporting and promoting Black writers within a Canadian literary landscape that continues to marginalize Black artistic labour. And, certainly, the proclivities and tastes of white editors, agents, and publishers have played a significant role in putting out books that centre Black suffering over humour and joy. But perhaps my decline in reading, my dimming of delight, warrants no alarm at all. Perhaps the comedic power of that early writing has worked itself out, and perhaps it may return at some later point. Perhaps the turn to darker, more weighted narratives in Black Canadian literature answers a crucial call. Maybe such books mine new themes, ones more relevant to our urgent times. And maybe my notion of the joyous function of literature, in the way I thought of it in that wonderful formative reading, has finally come to an end. And maybe that’s perfectly fine.
Talking to the author of No One Is Talking About This about transcendent misspellings, the perils of mentioning McDonald’s in poetry, and the Internet at its best.
The narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s extraordinary novel No One Is Talking About This (Riverhead) spends a lot of time on the Internet. Most people do—early on, her podiatrist tells her about how much he loves to get on the Internet late at night and argue with people—but the narrator is powerfully, persistently online, a fully paid up member of the communal mind. Every morning, she lies and scrolls herself under “an avalanche of details, blissed, pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner.” Even when she is not actually hunched over a screen, she is online: carefully washing her legs in the shower after recently discovering that some people don’t do this, ordering the most disgusting food on the menu because that’s what the communal mind would eat for a joke. Throughout the novel, the Internet in general and Twitter in particular is referred to as “the portal”—not because of a coyness about proper nouns, necessarily, but because the term more effectively communicates the narrator’s sense of the platform as a window she can sail through in order to enter the place where everyone is continually revising their assessment of reality, together, and where she has (for the first half of the novel at least) elected to live. Lockwood is amazingly, hilariously good at evoking the experience of being capital-O Online—the immediacy of it, the contagion, its ability to render commonplace an idea that seemed irredeemably far out only minutes earlier, the way you routinely come across stuff that is so debilitatingly funny you almost feel scared, the way you end up taking part in a “stream-of-consciousness that is not entirely your own… one that you participate in, but that also acts upon you.” She is fascinated by the Internet’s effect on how we talk and therefore think; at one point, the narrator describes the portal as having “once been the place where you sounded like yourself. Gradually though, it had become the place where we sounded like each other, through some erosion of wind or water on a self not nearly as firm as stone.” The narrator’s posts have made her famous, so that she has become a kind of spokesperson for the Internet: “She sat onstage next to men who were better known by their usernames and women who drew their eyebrows on so hard they looked insane, and tried to explain why it was objectively funnier to spell it ‘sneazing.’ This did not feel like real life, exactly, but nowadays what did?” The question of exactly what real life feels like or exactly how it is supposed to go is examined with a sort of anthropological amusement in the first half of the novel. It takes on a different cast in the second half, when the narrator learns that her sister’s unborn baby has a rare genetic disorder. All that wild, untethered speculation about the experience of a life lived online and what it prepares us for suddenly finds a focus. The novel is very funny, and very sad, and I spoke to Lockwood about it last month. Rosa Lyster: The first half of the book is this amazingly vivid account of the way things are on the Internet, what it’s like to be part of what you call “the communal mind.” There’s a part early on where the protagonist meets this guy she used to talk to a lot online. They’re having this conversation about how you’re supposed to write about the Internet, and the protagonist says, “everyone’s already getting it wrong.” So I wanted to start by asking you how you know when you’re getting something like that right? Patricia Lockwood: I don't know that you ever do know. But with something like attempting to archive these really long movements that stretch back, they always stretch back farther than you know. And I think the sense that you're not getting it right comes from the sense of many, many missing pieces of a lot of archival information. So that guy in particular was a person from the Something Awful board, if you want to get more specific about it. And Something Awful, and FYAD in particular, really exerted an undue amount of influence on the way people on the Internet talk now, and on the way the communal sense of humor operates on the Internet at the moment. But if you weren't there in that place, you’re missing huge, enormous chunks of information. So you can write about the endpoint, you can write about what it looks like now, but you think, Oh, I missed so much stuff. Like, I don't know who these people were, there’s all these in-jokes I don't know about, there were things that I adopted that I don't know their provenance. What was interesting to me in this book was nailing down those pre-thoughts that sort of arise when you're floating through the Internet. These are not always my thoughts, but they were things that you could conceivably picture someone thinking, where you’re moving through the Internet, and you’re having sort of proto-thoughts that hadn't been formed into anything yet. So when I can capture that feeling, then I know I'm getting something right at least, but in terms of like, have I captured the landscape here, have I nailed it all down, that's never going to happen. And you can think that you've done it, and then someone else can come along and be like, Alright, idiot, here's everything you've missed. I'm the guy who knows about this. You have these almost asocial people who have always had a curiosity about the darker corners of the Internet and just collecting what happens there. Those are the people who really know what's going on and the rest of us are kind of Johnny-Come-Lately where that's concerned, piggybacking on their research, or on the many, many long hours they blog. The person who knows exactly where this thing comes from is a very strange person almost by definition, right? Potentially not the kind of person you want to be stuck in a lift with for too long. Oh, I would LOVE to be stuck in a lift with that person, or just to spend all night just driving up and down the streets with them. It’s a sort of voracious, ephemeral appetite and curiosity, with no end. That is actually the sort of thing that I like—I want to be around the person who’s like, you know what, I’m just going to go down this wormhole for the sheer velocity of it, I’m going to jump down there like Alice in Wonderland just for the feeling of it. I like people that don't necessarily know why they're interested in something, why they're collecting information. We all have our own areas, when it comes to those things, but I think doing it on the Internet is a little bit more dangerous for your mind. A little bit of the poison does just get pumped in, and there’s really not a whole lot you can do about that. And there are people with a higher tolerance for that sort of thing. You think about, like, the Facebook guys whose job is to look at the worst posts that anyone could ever conceive of—there are people out there with a slightly higher tolerance for that kind of thing. But there was this idea, I think that for a very long time, that the Internet was not really worth writing about—that if you included something like IM chat transcripts, it was really outré, but also kind of like a fuck-you thing to do, like it was so ephemeral and so trivial that it didn't belong in books. And I have something of that same sort of feeling myself at times, especially with new technology. And then you're just like, if I’m spending four hours a day on this thing, it’s not worth writing about? It's worth wasting my life over, but it's not worth writing about? What the fuck is that? Why do you think people have felt that it isn’t worth writing about? I think it's the McDonald's phenomenon. I had this when I was a kid—I was like, well, I can't say the word “McDonald's” in a poem, because then, you know, in 500 years, someone’s going to come along and read my poem, and they're not going to know what McDonald’s is. So it’s this exaggerated sense of your own longevity in the historical mind, is what I think it is. You want to be writing something immortal, I think. A book is a serious thing, for a lot of people, whereas what we’re doing on the Internet, in our minds, is fucking around, right? Like, why would we enshrine this in actual print? But that idea started to seem really perverse to me. I don't know why it took us so long to incorporate the Internet in our work. This is how we're talking to people. We're not chatting with them on the phone, necessarily. We're texting them or emailing them. So why do we want to have it look different in our books? We think it's like Jane Austen is going to get mad. It’s changing, I think, but your book is one of only a handful of novels I can think of that give this very realistic portrayal of social media and the Internet, from the perspective of someone who knows from whence she speaks. Well, it just felt like it would be lost. And then I thought, you know, if I’m addicted to this medium—as clearly I am—what am I doing, I am pouring my life into it. Clearly every moment that I'm on it, I'm making hundreds of tiny proto-observations, and where are they going to go? And the interesting thing about it is that in order to replicate that experience, you have to build a fake Internet in your book. And that is way harder to do than it seems, because the Internet is written by millions of people. And it's just you and your book, and you're the only one doing it. You're only as funny as one person, you're only as observant as one person, so it's going to be a lot harder. If you make up a joke, and you make up some sort of craze that's sweeping the nation, it has to actually be something that would that would spread like wildfire that would capture the public imagination in some way. You’re taking the entire burden of communal thought on yourself. You have to be as fast, you have to be as funny—you have to build it the way it actually looks. One way you could read the novel is that it’s expressing this wariness about what the Internet can do to the way one thinks. I don’t read it at all as a condemnation of the Internet and social media, but I can imagine people who are wholly freaked out about the potentially destructive properties of the Internet interpreting the novel in that way. I think it’s a good point—that some people could definitely, with relish, present it as a book that is a sort of condemnation of the Internet and this sort of communal life. I don’t think that’s what it is, and I don't think that you think that that's what it is, but because I write satirically, and because I'm willing to look at the excesses of my own people and my own side, there's always a sort of dual purpose with that kind of observer, right? It can be taken and used by the wrong people. But I think this is built into the book—you see at the end, where the character of the sister, talking about her ability to connect with other parents of children with the same disorder her daughter has, says, “Can you believe that we have this technology, that we're able to talk to each other about this.” The fact that you have these photographs, these videos, that you've been talking this way, with people all over the world, who also have the disorder that the child does, or have family with this disorder—that is why we built this thing, in order to be able to do that. This absolute physical transcendence where you’re just out of your body, you're up in the air meeting people—that is why we did it. So yeah, I think you can make those observations in the first half. And you can also make observations about how the language gets really crunchy, and it doesn't feel like it's yours anymore. And there is a problem with that, of course. But then it comes to the second half of the novel; she is using that language to think about the child, she's using that language to cope with what's happening to her and what's happening to her family. So this is why we build these things. This is why we do this, because we can turn them to our use. They can elevate us, they can be our tools. I was talking to my mum a while ago and I realised she knew what the Proud Boys are. A little part of me died, because what kind of world is it that my South African mother has to know that now. It made me think of a bit in your book where it says, “The amount of eavesdropping that was going on was enormous, and the implications not yet known.” When you think about the Internet now, do you have a clearer idea of what the implications are, or is that just a moving target? My husband in this scenario is like your mom, right? For a long time, I'd be like, This is what’s going on with QAnon, you need to know what’s happening with QAnon because it’s going to be really important. And he would look at me, and he would just be like, I don't need to know about QAnon. Well, now he knows about QAnon, right? So for the people who get to it first, we’re like, Why the fuck do I have to know about this? Why do I know about this thing? Why am I paying so much attention this? And there’s anger, almost, at the people who don't know about it yet. And then once they do know, there's another kind of anger where it's like, why did they ever have to learn about this thing in the first place? This should have been for the real Internet heads only. Our moms shouldn’t have to know about this, my husband should not have to know about this. But now they do. Not knowing about it or paying attention to it doesn’t prevent these people from rising to ascendence. But at the same time, us knowing about it in every detail also does not prevent that. So we’re coming at it from the opposite side, where if we pay attention to every minute movement, maybe we can affect it in some way. Like, if I follow the thread of what is happening every single moment, surely that must affect it in some way—surely that means I have some say over what is happening. We don't, and neither do our moms and neither do our Jasons. That sort of very recognisable impulse, where the protagonist thinks, If I just train a keen eye on this, if I just don't take my eye off it for a second, I will have some control over this situation. Where do you think it comes from? Is it unique to the Internet? I don't think this is a new thing. I think it goes back all the way. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist is traveling to all these other places, and she’s always picking up the newspapers, because as long as she pays attention, she has some say in what is happening, even if it was only WHAT??, or even if it was only HEY!! You have to have some say in what's happening, even if it’s just, “what the hell is going on.” You know, you lose so many things in a book like this, because you're really weaving a fabric, you're not making a final structure, so you can put something in at a certain point and it won’t change the overall fabric of the book, which is what I really like about a form like this. But I had a long thread for a while that was just about the people who obsessively followed the Mueller investigation, where it’s like, Where did that time go? Where did the time that people poured into that narrative go? And you saw, actually, a lot of novelists and writers were very invested in what was going on with the Mueller investigation, because it was an attempt to follow a story where we were trying to figure out what had actually happened. There’s some investment in this being a narrative that could be understood. And you just think it was followed minutely, day by day, every single development from the pee tape onward, and people were reading the newspaper of this every single morning of their life. And it was like, Where did that time go? Where did the time go that we poured into that dread of what was happening? A person so inclined could read parts of this book as this account of all the ways the Internet can poison a fine mind, but then on the other side of that, it’s also a kind of love letter to the communal mind. There’s a bit I wanted to ask you about, where the protagonist sings “If I Were A Bell” to the baby, and the baby just loves it (“the baby pedalled her legs with excitement, she gripped her fingers with both hands, she cooed and she cooed on the same pitch, she pushed her oxygen mask away and then clutched it to her face”), and then after the song, she reads the baby Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia entry (“Nothing useful, but one of the fine spendthrift privileges of being alive—wasting a cubic inch of mind and memory on the vital statistics of Marlon Brando”). I mean, that is being alive, that sort of ephemerality. That's wealth—that's like us splashing around in the pile of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, right? That's the excess that means being alive. Obviously, large parts of the second half are autobiographical. When you do something like that, when you read a baby with a terminal illness Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia entry, what else are you doing? You're introducing her to the world, but you're also bringing her into your own mind and your thought process. And if what you're doing at that point is really paying attention to how her brain works, how she thinks, you're carrying her just a little bit into yours and showing her around. My sister and I talked a great deal about this concept of showing my niece around, that we would carry her with us through the world when we travelled, that we would show her things. And you could do that just a little bit with the Internet as well. There's a section where it's like, What did she want the baby to know? You want her to know what it's like to go into a grocery store on vacation, what it means to wake up at 3 a.m. and run your whole life through your fingers. But you also want to show her the Internet just for a second, just to show her what we've done, how it looks when we all think together. So the takeaway would never be, we all need to drop our phones into the river and walk away from this. It did make it more difficult to be online in the way that I had previously been, in a way that felt like I was just pouring my life down into this window. But then there was also this other aspect of it, which is that this is how we think now. It is my responsibility to show people around, to show them what I'm looking at, in my own mind. And then you still have these days where it rises up in that hysteria where you’re reminded of why we started doing this in the first place. Like when all the Republicans in the world got coronavirus—it had this strange sense of an earlier Internet. Not because you want people to be suffering, but just because they have weaponized what was happening in this country to such an extent that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die who did not have to die. There's a sort of release, this hysteria. And it was all people thinking the same things at the same time. And that, I don't know, it's powerful. You don't want to absent yourself from that entirely, I think, or I wouldn’t want to, because it is part of how we live now. But no, I was not able to be present in the same way. And I think that is what I was trying to set down, or what I was trying to talk about, because it's not that these things that we do are beyond criticism. We build these citadels, these amazing pleasure palaces, and we should also look at what goes on in them—how they work, who are the workers who are suffering at their hands, who’s doing the landscaping. There’s a part in Priestdaddy that I love where you say, “There is always someone in a writer’s family who is funnier and more original than she is—someone for her to quote and observe, someone to dazzle and dumbfound her, someone to confuse her so much she has to look things up in the dictionary. That would be my sister Mary, who I worship as people used to worship the sun.” In this novel, which as you’ve said is largely autobiographical, there’s that same kind of love and boundless admiration that the protagonist has for her sister. What are the considerations that go into that writing process, when you’re drawing on your relationships with the people closest to you? I mean, I have a big family. It's always going to be that way—that if I write about the things that happened to me, I'm also writing about things that happen to other people. My life touches on a lot of other lives. But I like the idea of being able to write straightforward love letters. I think that the first half of the book is really writing about the protection that we've armed ourselves with, because we are under attack by the world, so there's this irony that we've armed ourselves with, this satire and these jokes. It felt important to be able to show those, and then for the protagonist to walk into the second half of the book totally unprotected and to say, what if these things don't protect us? I shouldn't feel embarrassed about writing something that is absolutely straightforward and sincere. And I think one of the things that the portal can do is it can make people embarrassed to talk about things that really happened to them in a very straightforward way without any sort of protection. I felt that the one thing that I had to do was absolutely lay out this love letter as I felt it. If you're writing about the way things are in the portal, that's a kind of truth. But if this is a love that you have in your life, that is also a truth that you have to report on. I talked to my sister about it, when all this was happening. And I said, I'm writing this book. And then, suddenly, I began writing about the baby. Of course, if it had been a problem, it would never have seen the light of day, but my sister—my family in general—has always been very, very generous to me in that way. My sister told me that she would never tell me what I could write and what I couldn’t write, but for her, it was also the idea that maybe now people would know about this child as well. When you think about the things that will disappear if you don't write them down, a little life can disappear from view. It's not always your job to present it, but in this case, I felt absolutely called upon to just witness a small and different life, and to do it the best that I could. It was almost vocational. And for my sister, I think it brought her a certain amount of comfort, just to know that the baby would not be forgotten, that she would exist in this form. You do have to be responsible, but I think part of that responsibility ought to be that you should tell the truth, even if it leaves you unprotected, even if it leaves you very vulnerable. What made you choose the epigraph?11From Mayakovsky’s “I and Napoleon”:There will be!People!On the sun!Soon! The same thing that makes anyone choose an epigraph: you happen to be reading it and you think, “Hell yeah.” Mayakovsky also seemed to be particularly tuned to the moment, a person who rhymed with current history—a practitioner of absurdism whose language was increasingly bent by the weight of the age. There will be people on the sun soon—it felt as if we were already living there. What’s your writing routine like? I write in the morning; I begin by reading a book and I wait for the trigger point, which is what sets you off on your own work. It is different now because I do write criticism, so a lot of times what I write in the morning, and what I read in the morning are books that I'm reviewing. And then from there, I will move to my own work. This year has been a little bit different—I think if I hadn’t actually gotten coronavirus, lockdown probably would have been perfect for me, I would have just been in absolute hog heaven. Like, I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t even have to go on a book tour? I mean, I like going on book tour, but when I went on book tour for Priestdaddy I got three different flus on three different continents. It was tiring in a way where you’re like, How do people actually do this? So if there had been this opportunity to be not allowed to leave my house for a year and do a bunch of Zooms I would have been so productive—but sadly, coronavirus did get in the way. I really probably write and read a lot more than is healthy. If I plotted it out it would be like 10 hours a day—not great. But I have started, because I had some memory issues after I got ill, I got this HUGE moleskin notebook that is serious business. It’s enormous and it has all the different area codes of all the countries around the world at the beginning. So I write so much more information about my day-to-day life now than I previously did, which has been kind of interesting—I've never kept a diary or anything like that. But I'm actually getting a lot of writing done as I recuperate just because I'm like, Well, I need to write down the movies that I watched, or, you know, what takeout we ordered and things like that, just so that I remember in the future what was going on. But yeah, I always start out with a book in the morning and a notebook and I just sort of write down what I’m thinking and then at some point you just you just lift off, and then you go. What have you read lately that you’ve loved? I’m rereading Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow Island at the moment. Recent books I’ve loved are Andre Gide’s Marshlands, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, William Carlos Williams’ The Doctor Stories, and Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island. Explaining a joke is killing a joke, obviously, but why is it funnier to spell it “sneazing” rather than “sneezing”? See, that's not even explaining a joke. That's a mystical question. This is almost getting into a religious question—we could base a religion on why it’s funnier to spell it “sneazing.” I place a lot of importance on the way letters look, so the "A" opens us into a broader area a little bit. “Sneezing” is funny because it's so constrained—the look and sound of it. But there's something, with the “A” right in the center there, where it almost feels like it glitches and just opens up into this big bubble and releases us into a field. We see something going wrong in the word, and a part of what's funny about a joke is the element of surprise, right? It’s this moment where something goes wrong, or takes us in an unexpected direction. You can pretty much always do that with a misspelling, but in order to be a truly funny misspelling, it has to look close enough to the original—S-N-E-O would not be funny, S-N-E-Y wouldn’t really make sense. It has to be as close as you can get, but also as far as you can go while maintaining the verisimilitude. Part of it is just I think how it looks. The early experience of Twitter was so much more about, like, finding the most hilarious misspelling. We have almost completely left that behind, which I think is really sad. It was much more ascendant, I think, before there were images. As soon as there were images, then images could do their own work. But before, we had to include images in the text itself, and misspelling was one way to do that. It was just like adding another dimension to it. But, I mean, think about it: is there another spelling of “sneezing” that would be funnier? Not really. I think we found the one. So that’s sort of my best guess at the “sneazing” thing. I feel sad that we have lost the misspelling era, because that was fun. It was like playing around with the blood of the alphabet itself, and I really liked that.
Talking to the author of Gay Bar about the complexities of queer spaces, the relationship between capitalist culture and liberation, and the thrill and privilege of engaging with risk.
Like Jeremy Atherton Lin, I don’t remember my first gay bar. It might have been the one I went to in Tel Aviv when my cousin was visiting, where he and the boy who was my first kiss flirted in broken English and Hebrew, or maybe it was the lesbian night at a too-fancy place where everyone was older than my friend and me and seemed to know each other. Easier to recall are Stonewall and the Cubbyhole in New York City, where my best friend and I tried and failed to get picked up, or the now-shuttered Babylove in Oxford, England, the place I still think of when I fantasize—especially recently—about the joy of anonymous dancing bodies pressed up against each other, which in Babylove included sweating walls painted red, a mix of contemporary Top 40 and disco playing on the crappy sound system, and too many straight girls distracting their gay friends from cruising. All of which is to say that I have a nostalgia for gay bars that doesn’t really belong to my experience of them as a millennial queer who presents more like an Old Navy mannequin rather than a butch or femme. My yearning is tied instead to the idea of gay bars, which was why I was so excited when I learned about Atherton Lin’s debut, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Little, Brown and Company). It’s a difficult book to categorize—a cultural history and a critique, an examination of a distinct set of places, and a memoir of sorts, all rolled into one. This isn’t the definitive take on the history of the gay bar as an institution, but rather a deep dive into specific gay bars that Atherton Lin frequented or experienced during different times in his life. Through these specific places, we learn about the history of the concept and the ambivalent nature of such an endeavor: do you go to a gay bar to be more gay or less gay or something else altogether? The histories of these places of business are ultimately histories of people, as well: gay bars have been community hubs, gatekeeping clubs, cliques, comfortable homes away from home, mediocre drinking spots, and so much more. I spoke to Atherton Lin on Zoom recently about his book, the limits of categories, TikTok, and more. Ilana Masad: Gay Bar is bookended by this concept of gayness being an “identity of longing.” Fantasy is thus an inextricable part of it, right? I wonder, how do you think we (gay people, queer people) fantasize about the gay bar as a space, as an institution? Jeremy Atherton Lin: I think a lot of people who are younger than myself presumed that I was working on a project about queer spaces. And I think even though I put forward these ideas about there being this kind of longing embedded in gay identity, I'm also very much not a utopian writer, so the places—many are problematic in various ways. The gay bar as a fantasy… I guess the thing that comes to mind is there's an Erase Errata lyric about this bar in Oakland called the White Horse, how the White Horse is beckoning you toward a night of gay dancing. And for me—I'm answering this in a more personal way—I suppose it's always been kind of like about that promise of what the night holds in store. I grew up in the suburbs, in Northern California, so to me, the idea of engaging in these social environments has always involved a remove. I remember being a kid and being in the side yard of my parents' house. And as I got older that involved smoking cigarettes—menthols, cloves—and looking at the search lights across the sky. I had this vision of them being for movie premieres, like they were coming in from Hollywood, but they were probably from used car lots in East San Jose, California. Amelia Abraham makes this point in her book, Queer Intentions, where she's like, all the gay bars are closing—is it my fault? I haven't been going as much. I think June Thomas wrote about that in Slate as well. [Gay bars] are monuments in a way, monuments in a cityscape. And then there's all these challenges, right, in a newer generation of spaces. How do you create eroticism in environments where there are these kind of edicts about behavior? There are places that achieve it to various degrees in various ways. By the same token, in London, there’s a sort of a mediocre gay bar that I think is valuable. Of course, for every gay bar that's in the book, there were dozens that I couldn't put in, but in the back of my mind was always this one type of gay bar that you might find yourself in that represents something very much more practical than this fantasy that we're discussing. There might be a person who is slightly gender variant in their behavior, and doesn't feel comfortable in their workday and just has a place to go where they can unwind or let their figurative hair down. I think that there's like a real value for those, and those are also often safe spaces for women of a variety of sexual orientations. One of the things that struck me most toward the end of the book is your contemplation on safety. Gay bars were, and still are, places people go not always to feel safe, but also to feel the thrill of physical and emotional risk of some sorts. You write about how some queer spaces are requiring rules of engagement now, are trying to be safe and delineated. Is danger something that can only be enjoyed from a place of the relative safety that comes with privilege that you learned you had? (I know this is… complicated.) It is, and it’s a quandary on a personal level, too. On one level, especially from the outside looking in, as a cisgender gay male, there is a level of risk that I’ve had the privilege to engage with that maybe people in more vulnerable bodies haven’t. And gay male socializing has often been more public, historically. The quandary for me is that if I have a friend who’s been slipped a roofie or somebody who wasn’t able to figure out how to reconcile and express consent in a group sex scene that involves chemicals and so on—[it becomes clear that] every body can be a vulnerable body. Certainly I understand the need for spaces that have boundaries that prevent a kind of tourist who verges on predatory. But this starts to leave the bounds of what I’m comfortable talking about, because at some level these can’t be my spaces. Like in London, before lockdown, there were events where you had to be a person of color to get through the door, they were for QPOC. And, of course, there are thoughts that go through your mind, like: my partner is white, am I his passport into that space? Or do neither of us go in? A part of it is that there are more theoretical terms that are then being put into places that are not theoretical—they have to be equipped in case of fire, and people are intoxicated and wound up and anxious and all this stuff. So how do you reconcile the ideals and the reality? I'm aware that in London there have been a series of parties with regulations about who gets in, that emphasize femmes of color and trans people of color, with a door checker. [These parties] are reported to be completely sexy, hot, fun environments—so there’s a space where those regulations might be necessary so that the party can be sexy. But then I suppose there's this other problem, about what’s legible at the door. The thing that makes me a bit nervous about speaking to this is like, I don't really have experience in nightlife as a service person, and my position is always slightly that of a wallflower. My sister finished the book and she was like, you can never make up your mind in the book. You're slightly on the outside. One of the things that really resonated with me on a personal level was the way that you talk about going out basically for the story. Yes, for the experience itself, but also because you get to talk about it after, you get to think about it after, you get to write about it after. It’s almost like it’s about the eroticism of the mind at that point, right? That totally nails it. Yes. If these had been safe spaces, I wouldn't have had a lot of the anecdotes in the book. We're in these kind of intrinsically solipsistic zones now because online engagement is all centered around us, and we choose where we go and we're often in echo chambers. So there’s this three-dimensional thing that you lack, which is the experience of feeling slightly uncomfortable and yet forgiving towards a stranger. An example would be this older generation of drag queens in London whose jokes are not always very contemporary, and you might engage with or watch somebody perform in these spaces and your tolerance for their button-pushing keeps getting tested a little bit, but you're also with another person who might have a similar feeling to you that you can share a sidelong glance with, or you might leave with a continued ambivalence towards the experience. So that, or—I mean, this is kind of dangerous territory to go into, but personally, there are moments where there’s physical contact that might be a bit ambivalent, and that can be both a turn-on and something that makes you feel vulnerable. You just mentioned the online spheres that we're in, and in the book, you quote a regular at Studio One who spoke to the LA Times in 1976 who prognosticated, as you write, a dystopian future in which the gay bar would be a space where “each of us will go into a space the size of a telephone booth and dance by ourselves.” That honestly sounds like a lot of gay TikTok. How do you feel about that solipsistic evolution, especially now, during the pandemic? There was an article in the New York Times recently with the headline “Everyone is Gay on TikTok,” because they're very performative. And then I started thinking, oh my god, like, this is all these young men have right now, that kind of “like-hunting” by showing their underwear and so on. I was saying earlier, I grew up in the suburbs and in my friend group, we felt very much like there was a wall between us and popular culture and that we were always there to tear it apart, this intimate coterie of friends who saw some things with a similar sense of humor and saw the absurdity of things. So that remove feels in a way quite normal to me, I'm quite used to that. But the fact that that's all there is… I don’t know. It must be so hard to be young right now. With TikTok there’s this brevity and a lack of dimension and proximity. It's just that lack of being with another person, breathing the same air, you know, and the idea of engaging with somebody's body language and all the nonverbal cues that you give. The first period of this pandemic wasn’t that difficult for me to adjust to as somebody who's happy to be at home. I'm lucky to have a safe—and not only safe but nurturing and convivial and humorous and jolly—domestic environment. But now, these kinds of questions that we're talking about—I think the ramifications of them are very significant, because they have to do with humility and dialogue and forgiveness and ambiguity or ambivalence a lot of the time, and being able to continue to have mixed feelings about the environment that you're in or a person you're engaging with. I think it's quite unsettling to me. Capitalism, and its effects on gay liberation and on the post-gay attitude, is a prominent theme in the book as well. Gay bars are places of business, after all, and you make the point of writing about how gay men—especially gay white men—have long had a particular relationship to how real estate investors look at a neighborhood. How do you see the market affecting (or interacting with) gay and lesbian and queer people today? You know, it took a while for it to sink in that I had chosen a subject matter that is comprised of private businesses. And obviously that starts clicking into place when you have to make sure that you're not saying the wrong thing about a place. It's funny because in a way there’s a paradox where there's a kind of activist movement about the preservation of these private entities, and it can be the case that preservationists are at odds with the interests of the owner of a business who might not want it historically listed, or might want to sell it and isn’t particularly invested about whether the next place is a queer space. I quote Gail Rubin talking about how we feel proprietary towards these spaces, but at the same time they are businesses, and, in fact, in various ways have monetized a scene that outside of capitalism might've found some kind of other form to take. I make a joke in the book about how it feels so realpolitik, but it was clear to me that there needed to be an acknowledgement of the fact that [capitalism] has been the structure that certain undeniable progresses have occurred within. I was trying to consider the reality of that socioeconomic framework and what happened within it. And that hasn’t ended, right? The relationship between capitalist consumerist culture and liberation. You see commercials with gay people in them now and you smile and say, Oh, that's so lovely, but then you also remember after a while, Oh, right, I'm being sold to, I'm being used. Yeah, and some of the more progressive language around identity is often quite adjacent to expensive moisturizers, and sort of the makeover as a ritualistic act that also has several specific brands attached to it and so on. I think what I'm trying to inhabit in the book, which just feels very natural to me, is the perspective of somebody who just isn't quite certain about what the solutions to all this might be and to convey what it is to be feel conflicted. I think we hear a lot of voices of people who are very resolved and confident and assertive about these things. I don’t know, maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like you less so hear from the perspective of a kind of uncertainty, or an admission of where your more idealistic side of you abuts against some desire for just feeling safe and comfortable. I love that you’re conveying your uncertainty about this even in your response—“correct me if I’m wrong.” Speaking of language and uncertainty—the book is gorgeously written, and I noticed all these elements of reclamation in it. For instance, you call Sir Ian McKellen a “swish,” you joke about limp-wristedness, and in general, you make the point of using terms that have been weaponized against gay men especially. At the very end of the book’s notes, you included a disclaimer: “Where a description of a person or group is not self-identification, it’s based on cultural and geographical context. Contemporary terms are not used for historical figures except as deliberate wordplay. Lingo is not always ideal or neutral, but reflects the experience of the moment.” Would you tell me a little bit about how you were thinking about language as you were writing this book? It’s always a test between what would be the language of a given moment and caution. I know there's a lot of things that you're not supposed to say, but that people joyfully and with a sense of self-empowerment use as self-identification. But then you obviously consider your impact in the world and you don't want to hurt other people. But it was important to me to—you know, in the chapter about meeting Michelle Tea and her partner Rocco—it was important for me to convey that moment of exploration, which very much involved a reclamation of pejoratives [in this case “fag”]. Language also changes in different ways in different places, which is why I included the excursion to Blackpool in the book. I didn't want to go into this book as a journalist, although obviously it crossed my mind that there's this longest ever running gay bar in Copenhagen that I should visit, and a place in New Orleans, and a church-themed gay bar in Athens, Georgia. But everyone who knows me and knows what I do said it has to be about how these different spaces have formed me, because that's my kind of strategy and way of thinking. It's almost like that Blackpool section is a bit of a test about what happens when I then go all Didion on you and visit in search of a story. [Blackpool] is an example of a very working class, to some extent regionally self-contained environment where the language is going to be definitely different. It’s been quite a heavy experience for me to try to balance. I'm trying to respect everybody. Every acceptable word actually has the potential of erasure as well. And like, you know, I'm supposed to be gay, officially, according to GLAAD, but sometimes it's homosexual or, you know, like I say in the book, fag feels actually very comfortable to me. Every word has its issues, but then there's been a [mainstream] consensus and I do struggle with that… You know, some forms of sexuality are pervy. And I think that there's been a kind of erasure of the pervert. There’s a kind of essentialism then about how you are valid because your sexuality isn't dirty, and then there isn’t a place for dirtiness and finding playmates in perversion, you know? Absolutely, that’s really real. So speaking to the way that you think: Gay Bar is about place—like your journal Failed States is about place—but it’s also about the ephemerality of place, its changing nature, its inability to remain the same no matter how much we’d like it to. What sparked your interest in how history and experience is written on the body of the place, with and through the bodies that occupy it? You know, I think I need a person, place, or thing to hang onto [when I write]. There’s a Lydia Davis story, “Foucault in Pencil”, and her narrator in this story is in a waiting room for a doctor and is reading Foucault and then takes the Foucault onto the subway. It dawns on her that she loses the plot of the sentence if the subject is “absence” or “law” or “power,” but she can keep through to the end of the sentence if its subject is “wave” or “door” or “penitentiary.” I think that way too. I just need something, sometimes literally concrete, to hang onto. It's interesting for me to take on quite a big theme like I have with this book because I [usually] write in a minor key. I consider myself a miniaturist in a lot of ways and my favorite writers are people who write in a small voice or occupy a small space. So engaging in the actuality of a space just keeps it making sense to me. I'm like that with my students when I teach—they'll tell me that they want to write about authenticity and I'm like, can you just tell me about this favorite pair of jeans of yours, because we'll get to authenticity [through that]. Different people think in different ways, but a lot of times I recognize that somebody might, like me, learn that way. I also really want to be learning while I write, and I think when I am successful is when I'm taking the reader and we're learning together. A teacher of mine talked about writing at the edge of your reach, like just at the grasp of your fingertips. So yeah, there's a part of me that would like to write about place and literally just be like the cobweb in the corner of the room, but then there's something else where I feel compelled to learn while I'm creating the book and hoping that that becomes a part of its presence in the world.
A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up?
Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk. A Documentary Tale To the town of N. 1. The latest incident in the town of N. began like this: early one morning, a Volga of the kind used to transport fair-to-middling public officials rolled up to the hospital and deposited a handful of bureaucrats from the regional center. They were seeking donations to benefit the children of Dzhankoy—give what you can. Dzhankoy, in the north of Crimea, is home to a major railway station; many people passed through it in Soviet times. Our visitors couldn’t tell us how many children there were in Dzhankoy, or what these children needed, but it was clear that the money, if it ever reached them, would do so not in the form of crumpled rubles but of cobbled paths, say, or of an opulent monument, like the one recently erected in the hospital’s courtyard—the bust of some foppish State Councilor bearing a pompous inscription, in pre-revolutionary spelling: “The greatness, glory, and benefit of the Fatherland are the proper goals of the learned, active, experienced Physician.”11The monument is to the Russian physician Efrem Osipovich Mukhin (1766-1850). The hospital received this curious old fellow instead of medicine, catheters, dressings—instead of salaries for nurses and assistants, some of whom, in fact, had to be fired. That’s a clever way to improve the stats: raise the average income of the medical staff by dismissing its poorest members. Then, at the bust’s unveiling, things almost came to a head, as it were. “The state has given you everything,” the authorities said, sounding offended, as usual. “What has it given us, exactly? Doctor Who over there?” “Electricity.” And, after a pause: “Heating. Water.” “Maybe we should chip in to help the children of California? Since we haven’t annexed them yet…” That joke went over like a lead balloon, both with the visitors and the other doctors. Well, if Dzhankoy is in need… The total came out to over fifteen thousand rubles. That evening, an image, a metaphor suggested itself: “It’s like a heart attack. The patient is hooked up to the monitor, hoping that the machine’s monotonous beeping will tell him something, anything. All he can think about are household chores, little errands, and the physical wellbeing of his loved ones. Can’t read, can’t listen to his favorite music—not because of the pain (there’s no more pain), but because books and music belong to the past, while the present… It’s as if there is no present. There’s only the beeping of the monitor, the other patients, who are just as confused as he is, and the sense that life will likely go on, but that it won’t be the same. Life will be different. But in what way?” It was then that a new element appeared in daily life: an important, depressing element, like father’s death or mother’s illness (that same year she had to be moved from Moscow, for the last time, to be here, closer to the hospital)—like undeniable knowledge about one’s neighbors. This fund drive for Crimean children took place in March 2014. The powerful, positive emotions that flared up long ago, in a different era—“Citizens, bring me your hearts!” and all that—are still there to keep one going, like any real (if not altogether sober) feelings. Ten years have slipped by, almost unnoticed, since that first day in the town of N. A lot can change in ten years. N. is old (only a century younger than Moscow) and small, but it’s a proper town nonetheless; it has a hospital, two secondary schools, two cemeteries, two Orthodox cathedrals, a police station, a prosecutor’s office, and a courthouse. There are also two libraries—one for children, the other for adults. The first, thanks to the efforts of philanthropists, is going strong. The second is declining rapidly: no subscriptions to the big journals, and the only new donations come from two local members of the Writers’ Union (both unabashed anti-Semites). There’s a music school (an accordion and a piano); a vocational school (college, as they now call it); a School of Art; a House of Children's Creativity (up for auction); a palatial House of Writers (big mosaic, concerts, readings); an employment office (invariably empty); two traffic lights; tons of pharmacies; a few rest homes; a dock; a twenty-five-meter pool; until recently, a bowling alley (went belly up); a nightclub called Through the Looking Glass (land of imagination: Alices of all sorts—black, red, bald—a Mad Hatter, a White Rabbit, Humpty Dumpty, but very few visitors); a registry office; an art gallery; government buildings—municipal and regional; a fountain; a statue of Lenin on Lenin Square, which lies at the end of Lenin Street (but no corresponding avenue—the only avenue is named after Pushkin). The town paper is called October; it publishes all the local death notices, which is the only reason doctors read it. And, of course, there are fields, ravines, forests. In terms of water, there’s the river Oka—navigable by ships, dredged and deepened every spring—as well as a shallow little stream. There’s also a pond at one of the rest homes—“stocked,” as the ad promises. The Oka isn’t rich in fish, but one time a patient managed to bring in several kilograms of sterlet. There’s no bridge, and who needs it? This region maintains no relations with the one that lies on the other side of the river. Since the brick factory closed down, most of the men have been driving taxis or working security at the town’s innumerable shops. There’s no industry to speak of. The main problem with small towns is the lack of choice, but here there’s almost always a choice (the hospital is an exception), what the Brits might call “the other club”—a place you wouldn’t be caught dead in. Teachers don’t live on Resurrection Hill. Why? Just because—for a similar reason that those who are loyal to the local hospital would never go to the cheburek joint. Wine isn’t in great demand among the locals, but there are also two wine shops. “Do you drink every day?” the young saleswoman asks the gray-haired artist. Behind his back, the girls at the shop call him Don Ramon—his favorite label. The saleswoman isn’t judging the artist, she’s just curious. “No, not every … well, yes.” And a follow-up question, posed just as courteously: “Do you just sip it or chug it down?” She doesn’t know how else to ask; he understands and takes no offense. Incidentally, the locals are drinking less: for example, they’ve stopped bringing the doctors moonshine. And they smoke less, too, and drive more cautiously; all the daredevils have either come to their senses or gotten themselves killed. People don’t beat their children as frequently. Yes, despite it all, the town of N. is moving ever closer to the West—and much more quickly than Moscow, too. There you have order: even tiles, wide sidewalks, not a single stall or kiosk. Here you have less by way of order, but at least no one torments you: no concrete barriers, no boom gates in every yard, no forced resettlement, and the lesbian couple, though they stand out a bit, are treated pretty much like anyone else—in contrast to state, the residents of N. have come to respect privacy. Concerning the name of the town. It’s a well-known fact that writers are inferior to pigs: “A pig doesn’t shit where it eats, doesn’t shit where it sleeps… A pig would never do what Pasternak did” (Vladimir Semichastny), and that’s why the landscape of Russian literature extends only to Moscow, Petersburg, and, very tentatively, to Voronezh, Taman, Mtsensk, exotic Abakan (“Where the clouds roll on,” and where they’ve even established a Cloud Museum), Magadan, Orenburg, while the rest is all Yuriatin, Skotoprigonyevsk, Kalinov, Glupov, Goryukhino—in a word, N., so as not to upset Semichastny.22On October 29, 1958, at the plenum of the Central Committee of the Young Communist League, the organization’s First Secretary, Vladimir Semichastny (who would later become Chairman of the KGB), read a speech denouncing Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago had been published abroad. The quote comparing Pasternak to a pig is taken from that speech. The existing locales of Voronezh, Taman, Mtsensk, Abakan, Magadan, and Orenburg occur in the works, respectively, of Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Galich, Nikolay Zabolotsky, and Alexander Pushkin; the fictional locales of Yuriatin, Skotoprigonyevsk, Kalinov, Glupov, and Goryukhino occur in the works, respectively, of Boris Pasternak, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Ostrovsky, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Pushkin. “The world doesn't break, no matter what you throw at it”: stories happen (or rather, anecdotes), but one’s ability to observe them is dulled by excessive proximity to the subject. To witness and be surprised—that requires the right balance between the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar. While even superficial, momentary acquaintance is sometimes enough to arouse sympathy. Olga L., thirty years old, came for a consultation from a neighboring town in the company of another woman, the head of a kindergarten: “Will you see us, doctor?” Olga doesn’t need a cardiologist, her heart is fine, but she has severe type 1 diabetes. “Have you got a glucose meter at home?” Burned out. How can a glucose meter burn out? It runs on batteries. The truth is it burned up—in a fire set by Olga’s alcoholic neighbor. She managed to save her children (she has three), and now they live in a back room at the kindergarten. No husband. “Did the neighbor survive?” “The hell he did.” In a cheerful voice: “Burned to a crisp, like a Buffalo wing!” There are fires in N., too. A one-story house burned down in the center of town, killing one woman. She handed her children to her husband through the window but couldn’t get out herself. The husband suffered burns to his body and there was serious damage to his eyes; he’s hospitalized in the surgical ward. The children are fine; they’re in the children’s ward, naturally. Word arrived that public officials of a very high order—the type that travel in Mercedes and BMWs, not mere Volgas—would take this matter into their own hands. What does that mean? Would the family be rehoused? No. Would the victim like anything else? To be left alone—and to be given antibiotic eye drops. That last request is, apparently, too trivial for the officials to deal with, and besides, there’s no way to satisfy it: medical purchases are planned far ahead of time. The governor wants a tour of the hospital. He puts on a robe over his jacket, shoe covers (senseless measures, if you think about it—pure optics): “How’re they treating you, gramps?” he shouts at an octogenarian. “Doctor let you have a tipple when you need one?” “I’m not an alcoholic,” the man replies. “And I’m not hard of hearing.” The governor takes a more respectful tone, asks the man about his life. The man complains that his pension barely covers his rent and utilities, to say nothing of his medications, food… “You’ve got rights and entitlements, you just don’t know how to use them,” the governor interrupts him angrily. “An island is a piece of land which is entirely surrounded by water,” Chekhov’s poor “darling” repeated meaninglessly, with conviction. One patient—an architectural restorer—tells a story: one particular public official—the highest ranking in the country—took a liking to a monastery on Lake Valdai. He’s fond of monasteries. This one was on an island—probably for a reason. The public official ordered the building of a bridge to connect the island to the mainland, and the construction destroyed the island, with the best of intentions. The authorities can bomb just about anything, and this earns them attention, like any dangerous thing. But they can’t provide a hospital with pills or nurses, and so their power—as another patient, a Georgian, once put it, before being gently corrected—isn’t worth a hill of bees. The public officials in the town of N. can’t build a bridge, much less bomb anything. They’re sturdy fellows of medium height, running to fat, who never part with their leather murses—even on their yearly visit to church, on Easter Sunday. When the previous mayor moved out of the apartment he was occupying—and out of town—he left behind a dozen fire extinguishers. Nothing else. And now that’s all he’s remembered for. The only thing the public officials of N. fear are public officials of a far higher standing: “The general came round, gave Pavel Andreyevich hell…” This is the man’s secretary, who’s run into a hospital to request some document or other. She’s relishing the story, going into raptures. “I tell you, he screamed and screamed—scared Pavel Andreyevich so bad that...” All of a sudden, in a falsetto, for the whole ward to hear: “He shat himself!” An example of the attitude one should take towards various authorities was set by a surgeon from the neighboring region. At the end of the working day he was surprised by an inspection team. “Hold on, I’ll be with you in a minute," the surgeon told them, then went into the next room, changed, and quietly left the hospital. They waited and waited, then left as well. “Don’t try and put yourself in the authorities’ shoes,” the head of a major scientific institute in Moscow advised mother when she worked there. This man served as the prototype for Anton Yakonov in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. Neither under him, nor under subsequent heads, when she herself was placed in charge of a laboratory, did mother participate in “mandatory volunteerism”—no picking potatoes, no construction work on Saturdays—and she never faced any consequences for her refusal. “Don’t want to,” and that was that. Aunties (water, electricity, gas), summer people, foreigners, Tajiks (“Got any work here, boss?"), artists with one foot in N. and the other in Moscow (or maybe even Paris), entrepreneurs, local scientific intelligentsia (Space Research Institute): each group has its own hierarchy, its own distinct estates, which sometimes comprise only a handful of individuals. There are also the lower depths, cheek by jowl with the rest: an orderly whose husband, recently back from prison, regularly beats her in the face; a single woman from Moldova who rejoices whenever she’s allowed to bring her five-year-old daughter along on cleaning jobs—usually she isn’t, and then the girl stays home alone all day. In this circle—where people struggle just to survive, where there’s no running water, no electricity (“you’ve got rights and entitlements”), and where one might see a toilet in the kitchen—amazing things happen. Volodya Z. was released early from prison and sent to the hospital in N., so as to die on the outside (that is, “receive treatment at his place of residence”). Of his forty-two years—hard to believe—a full twenty-six were spent behind bars, serving eight separate terms (“bids”). When asked if this was true, the police chief, who frequently visits the hospital for both professional and personal reasons, said: “They always exaggerate. Nineteen years sounds about right…” The last time Volodya went up, the charges had been pressed by his own sister, from whom he’d nabbed some piece of furniture or other. (Is there a hospital in Moscow that treats both the police chief and the people he’s put in jail?) Volodya was wheeled from the elevator directly to the Major Cardiology Labs and diagnosed with severe aortic and mitral valve disease. He eyed everyone warily, and was prone to brief outbursts of rage: doctors are people in uniform, after all—not Volodya’s preferred company. But he made sure to take his pills. Soon he stopped gasping for breath and his edema disappeared. Then he went to Moscow for a valve replacement—the only real way to improve his condition. Volodya was operated on by the flamboyant Father Georgy—colonel general, professor and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), defendant in the famed “case of the nanodust in the House on the Embankment” (where the plaintiff was none other than the Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia),33For a summary of the case of Yury Shevchenko (currently Father Georgy) and Patriarch Kirill’s apartment, see “Patriarch Kirill’s Apartment Buried in Sand,” The Moscow Times, 28 March 2012. former Health and Social Development Minister, chief of the Kirov Military Medical Academy, and so forth and so on, many colorful details: in the institute he heads, they say, everyone must confess to the director. “Now don’t you fret. If something goes wrong under my scalpel, you’re headed straight for heaven.” That, according to Volodya, is how Father Georgy comforted him before the anesthesia was administered. But everything went smoothly. Volodya received two mechanical valves, and returned to N. sober, ruddy, and full of gratitude: “I’ll do anything you want.” What, for example? “Pound someone’s face in maybe.” No face comes to mind. “I can serve a term for you.” Well, well, well. Go ahead, steal a cow or a goose, or smash the front window of the cafe (they call it “Stalin’s,” because the owners have put up the pockmarked Generalissimo’s portrait), and Volodya will take responsibility for the crime. He died a few months later, but not before fate smiled on him one more time. Volodya had found a job at a mortuary, picking up the deceased. One day, as he was removing a body from its former home, he got to chatting with the woman who’d just become a widow. They took an immediate liking to each other and, before you know it, filed a marriage application with the registry office. Although Volodya had been warned about the dangers of combining warfarin (which he was taking to prevent valve thrombosis) with alcohol, this was his wedding—and what’s a wedding without a drink? He couldn’t deny himself the pleasure. And that was the end of him: cerebral hemorrhage. The town of N. owes its relative prosperity—cultural, medical, architectural—to non-natives, be they summer people or those who have come to stay. Like the United States, N. was created by immigrants. It was the summering intelligentsia that rebuilt the church on Resurrection Hill (in Soviet times, it had served as a bakery and, later, a warehouse for consumer goods). It is they who put on the concerts and the annual art exhibitions, they who give jobs to the locals and eat at the cafe. The mild aversion the locals feel toward them is perfectly understandable: the French resent America, the Greeks resent Germany—dependence on others is a heavy burden. But even among the teenagers of N. there’s no real native/non-native opposition. The children play make-believe, pretending they’re coquettes, ladies from Moscow. They plop themselves down on sunspots on the floor and intone, “Ah, a tanning bed!” But coquetry is not the exclusive domain of the young: “I think I ought to tell you,” an eighty-year-old lady from Moscow sighs, “that when I was a sweet little three-year-old, my parents had a terrible quarrel.” Does she understand that this is a doctor’s office? “My father grabbed me by my tiny little arms and dangled me over the railing of a bridge, shouting to my mother that he’d let me go if she didn’t listen to him. Ever since then, my left ventricle has been dilated.” Her left ventricle is not dilated. No, this finding doesn’t suit her at all. The hierarchy of the summer people is established independently of their relative wealth or, shall we say, the architectural merits of their dachas. The most important determining factor is an individual’s accomplishment—but not in Moscow. If their book came out in America, or their painting was purchased by a museum in Berlin, or their tour in Japan met with success—that counts. Go to the head of the table, say a few words. The natives, too, respect international success: at the funeral of a wonderful painter Eduard Steinberg, who was a friend to all (he lived in Paris but was buried here), the police donned their full dress uniforms and blocked off traffic, although the drive from the church to the old cemetery only takes a minute and there are never that many cars on the road. Great-grandfather, on mother’s side, wound up in the town of N. not entirely by choice, like many political prisoners (he was sentenced in 1933, one of fourteen doctors accused of poisoning Maxim Gorky). He came here after a stint in Butyrka, after the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, after the War. “This is a place of refuge for our family, just in case,” he wrote in his journal. In Vladimir, where great-grandfather was the head physician, his position became untenable when officers began to return from the front—as a former prisoner, he could be denounced and rearrested at any moment, all because someone else wanted his job. He came in the summer of ‘46, along with his ten-year-old granddaughter. In those days, the journey from Moscow took twelve hours: first there was the train, then seven kilometers on foot, following a rickshaw loaded up with your luggage, and, finally, a steamer up the Oka. Here, the old house on Pushkin Street received many guests—some renowned, some unknown. The town of N. was lucky to find itself located at exactly the right distance from forbidden Moscow. In the early ’70s, a few years after great-grandfather’s death, the house was looted and demolished—and so the family’s relationship with the town was ruptured. The only things that remain from those early days are the fireplace tiles, which mother salvaged, and the huge linden tree in the corner of the property. The only childhood memories left are of this linden tree and of certain smells: a damp basement, dust caked by the rain. In ’46 there was only one security officer of the NKVD in town, but by the ’70s the number of secret policemen had risen to eleven—so as to deal with all the “enemies” that had settled here. These days the number is hard to determine. Europeans, in any case, feel very comfortable here. An Italian mosaicist and his wife have lived here for several years now. The vicissitudes of Russian history don’t shock him: “Che cazzo! We were gays before you were walking upright.” One time his wife went into an Armenian shop and he stayed outside, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette beside a crate of cucumbers. “How much?” asks a customer. The Italian shrugs: “Italiano.” He doesn’t speak Russian. “I know, I know—Italiano. But how much for the Italiano cucumbers?” The natives are used to seeing foreigners. Germans, French, Indians, Americans—you name it. They don’t consider Tajiks, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, and Moldovans foreigners, and they don’t discriminate against them: What can you do? They didn’t choose to be what they are. A new worker appeared at the car wash—Surik (Suren). What happened to the other fellow? “Gagik. They locked him up. Shot an Azerbaijani.” They gave Gagik four years, which seems very lenient. “Not ‘shot,’ daddy—‘shot at,’” Surik’s ten-year-old son cuts in. The boy goes to school during the year but helps his father in the summer. Tourists come up on weekends, visit the Church of the Resurrection, the sculpture of the “sleeping boy” (Victor Borisov-Musatov is buried beneath it), and the Tsvetaeva Stone. The local tourist guide tells a story: in the early ’60s, a student named Senya O. arrived from Kyiv—“a boy in shabby trousers,” as Tsvetaeva’s daughter put it, a pure, romantic soul, the type they call “lovely” today. He had only one desire: to fulfill the dying wish of the Poet whose verse had pierced his heart. “I would like to be buried,” she had written, “in one of those graves with a silver dove on it.” The stone Senya found at the local quarry and placed where Tsvetaeva had wished to be laid to rest was removed after a few days. Good deeds—such as aid (mostly weaponry) for that era’s “children of Dzhankoy,” who were then in Africa and the Middle East—could only be performed by the government. Without the state’s consent, one couldn’t even erect a monument to Khrushchev, much less to Tsvetaeva. But the intelligentsia of N., and especially its female contingent, appreciated Senya’s impulsive gesture. “Charming and taming them (the intelligentsia) is child’s play. Go ahead, pick them up with your bare hands”—Senya had succeeded fabulously, but not everyone was impressed by his resourcefulness: he became the subject of one of father’s short stories. And so the town of N. was inoculated against excessive enthusiasm and good deeds long ago. The current Stone (“Marina Tsvetaeva Would Have Liked to Rest Here”) was placed during perestroika. As for Senya, he now makes his home far away, in New York, and writes “pleasant poems for children, so that they don’t forget Russian.” The shops, cafes, hotels, and B&Bs—these are run by local entrepreneurs, who have their own distinct charm. They’re accustomed to circumventing the state and despise anyone who “made a bundle” through “connections”—people like that, they say, want a bite of everything. These entrepreneurs use the language of the criminal world (“fence,” “shark,” “fall guy”), but you can come to them for help without hesitation; they might turn you down, but they’ll do it with a light touch—no “unfortunately, you just don’t fit our program.” In fact, without the secret donations of one of these entrepreneurs, the hospital would have gone under long ago. When he first brought in his ninety-two-year-old grandmother, he was greatly surprised that neither the doctors nor the nurses has asked her what on earth she expected from them, at her age—obviously, she wanted what everyone wants: to live longer and to feel well. She received treatment, felt better. Some years later she passed away, but the grandson keeps on donating. All institutions of practical significance (municipal services, schools, the pension fund, the treasury, the registry office) are headed, as is usual in Russia, by middle-aged women; the life of the town rests on their shoulders. They’re not averse to socializing, don’t shy away from a drink and a song (“How about it, girls?"), and are far more pleasant than the fellows with leather murses. Sometimes they seem totally comprehensible, sometimes not. Here's an example. There was an internist at the clinic a few years back—tall and melancholy, very mediocre. Later he turned up in Moscow, clerking at a drugstore. At the hospital’s New Year’s party, between the appetizers and the dancing, the women discussed the vegetables this internist used to sell at the market, as a sideline. His professional degradation didn’t strike them as tragic, they were just sorry he’d left town: he used to sell such good vegetables. The most important civic event for the inhabitants of N. is the Saturday market. There’s no telling what you might hear between the stalls: “God didn’t grant Patriarch Alexey health.” A sigh in response: “Or life, either.” Another pair of women shoppers: “Why are you feeding her”—probably the interlocutor’s mother or mother-in-law—“like that? Just you watch, she’ll live to a hundred.” A third: “My husband’s liver is totally shot. The doctors say he’s only hanging on ‘cause he’s got a good stomach and pancreas.” There hasn't been a high-profile murder in many years, not since the gambling industry was banned. That and the shortening of compulsory military service are, it seems, the only positive reforms that can be ascribed to the current regime. Of course, with the passage of time, things are easily forgotten: for example, after Yeltsin had bypass surgery, the number of these procedures immediately increased tenfold all across the country—but who now remembers such accomplishments? In terms of headline-grabbing crimes, there was the armed bank robbery (the culprits shut off the town’s electricity, stole and dumped a car) and the art heist, where the thieves claimed they were conducting a surprise security check, tied up the gallery’s guard and director, and made off with two canvases—one by Vasily Polenov, the other by Ivan Aivazovsky. In both cases, the wrongdoers got away with it. There was also the assault at one of the B&Bs. Thirteen of the guests showed up at the hospital after being attacked with baseball bats in the middle of the night—at the behest, it turned out, of the B&B’s proprietor, who took offense at a joke one of them had made. The story was reported throughout the country—a new development in the hospitality sector. On one occasion, in 2008, the police had to get involved: someone was going door to door, slipping leaflets into mailboxes that said all the local doctors were working for the CIA (this was before the law against “foreign agents” went into effect). The leaflets read something like this: “Alien extremists have come to feed the homeless so as to transplant organs.” Echoes of the Stalinist “Doctors’ Plot.” No one was caught, but things eventually quieted down and returned to normal. A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up? Forget it. In any case, the police department itself is not perceived as a danger in N. Relations between medical professionals and policemen are familiar, friendly: they too are state employees, and they have wives, children, parents—they all need doctors now and then. Here’s a story—fresh, but from Moscow. An ambulance arrives and a nurse rushes into the office of the doctor on call: “They’ve brought in a traffic cop!” A joyous bustle: the traffic cop has had a myocardial infarction. The cop’s wife starts weeping and pleading: “He works at a desk, not on the street”—that is to say, don’t take his life, have mercy. No one in N. would ever have thought of such a thing. The Christian denominations represented in N. are the Pentecostals (they have a church up on a hill), the Seventh-day Adventists (they have a school, a university, and an institute for Bible translation across the river)—both of these groups keep a low profile—and, of course, the Orthodox, who make up the majority. A pretentious middle-aged visitor is none too impressed with the town. He sighs: “Everything around here is so gray, so dull. And Moscow’s not much better.” So what’s better? “Mount Athos. The salvation of the soul… What else does one need?” In fact, he needs a lot else besides—and he needs it done well, quickly, and for free. That’s precisely why he showed up here at the hospital. The religiosity of old Olga Mikhailovna, who suffers from congestive heart failure, is far less complicated, far more cheerful: “I’m a communist by conviction. I even pay my party dues. But I’m superstitious, you know, and I feel it isn’t only your pills that help—I feel God helps me too.” Another Orthodox woman, the head clerk of an office supply warehouse, reasons thus: “I’ll quit smoking, I promise. I consulted with the elder at the monastery about it, too. A proper Orthodox person isn’t supposed to smoke, isn’t that so? I never smoke when I’m on a pilgrimage, but when I get back, I always start up again—my nerves get to me. I work in a warehouse, and I’m responsible for everything. By the way, doctor, you need any staplers, folders, markers? We’ve got tons of them lying around.” The head of the warehouse laughs. She’s brought a huge bag full of office supplies. Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness—of all the Gospel’s commandments, this one people keep without fail. And then there’s Nastya, a girl of thirteen with developmental delay. A nurse draws her blood and, in order to distract her, asks: “What’s your zodiac sign?” “Don’t have one,” she responds. “I’m Orthodox.” The girl’s answer perplexes the nurse: she’s Orthodox too, after all, but she has a zodiac sign. Anyone can enter intensive care, and priests are no exception. Sometimes they’re asked to come to visit patients who are near death—to anoint them, offer the last rites. “Is there any hope she might pull through?” asks the young priest. Extreme unction is a laborious business, so he might as well make sure. A major stroke, mechanical ventilation, several days in a deep coma. Who actually believes in miracles, aside from a patient’s closest relatives? Another priest tried to discourage several women from having abortions. He walked into the OB-GYN wing and made a powerful, impassioned speech, yet the women not only refused to listen but also gave him an earful: one was out of work, another had no husband, and a third had no place to call home. “You should have thought of that earlier,” the priest responded and left. Parish priests have precious little freedom themselves—even less than doctors. Somehow they quickly became part of the system: school, army, hospital, prison. Not all of them, thank God, but most of them. People had expected a great deal from the Church when it was still under the Soviet yoke—and even afterwards, throughout the ’90s—but the only thing it has actually taught them is what they can and cannot consume during Lent. There’s a lot of longing for the past around here, even among those who never really experienced it. It’s best not to talk politics with patients, but if a woman has an unusual mitral valve, it’s tempting to think that she herself must be interesting. Natalya is a thirty-six-year-old journalist and amateur pilot who misses the USSR: “Now that was strength.” So there you are: nothing interesting. She barely even lived in the USSR—but apparently Young Communists are born, not made. And the next patient is an old woman. When asked why she hasn’t been taking her medications, she replies: “Who needs us now, anyway? Back in the day, things were different…” Her meaning is clear. Back in the day the state cared about its citizens. Both she and Natalya feel orphaned, though the latter still has her parents. The old woman is easier to understand: she’s all alone. And yet it’s unlikely that any of her peers in the United Kingdom would fail to take their pills because Her Majesty wasn’t personally concerned about their high blood pressure. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union is now widespread and finds expression in a series of clichés: everyone was afraid of us, and there was a lot to be thankful for—the healthcare was free (in what sense?), literary magazines had enormous circulations, and the state put out good animated cartoons. After the Jews came out of Egypt, they too looked back fondly on their time in captivity, remembering the “flesh pots,” the fish, which they “did eat in Egypt freely,” the cucumbers, the melons, and maybe even the fine Egyptian healthcare and education systems. “You who from birth / Wore orphan’s garb – / Don’t mourn an Eden / You’ve not seen.”44From the second of Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Verses for My Son” (1932). The Soviets leveled Tsvetaeva’s dacha to the ground long ago. The place is now the outdoor dance floor of that very B&B where the pond is stocked with fish and guests are treated so unkindly. Across from the hospital is the Tsvetaeva Museum, where the only personal item on display is a mirror in which she might have examined her reflection. The young woman who works there ends her tour by reciting, in a high voice, “To My Poems” and announcing that their turn has finally come.55In Vladimir Nabokov’s translation, the final four lines of Tsvetaeva’s “To My Poems” (1913) read: “Amidst the dust of bookshops, wide dispersed / And never purchased there by anyone, / Yet similar to precious wines, my verse / Can wait: its turn shall come.” There aren’t that many real fanatics around, but here’s one: his father was purged and executed in 1938, and he himself was put away for protesting against the Soviet invasion of Hungary two decades later (Khrushchev released him soon after—and he hates Khrushchev). Now he’s in his early eighties, same age as mother would have been; he knew her English teacher, Margarita Yakovlevna Rabinovich—“they sent her to the camps too”—and that’s how the conversation started. He teaches philosophy, theology, and social studies at a technical institute in Moscow, and here, in the Cardiology Lab, preaches Stalinism. What about his father? “Sure, there were excesses… But Churchill himself praised our leader…” Even Stalinists value international success. The professor isn’t risking anything. Calm, sober K., an engineer from the Moscow region, is a different case. K. needs anticoagulants, to prevent thrombosis. It’s a high-risk matter. He has two options—one cheap, the other expensive, and neither is right for him; the cheap one requires frequent tests, which his local clinic cannot provide, while the expensive one costs nearly four thousand rubles a month, which he doesn’t have. “We used to earn good money, but things have changed since the crisis. Have to pay for Crimea.” The right attitude, it seems. “So, are we prepared to pay?” “Sure we’re prepared,” K. replies unexpectedly. “And what about those who aren’t?” K. shrugs: “They can lay down and die.” He’ll be the first to do so, of course—but “Merde! The Guard dies but does not surrender!”66Words attributed to Pierre Cambronne (1770-1842), a general who played an important role in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. So be it. There’s no hope for recovery in either case: both the professor and K. are grown men, established in their fields—both have read The Gulag Archipelago, both know about the mass executions at the Butovo Firing Range, the camp at Solovki, the Katyn massacre, yet they prefer military might, the space program, and Soviet hockey. Not everyone, however, can maintain such ideological purity. “Nina Ivanovna, you lived in Moscow, yes? What sort of work did you do?” “Oh, I had the best job in the world—polisher at the First Moscow Watch Factory. You walk into the workshop…” Nina Ivanovna closes her eyes. “Oh, I still dream of that smell—there’s just nothing like it.” “So why did you leave?” “They started delaying our paychecks, so I left. What the heck do I need to swallow all that dust for?” “Of all the warders, doctors are the best,” mother’s old classmate, Victor Brailovsky, used to say after serving a term as a “prisoner of Zion” in the early ’80s.77Victor Brailovsky (b. 1935) was a Soviet-born Jewish computer scientist and mathematician who became a “refusenik” in the early 1970s, and served as a “prisoner of Zion” for his activism between 1981 and 1984, before being allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1987. A dubious compliment, but well earned. Russian healthcare, like its Soviet predecessor, is part of the system of oppression—release from the hospital denied, return to work prohibited, banned from giving birth, operation refused: “Condition serious, temperature normal, visiting hours from six to eight.” No transfer to another hospital: “Won't survive the journey—don’t ask why.” Can’t do this, can’t do that: no coffee, no flights, no stress, no sleeping on one’s left side, no driving, no heavy lifting, no setting foot in the wing without shoe covers. “What did you expect? You spend all day in front of the computer, you’re over sixty (or a hundred)—it’s too late for a doctor’s help. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Like they used to say in the old days, if you don’t commit any crimes, you won’t wind up in the camps.” There are all sorts of regulations, standards, plans. But medical professionals are also capable of sympathy. A senior doctor once gave some excellent advice to a young violinist who was having trouble with her back: “Just hold the violin in your other hand.” They can also tie someone up in a bureaucratic nightmare and then sigh, “That’s the sort of country we live in.” The idea that you should act in the interests of the patient and not in those of the institution where you work, or of the healthcare system, or for “the greatness, glory, and benefit of the Fatherland,” sounds as revolutionary and paradoxical as the commandment to love your enemies. Sometimes, on the very same day, one sees several patients who have been operated on completely needlessly, without any indications, at some of the country’s finest medical institutions. These patients sense that they’ve been exposed to risk for no reason, that their conditions haven’t improved, but they cannot bring themselves to believe that this is possible, just as people in the ’20s, ’30s, and later decades couldn’t believe that they could be imprisoned and executed without cause, to meet some quota. One patient—an internist from Moscow—has come to get a second opinion: she’s been scheduled for surgery. No other complaints. She has mitral valve prolapse, moderate-to-severe, but there’s no need for an operation yet. She herself doesn’t want to understand what’s wrong with her, doesn’t want any information: doesn’t use e-mail. All attempts to explain the situation (the anterior leaflet is more difficult to repair than the posterior, etc.) are in vain: “I’m just a precinct doctor…” “But there’s a difference between a precinct internist and a precinct policeman.” She just smiles: all she needs to know is that there’s no need for an operation. Now she feels better. She tells a story: everyone at her clinic in Moscow plans to attend a state-sanctioned protest against healthcare optimization—that is, against doctors losing their jobs—but she isn’t sure whether it’s worth showing up. There was a rumor that all the doctors at her clinic would be sacked on Friday, at a big meeting. Well, that’s reason enough for a protest. But then the bosses postponed the meeting, so no one’s been fired. And maybe they won’t fire anyone at all—so why protest? And what if the bosses get wind of it? What if they see it on TV? “But isn’t that the whole point of protesting—for the bosses to get wind of it?” She sighs: “Easy for you to talk.” A good friend, a painter who also lives in N., tells another story. Once, back in Paris, he had to paint a nude for an exhibition and needed a slender female model. So he went down to the infamous Place Pigalle and found a prostitute—a very slender woman, just the right body type. Back at his studio, he told her to undress and prepared the canvas. To his surprise, she refused to pose, and even took offense: “I’m a prostitute, not a model.” There’s an Italian version of the same story: “Signora, I am a thief, not a postman,” a bandit replies when asked to return the documents in the purse he snatched. That’s European-style professional self-respect for you—a stark contrast to our benighted physicians, who don’t know how to use email and round out their salaries by selling vegetables at the market. “Perfectly natural,” as Epikhodov says in The Cherry Orchard. “Abroad everything is in full complexity.” Asking acquaintances and strangers for donations, consulting textbooks, seeking the advice of colleagues in the hospital, in Moscow, in the US—here one can do what one feels is right. There are, however, illnesses that simply can’t be cured in N.—both by law and because we lack the equipment and specialists; patients have to be sent to Moscow or, worst case scenario, to Region. One such illness is cancer, of any kind. The backwardness of our healthcare system is nowhere more evident than in the realm of oncology: “Yes, you’ve got a tumor”—though sometimes they don’t even come out and say that, and instead use “disease”—“but we have a queue of people in your condition, and besides, your EKG’s bad. Go home, get your heart in order, and come back in four months.” Of course, by that point it’s the last stage: “treatment at the place of residence.” Why should one pity the “doomed” (as the people in the Baltic states viewed the Jews during the war)? Why get all worked up? God forbid—that might lead to “professional burnout.” The ill aren’t pushed off cliffs or shot, they’re just denied treatment. And the people are used to it: some things are important—the Olympic games, Crimea—while old biddies, and sick ones at that, don’t matter a whit. Still, we aren’t animals, we build “hospices”: a fashionable word, and a fashionable institution—the authorities like it very much. (In point of fact, hospices are designed to prevent excess care—to make sure, say, that old men with advanced dementia don’t receive valve replacements; but in our case, even perfectly lucid men and women over seventy can’t hope for that kind of surgery.) An Avar man named Ahmad offered an example of true courage. His story, which ended well, made the rounds of the hospital. Ahmad lives deep in the provinces, far from the town of N., and works as a locksmith. Never mind Europe or America—he’s never even been to Moscow. A few years ago he began to lose weight and developed some strange pains. He went to the clinic, where they discovered a tumor. Next stop, cancer ward: complicated treatment, examination of the heart and lungs, lots of paperwork and referrals. He went to a famous clinic in Moscow, also to no avail. It wasn’t yet time for a hospice (the popular term is “croaker”), but Ahmad realized he had months, not years, so he began to contact his family. It turned out he had a second cousin in Belgium, who told him about that country’s excellent healthcare system. Now Ahmad had a goal: to get to Belgium. He spent all his savings (two thousand euros) on a bribe for a Schengen visa; the visa didn’t come through, but he got his money back. Then he bade farewell to his family and took the bus to Brest in Belarus. From there he crossed the border into Poland (there’s a well-established method) and hitchhiked through that country and Germany (where the healthcare is no worse than in Belgium, but his second cousin never mentioned this). Though he didn’t speak a single word of any foreign language, he somehow reached Belgium, where he surrendered himself to the authorities and asked for asylum, never mentioning his illness. Ahmad was sent to a camp for displaced persons. No armed guards in watchtowers, no dogs, no barbed wire—just a room for four in a hostel in the center of Brussels. The food was good, and they even gave him money. It takes a few months to be granted (or not granted) refugee status—time Ahmad didn’t have—but he never asked to see a doctor, he just waited patiently to be summoned. After he underwent surgery (apparently successful) in one of the primary hospitals in Brussels and finished his course of chemotherapy, Ahmad declared that he missed his family and wished to go home. At public expense, through international organizations, Ahmad was flown back from Belgium—accompanied by a doctor, who shared this story. As a parting gift, he received an enormous supply of opiates, for which, hopefully, he’ll have no use. Ahmad shows great dignity without a hint of arrogance. His valor, his desire to live bring to mind Tolstoy’s “Tatar” thistle from Hadji Murat: “But what energy and tenacity!” “Doctor, what is ‘apoplexy’?” “It’s when your arms and legs go numb.” “Well, my wife calls me ‘numbskull’ – does that count?” Understandable: A friendly pair that does everything together—shopping, drinking, giving the cardiologist a headache. The next patient likes the hospital too. He looks around the Major Cardiology Lab: “Marina Tsvetaeva would have liked to rest here.” Also understandable: A member of the intelligentsia come from afar—took a stroll by the river, saw the Stone. Understanding is the main condition of life in the town of N. When people hear the barking of an unfamiliar dog or the honking of a neighbor’s car horn, they look through the window—there shouldn’t be any mysteries. A patient has had a major heart attack, with complications, and required attention all evening. Now, in the morning, he wants to go home. “Must be crazy. We’d better strap him to the bed,” says a nurse. No, his mind is clear, if a bit quirky: “Do you know today’s date?” “The day of the founding of the All-Union Pioneer Organization.” We Google it and, sure enough, he’s right: May 19. How did he get here? “Private transport.” Right. So he drove himself, somehow made it without crashing, and left the car by the entrance. Now he’s afraid something might happen to it. “We could move it for you. Just give us the keys.” “What are you talking about? Your medicines make my liver hurt.” A lie. There’s no persuading him. Oh well, one more patient released to relieve the “stress of confinement” (a marvelous formulation!): everyone has the right to go. It’s early, of course—not even twenty-four hours has passed—and the risk is great, but this isn’t a prison. All the electrodes and catheters are removed. But don’t change the sheets quite yet: he’ll be back before long. And indeed, about twenty minutes later, the phone rings: “I’m dying… the elevator.” He had taken his car back to his garage and returned by taxi. Another man, named Nikolay, has “ABBA” tattooed on his arm. He doesn’t look like a disco fan, or a speaker of Aramaic. It isn’t polite to ask about such things, but curiosity wins out in the end. The tattoo used to read “ALLA,” the name of his first girlfriend. His wife was jealous, so, in the name of love, he suffered a few more pinpricks and had the Ls changed to Bs. Life in and around the hospital flows by as a flickering sequence of faces, characters, and situations. Over twelve thousand patients, including outpatients, have passed through these doors in the past few years—most of them more than once. If one doesn’t write things down, they fade from memory: the burn victims, Volodya the convict, the polisher from the watch factory, the devout warehouse clerk, and K. the engineer (“The Guard dies but does not surrender!”—sure enough, he had a stroke). Even the children of Dzhankoy seem like ancient history, although not even three years have passed since that day. And here’s a patient who last visited in 2009 but is offended that no one recognizes him: “You’re getting old, doc. The name’s Krymtsov, with a ‘y.’” How else can one spell it? Life in N. can be monotonous, but—“ground beneath me, and sky above me”—it’s cozy, warm. Some things are touching, others annoying. The political system, as well as the mood of the citizenry, is disappointing, but one isn’t given the same gift—freedom—twice. Major changes probably won’t come in this lifetime; with Brezhnev one just had to wait—there was an age gap of nearly sixty years. The soul, however, refuses to believe the worst (perhaps it lacks the imagination to do so), and then there’s mother to look after. Besides, it isn’t just Young Communists who keep springing up on their own, but also members of the intelligentsia—young colleagues who overtake you before you know it. It seems everything in N. is as clear as can be. The events below, however, force one to view the town from an unexpected angle. 2. ICD-10-CM Code I72.8: “Aneurysm of other specified arteries.” An absurd formulation, but—one might say under other circumstances—not without its beauty. “The death of one’s mother leads to a mental illness that lasts at least a year,” Archpriest Ilya Shmain, a friend and a teacher, once said. “No matter how ready you think you were, no matter how old you may be.” The doctors did what they could: surgery, multiple blood transfusions. Four days, each filled with activity. The illusion of control fell by the wayside, as did all grudges, even those held from earliest childhood. There were miracles—of the sort only a patient’s closest relatives believe in. Everything seemed to work out, except for the main thing—victory over death; disaster is often accompanied by many minor items of good news. Instructors of creative writing in the US ask their students to write about the death of their parents: thousands of essays each year—thousands of deaths, thousands of writers. Speaking to David Remnick, Jonathan Franzen took a light tone. After receiving the sad news, he finished scrambling some eggs: “I like scrambled eggs.”88“Jonathan Franzen Talks with David Remnick,” 2011 New Yorker Festival. Not especially interesting—everyone remembers Camus: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”99Albert Camus, The Stranger, translated by Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage International, 1988), p. 3. She spent the last years of her life in N., in a newly built house, aided by homecare workers—older women from various former republics of the USSR. Dependence on others is a heavy burden: she was often rude to these women, mean. This was angering to see, but now an explanation suggested itself: the ideal of equality falls apart when you’re lying helpless and the other person is standing upright. It was now also clear why she had kept lapsing into German: her profound confusion about what was happening would transport her to Saxony, where she’d lived between the ages of eleven and thirteen. Her last words: “If you give them”—in response to Father Konstantin’s offer of the sacraments. He had come from Moscow just in time. An hour later she stopped breathing. Then: notification of acquaintances, a requiem mass among loved ones, night, and—wherever you step, whatever you think about—the mystery of it. She had never allowed herself to talk much of death—such talk was unchaste, meant to provoke pity—but there’s no doubt that she wanted to be buried here. Her feelings toward the town were strong and not even entirely clear. However, no other member of the family is buried in N. (great-grandfather requested that his ashes be scattered in the river). There’s no plot in the cemetery. And now it’s morning, a new day, and time to ask the Mayor—a cheerful mustachioed fellow who was appointed after the scandal at the hospital—to allocate a plot. But no, he doesn’t have the power: it would require a resolution of the deputies or some such nonsense, which there isn’t even time to decipher. The middle-aged ladies who actually run the town come up with a solution in fifteen minutes flat. “Just add ‘in the family plot’ to the notice.” The attempt to pay them is in vain. No one asks, “You out of your mind, dear?” (as an old woman once asked father when he tried to pay for the milk she gave him to quench his thirst on a hot day). They simply say: “You’re famous around here.” They would have done the same for any actor, athlete, maybe even gangster. At the exit, an old acquaintance of mother’s—whose Armenian family had fled Baku in ’88 and stayed at her place in Moscow for a long time, and who now heads the local branch of Housing and Communal Services—comes up and asks: “Why didn’t you come to me first?” Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. An oversight. Endless activity—paperwork, arrangements for the wake, negotiations with the Fathers Superior of both churches: it would be good to have the service officiated by Father Konstantin, a close friend (“No, he’s not banned”—the magic phrase that needed to be uttered). The pursuit of practical, everyday solutions in a situation that is anything but everyday. The employees of the funeral home are not possessed of the finest human qualities, and the hospital’s relations with them are complicated (one time, for instance, they mixed up two bodies)—but there’s no choice, no “other club.” Yet this time they behave humanely. Their booklet offers a huge variety of coffins, including imported models. A joke suggests itself—about “love for domestic coffins”—but perhaps it’s better not to joke.1010The reference is to an unfinished poem by Pushkin, from 1830, which begins: “Two feelings feed our hearts, / And these will not be softened — / Love for our native hearths, / Love for ancestral coffins.” It’s painful to know that she has spent two nights in the hands of strangers. And then the service and burial are over. The church showed a great deal of love, both towards her and towards the living. And more people showed up than expected—the crowd wouldn’t have been so large in Moscow. One might say that everything went well. Her old co-workers spoke of her gift for making her presence felt while keeping silent. “A captive spirit”—that’s what her closest, most devoted friend called her (once again, Tsvetaeva came in handy).1111“A Captive Spirit” is the title of Tsvetaeva’s 1934 essay on the poet and novelist Andrei Bely (1880-1934). See Tsvetaeva, A Captive Spirit: Collected Prose, translated and edited by J. Marin King (New York: Abrams Press, 2009). In terms of incidents, Father Konstantin brought a homeless fellow, whom he’d taken in to live with him at the church in Moscow. The fellow hadn’t touched alcohol for a long while, but on the eve of the funeral he went into a state—got drunk and created a scene. What was the Father to do? The man stayed in the car the whole time, locked up, and people would bring him water. A day passed, and another—a big hurry to find someone to fence off the plot. There’s really no reason to hurry, but something needs to be done: the illusion that one can still help, somehow. A new contact in the phone: Alexey Grave. “Grave” isn’t his surname, it’s shorthand for his place of work—an aid to memory. The observation about the locals “drinking less” doesn’t apply to him: he shows up to examine the plot without his tape measure. Such ineptitude, but what’s the use in getting mad? He’ll go fetch it. In the meantime one can look around: the gate is open, no guards, no one selling flowers and wreaths, complete solitude. The crosses and headstones bear familiar names: her new neighbors for eternity. A little ways to the right is Konstantin Paustovsky (1968—the very first funeral, sitting on father’s shoulders, the whole town in attendance), and to the left and down a bit is Eduard Steinberg, a good friend. But there are also certain faces one would rather encounter on a laser-etched headstone than in a dark alley. Many abandoned graves: an overturned stone—nineteenth-century, the inscription worn away, and very soft, from the local quarry (easy to pick up again); and there, behind a downed fence, a picturesque cluster of half-rotted painted crosses—blue, gray, and brown (they should stay exactly where they are). Here and there pitiful plastic flowers have been stuck in the ground: an attempt to maintain appearances with minimal resources. There are too many trees blocking the sun. Grass will have to be planted—later, of course, in May or June: is there a variety that thrives in the shade? These are entirely new concerns. Well, here comes Alexey. He’ll need help with the measurements. Why do people come to cemeteries? Is the connection to the beloved dead actually stronger here than elsewhere? Difficult to say. And why even ask? People have always come, and they’ll continue to do so. The old cemetery of the town of N. is completely quiet. This isn’t just the absence of sound—rather, as sometimes happens in libraries or empty concert halls, the space is actually filled with silence. The following Monday, a nurse brings a pack of banknotes to the Major Cardiology Lab: here, people pitched in for you. “Thank you, but…” Feelings of gratitude, awkwardness—but chiefly surprise: donations? What are we, the children of Dzhankoy? The nurse looks as perplexed as she had in the case of the zodiac signs: “The children of Dzhankoy? What’s that?” The pack is made up of hundred- and thousand-ruble notes—about sixteen thousand in total. That’s no symbolic gesture: together with the state’s allowance for burial expenses (just under 5,570 rubles), it’s more than enough to cover a modest funeral in the town of N. As to the children of Dzhankoy—who knew one might someday wind up in their shoes? The old cemetery soon takes its place in the large home that the town of N. has become: together with the hospital, the houses of old friends, the Italian mosaicist’s studio, the forests, ravines, and expanses, “the sleeping boy,” and the footpath along the riverbank, beside which a few tethered punts lie upside down. The boats awaken recollections: there was a time, over forty years ago, when one would hide under these punts, having said or done something wrong, and discuss one’s actions with grown-ups—it was a sort of confessional, like the Catholics have. Beneath the punts it was dark and cool, and smelled like a damp basement. Mother and father would sit nearby on the grass: she’d usually keep quiet, and might even be dozing, while he’d be talking heatedly. Much has changed since then, but the punts are the same, and N. too: a town and a home. Time to deal with her things. Everything unique—letters, old photographs, tape recordings, diaries—must be kept. All medical and household items, all the stuff just lying around, must be given or thrown away. Photographs of the last three or four years present the greatest difficulty. Life during these years demanded enormous effort; it was tied up in endless attempts to slow the downward slide. The photographs can’t be destroyed, but it’s painful to look at them. And here is a giant folder devoted to a legal case (unsuccessful) against the authorities of N. back in ’73; it takes nearly all Sunday to sort through it. There are complaints, regulations, decisions to initiate legal proceedings and then to halt them, telegrams, notifications, inventories, open letters to the newspaper October. The maneuvers of the old regime look perfectly contemporary: opening the house and letting the neighbors ransack it, along with garden; allocating a new plot of land on Resurrection Hill, ordering that every piece of the house be moved there, at public expense, and then, one day, bulldozing it down to the ground, having cancelled their initial decree after declaring it illegal. The only difference was they never told you to sue them—back then you couldn’t take the authorities to court. An inventory of 1 Pushkin Street. Among the witnesses is the local music teacher, and the first item is “a beat-up grand, needs tuning.” Every object is paired with a derogatory epithet: the bucket is “rusty,” the cabinets are “homemade,” and the quilt is “plain.” The personality of the Chairman of the Regional Executive Committee—whose mannerisms great-grandfather described as those of an old-school provincial tragedian—also seems perfectly familiar. This was his “benefit” night, and the chairman performed with the ease of a virtuoso; they say he really hated summer people. Ever since then the lot on Pushkin Street has been occupied by something far worse, far more terrifying than emptiness: a hulking mass of gray brick—the House of Children’s Creativity—which was boarded up long ago. Great-grandfather’s diaries feature a brief reflection on having to treat one of the town’s authorities: “Tonight I washed up very thoroughly in front of the burning fireplace. The radio was playing The Magic Flute. Earlier in the day I had to visit a critically ill patient, a member of the Regional Committee, and after encountering his disease and his unkempt home, I was all the more grateful for my own comfort and health—a blessing from God,” writes a disenfranchised man in his sixty-fifth year. Meanwhile, the Chairman’s fate did indeed prove tragic: he got drunk, drove his Volga into a tree, smashed his chest against the steering wheel and died at the scene. The documents that follow are much more rousing. “The Restoration of Historical Justice,” nothing less. One’s own handwriting is easy to recognize. The ’90s—the gift of freedom (“How mightily beat the Russian heart at the word Fatherland!”).1212A line from Pushkin’s short story “The Blizzard.” See Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction, translated by Paul Debreczeny (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983), p. 83. The beginning of an interesting life: a meeting with the hospital’s Chief of Staff, almost by chance. He had referred a patient to the institute in Moscow; her condition improved, and then he himself came to visit. He shared his memories of great-grandfather, who had once lent him a marvelous scythe. The Chief of Staff had held on to this scythe all those years, waiting for the heirs to show up—bit by bit, circumstances improve. Spring of ’93: the allocation of a plot of land of such-and-such a size within the town limits—here’s the decree. Construction did not move quickly. Visits were brief, in the warmer months, and only once, in early spring of ’98 or ’99, a sudden escape—together. An awful story—best to keep it short. On a day off, an invitation to a palatial estate in the suburbs: marble, glass, ceramic tiles. Mother's classmates, who’d immigrated to the States, had asked her to send them something through their children or grandchildren. A predatory glance: “Ah, you’re a doctor! Why don’t you stay for lunch?” Between courses of hors d’oeuvres, the woman explains: just imagine, four babies died in her uterus, until she finally found a surrogate mother—a red-blooded Ukrainian girl, strong as an ox. The girl gave birth to their Vitalik—there he is, a big boy already, sitting at the table. But then (the women’s eyes sparkle again), when she and her husband wanted to have another child, using the same surrogate (an unexpected note of joy), the fetus upped and died in the girl’s belly! Smoking isn’t allowed in the house, so there’s a break—shoes, coat, outside. Together, without saying a word, it’s in the car and onto the ring road (it wasn’t yet called MKAD)—music on the radio, singing, chatting. A missed turn onto Lenin Avenue—and so, might as well: off to the town of N. After all, these days, it’s only an hour-and-a-half drive, not a twelve-hour journey. Cold air nips at the face—and it’s even worse in the unheated house than out on the street. But there’s the fireplace, the “beat-up piano" (both survived from the old house), vodka, smoked sausage (“You’re just like you father!”). Time to warm up, both inside and out, and to recall yet another escape, which took place long, long ago. Moscow Secondary School No. 31, fifth grade. The schoolmarm in charge of the class (neither her name nor her face have stuck—a complete fool: crossed out the word “inclement” in an essay because she’d never seen it before) doesn’t let students leave early even if they bring a note from their parents. Mother pays her a visit: “You go get dressed.” It’s winter: boots, a coat, slippers back in their bag, and out onto the dark street (classes only started at 2 p.m.). Mother: “Hurry, hurry, go!” A classmate comes running in his slippers, catches up, grabs a hand: “Wait! Lyudmila Olegovna (or was it Larisa Valeryevna?) says you can’t leave!” Can’t fight at all—and yet, somehow, the classmate goes down in the snow, face first. Now run, run, and never return to School No. 31 again. July and August were cold and rainy, but they gave way to a nice autumn, warm and dry. Time to wrap up admissions and go down there—to rake the yellowish leaves off the grass (had to be sown several times, but grew in eventually, despite the shade), to sit a while on the bench hammered together by the same Alexey, to read. “We must leave on one side the beliefs which fill up voids and sweeten what is bitter. The belief in immortality. The belief in the utility of sin: etiam peccata. The belief in the providential ordering of events—in short the ‘consolations’ which are ordinarily sought in religion,” writes Simone Weil.1313Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr (London and New York: Routledge, 2004). A step too far, isn’t it? In any case, there’s really no desire to contemplate such things—all interest in human wisdom has evaporated. “The best way to see this town is from the belly of a bomber,” wrote Brodsky. But that was about Moscow.1414Lines from Joseph Brodsky’s long poem “A Performance” (1986). (The capital took its revenge on him, by means of an opulent monument: hands thrust rakishly into his trouser pockets, Italian shoes on his feet, face turned up to the sun as if he were blind.) The best way to see N., though, is from the ground—or, better yet, from beneath it. And here time doesn’t flow as it should, according to classical physics—it’s as if someone had raised it to the power of minus one. Viewed from this perspective, life tends not towards depletion, towards zero, but, on the contrary, towards repletion, fullness. Recent events slide onto one another, get lumped together, and what happened in fact gets mixed up with what never occurred—meanwhile, things from the distant past (an escape from school, a confessional punt on the riverbank, the linden on Pushkin Street) come to seem infinitely closer, infinitely more joyful than they had seemed all those years ago. Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution and Ten Poems from Russia, and translator of Isaac Babel, Maxim Osipov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors. His poems have appeared in The New Criterion, The Yale Review, First Things, Jewish Quarterly, and elsewhere.
The author of Detransition, Baby on a trans worldview, resisting investing in illusions, and novellas-as-conversation.
I don’t really recall when I first heard about Torrey Peters and her work. Her novella Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones hit the internet around the time I began transitioning. The first year or so of trying to live in the world as a trans person is incredibly annoying, and one of the ways of coping with that is to talk shit with other trans people. After extended grumblings about the myriad ways in which cisgender people had been obnoxious in recent memory, some trans girl would slyly reference Peters’s novella, hoping that the others would respond with blank faces. Some girls really loved to be the one to introduce you to the book. Okay, so basically it’s this post-apocalyptic book about a trans girl who gets revenge by turning everyone on earth trans ... yeah it’s super wild, you have to read it, I’ll send you my PDF. The provocativeness of such a premise was exhilarating—but it wasn’t the idea of the story that excited us so much as the act of writing and publishing it. What gave Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones, along with Peters’ other novellas Glamour Boutique and The Masker, such cult-like status among trans people was the way they didn’t care to make concessions to cisgender society. These were stories that were developed and circulated without any interest in pandering. They had no interest in proving the inherent respectability or naturalness of trans women. They were simply fun—smart, snarky, filthy, occasionally deranged fun. With Detransition, Baby (One World), the Brooklyn-based trans woman steps into mainstream publishing. If fans are worried that this larger platform might mean a more constrained speaker, the premise of the story should put their anxieties at bay. The novel flits between the interlinked lives of three young Brooklynites: Reese, a trans woman longing for motherhood in between destructive relationships with scuzzy guys; Ames, Reese’s former girlfriend who detransitioned to live as a man; and Katrina, who finds herself in a really weird situation after becoming pregnant with Ames’s child. Witty, exhilarating, and terribly smart, Detransition, Baby is the idea of the “trans novel” turned on its head. I had the opportunity to speak with Torrey Peters over the phone about her new book, the cultural place of trans literature, writing on Adderall, and taboos. Nour Abi-Nakhoul: The first thing I wanna ask you is: what are you doing to get through the pandemic? Torrey Peters: My girlfriend and I found this old, one-room, off-the-grid log cabin in Vermont. It has no water, no power, and no septic. It was some kind of hunter’s shelter that had been abandoned for about 12 years. Our COVID project has been basically making it habitable as a kind of glamping site. So, we've been going up to Vermont a lot and just being in the woods, disconnecting from the internet and stuff. And honestly, if you're in the woods with no power or water, and just an outhouse, it feels like things are the same whether there’s a pandemic or not. You're just thinking about making a fire in the stove and how you’re going to cook your food, which has been a pretty good escape. Detransition, Baby is such a city-bound novel, it’s interesting that as you finished it you decided to retreat into the rural. I think for years a lot of trans people I know had an urban lifestyle, because you had to be in the city to get your hormones and your community and all that. As people are able to get hormones and find community in other ways, I feel like a lot of my friends are moving to more rural places, that they're able to find sustainable ways of living. I wonder if the pandemic accelerated something that was already happening with trans people. Do you have any plans of writing a more rural-bound novel? My novella Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones was a post-apocalyptic story, and I had thought about expanding it into a full-length novel. Being in Vermont made me think about what it would be like to be trans in a post-apocalyptic world, to be trying to make a fire and trying to make it. It seems like you incorporated your novella Glamour Boutique into Detransition, Baby. Do you have plans to go back to other past works and build them into bigger stories? There was a time where I had envisioned making Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones into a cycle. I wrote it in 2016. It was about T4T [trans for trans relationships] and conflict within trans communities, and also how trans people can save each other. After I wrote it, I felt like I had a lot more to say about those topics. It’s a bit of a narrow view of trans women. Both trans women are white, and both come from a similar sort of scene. I had thought about including other people from a broader spectrum of the trans experience in a longer form and including the people who are adjacent to trans people, like the men who hang around trans women. How all these people end up creating a social world that has a lot of divisions within it. That’s the world in which I travel, and in which most of my friends travel. And what about with Detransition, Baby—can you guide me through how the story came into being? I had initially started writing novellas as a project with other trans women in Brooklyn. At the time, Topside Press was publishing a lot of trans women’s writing. But it was the only game in town and not everyone could get published on it, so it ended up feeling pretty contentious. I was like, what if we all just self-published our own work? The novella was an appealing length, because I was thinking that a lot of trans women live in pretty precarious situations—the amount of work and money it takes to write a full-length novel seemed like too much. With the novella, everyone could write one every three or four months. And it could be a conversation where we’re all trading them with each other. I bought a subscription to Adobe Suite and said anyone who wanted to use it could. I bought a subscription to Lynda, which has instructions on how to use InDesign and stuff. I was hoping that there would be a big flourishing of trans women’s novellas. That didn’t really happen. At the time I was hoping other people would emulate these novellas, and I was planning to have a cycle where I would do novellas about trans issues in different genres. Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones was post-apocalyptic, The Masker was horror, and I started Detransition, Baby thinking it was going to be a novella in a melodrama soap opera style. But the thing about soap operas is that they’re really long! So, it kept getting longer and longer. I had a breakup that was a real heartbreak for me while I was working on the book. And I thought, I had the skills to publish whatever I want without waiting for anybody. So, I took a chapter that was a little different than the rest of the tone of the novel and published it as a standalone. That became the novella Glamour Boutique, which I made available for a couple years. Then I thought I would actually rather people read that story in the context of the full novel. Why make the switch into mainstream publishing? I think that the time that we're living in is different. In 2013/2014 when Topside was happening, you couldn’t get the time of day from the publishing industry. They didn't care to hear the way that trans people talk about ourselves to each other; they wanted to hear a trans 101 for cis people. I think that to some extent that’s still true, and there’s been a bit of a regression in the last year or two. But in 2018, which is when I started shopping the book around, it felt disingenuous for me to say that the publishing industry doesn't do anything for trans people. When I looked around, there were editors at Condé Nast publications who were trans, there were reporters at Vice Magazine who were trans, Pose was winning Emmys. There had been so much trans media that included trans voices, that for me to stick to a viewpoint that this industry doesn't include us didn't feel like it was reflective of the situation. So, I thought maybe I could get some of the things that I think into mainstream publishing. Same as with other marginalized literature, the literature is a lot better when you’re speaking within the group and everybody else can keep up. Reading Detransition, Baby, a lot of the time I was struck by how it was an intimately trans novel. How did you balance that with the reality that a lot of cis people will inevitably be reading it? When I think of my audience I think of trans people first. The guiding star for me was Toni Morrison, who said she writes explicitly for Black women, and everyone else can keep up. That looked to me like a model for how you do this. I want to write about real pain. I want to write about what’s really funny; my experience is that if you do it, everybody else does want to keep up. People read literature for a good story, and if you’re slowing down your story by having it be 50 percent explanation and 50 percent story, that’s just not as good a story. That said, I explicitly dedicated the book to divorced cis women. As I was writing it, I was reading a bunch of work by divorced cis women as a metaphor for transition. I was looking for ways to think about a life with a major change in the middle of it, and I found those models in the writing of divorced cis women. They have to start their lives over, change their names, not get bitter or reinvest in illusions. So, there are a whole bunch of people I’m addressing with this book, including cis divorced women. It’s not an identity address, but more of an affinity address. Detransitioning is a bit of a taboo subject. Why write about it? There are two reasons: one is that I feel that the detransition narrative has been taken from us by anti-trans people. They don't own it, and I don't want to cede it to them. It’s not their story, so they shouldn't get to tell that story and they shouldn’t get to tell what it means. I haven’t personally detransitioned, but it’s always looming as a possibility. There have been times in my life where it’s been really hard to be a trans woman and I’ve flirted with detransitioning. It’s my story and I don't agree that anybody else can make that story taboo. The second thing is: I think transition narratives have become overdetermined. People expect a certain sort of arc when they read a transition story. The detransition story actually does a lot of the same work as a transition story, it just feels unfamiliar to people, so they read it with fresh eyes. By making Ames detransitioned and living in a state of dissociation, I could talk about the place of people who aren’t presenting as women without it being a story that people brought a lot of preconceptions to. I know a lot of people who live as male and have never transitioned but who identify as trans women. If I talked about them as closeted and too afraid to transition, that story is so overdetermined that no one’s going to pay attention to the character. They’re going to think they already know what’s best for that character. What was your writing routine like while working on Detransition, Baby? It changed about halfway through. For the first half of it, I would work different jobs to cobble together five or six days when I’d have nothing to do. Then I would just take Adderall and try to write as much as I could. Halfway through the book I thought it wasn’t sustainable. It was too pressurized. I quit taking Adderall and I started meditating. I get embarrassed when I tell this to people, but I would meditate for like 20 minutes and try to write for an hour or two. I can see a difference in my prose between the two. When I was doing the pressurized version of it, I would get to this deep place, but it wasn’t funny or loose; it was so tight and urgent. After switching to the other way of writing, I think I got looser, a little funnier; things got a little less desperate or intense. What are some things that you've read lately that have been exciting to you? One trans book I’m really excited about is called Lote by Shola von Reinhold, a Scottish-Nigerian writer. The book is about uncovering the figure of the Black queer dandy in the ’20s. There’s this really serious project behind the book, but there’s such an incredibly dazzling rage within it. It's so funny, and it’s written in a dandy, decadent style that’s just lovely. Another is Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through by T. Clutch Fleischmann. Clutch is a friend of mine so I’m a little biased, but I think that everyone should read this book. I talk a lot about Imogen Binnie’s Nevada as being formative for me in what can be talked about in trans women’s writing. Clutch writes from a non-binary perspective, and I think this book should be equally formative for people. And then there’s a book coming out called Darryl by Jackie Ess. I would say it’s a trans book, even though there aren’t any explicitly trans characters in the book. Jackie Ess is a trans woman, and she’s written a character who’s a white cuckold guy in Portland. She talks about the journey of sexual awakening of this cuckold. I think of Jackie’s writing from a place where a trans worldview has left the boundaries of only being for trans people. Now it can be applied to other stories and used to understand things about gender that wouldn’t otherwise be visible. Can you expand a bit more on what you mean by a trans worldview? I'll go back to Imogen Binnie; Imogen was quoting [feminist writer] Joanna Russ, talking about how marginalized literature goes through different stages. The first stage is sort of like looking for acceptance from a mainstream so far, like, we're just like you, you should accept us. That would be a novel like Jan Morris’s Conundrum, like in the ‘70s, just kind of like, we’re just women, just like everybody else. The second stage is, we’re nothing like you, die cis scum, but still really defined by the cis gaze. And then you have the third level, which is maybe the T4T level, we don't have anything to do with you, your gaze does not define how we interact. But I think that there's a fourth level, which is when the terms that are set by trans people begin to impact the viewpoint of the mainstream. We saw this with queer thought, where suddenly straight people could only understand themselves through heterosexuality. When you hear straight people talk about their sexuality, they're largely using a worldview that was defined by queer people. I think that something similar is happening with gender. You have books like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is about a pregnancy that you couldn’t really call a trans pregnancy. But Nelson understood her pregnancy through trans terms. I hope that Detransition, Baby is also at this fourth level where trans thought is applicable to things beyond trans bodies.
The author of Let the Lord Sort Them on the death penalty, Texas mythology, and retribution as organizing principle.
Maurice Chammah’s debut book is a heart-rending history of capital punishment in America. Centred around Texas, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty (Crown) throws light on the Walls Unit in Huntsville, the site of the state's execution chamber. Texas has led the way in the use of lethal injection; since 1982, 570 people have been put to death by the state. Chammah, an Austin-based journalist and a staff writer at The Marshall Project, tracks this macabre legacy by profiling individuals sentenced to death as well as the lawyers who represent them. He also looks at the lawmakers and politicians who sanctioned the rise of draconian sentencing through legislation. A compassionate and fastidious storyteller, Chammah questions the prioritization of retribution over redemption and confronts the inherent violence of the American criminal justice system. During the Trump administration's final days, as a blitz of federal executions were carried out, I spoke with Chammah about his new book and the future of capital punishment in America. Andru Okun: I’d like to hear about your connection to Huntsville, Texas. When did you first become interested in the penitentiary there? Maurice Chammah: The genesis of Let the Lord Sort Them and my general interest in the death penalty goes back to 2010. After I graduated college, my first job was with a small non-profit [Texas After Violence Project] that was collecting oral histories related to the death penalty. I remember driving with a colleague to Huntsville on the day of an execution and standing outside, watching the guards put out yellow caution tape around the prison and seeing a small group of anti-death penalty protestors. At the time, I had been thinking about the death penalty in very abstract terms, but then it hit me that this was the place. Behind the prison wall, they were actually carrying this out. Over the next five or six years, I’d go back to Huntsville pretty often, usually for some kind of reporting related to the prison system. I got to know the town. Many people that live there work in the prison system, but the death penalty and executions are really an afterthought and they don’t consume a ton of bandwidth among the residents. Blocks from the prison there’s a little diner that’s very famous called the Cafe Texan. In my research for this book, I discovered there’s this almost ritualistic article where a reporter goes to the Cafe Texan and learns that no one in the cafe has any idea that an execution is happening a few blocks away. There’s drama in that, and I feel like it’s symbolic of the larger picture. Capital punishment has been going on for so long and occasionally it hits the news cycle and we pay attention to it, but it can also recede in awareness, even a few blocks from the place where it’s happening. If you know about prisons, Huntsville is a famous town, but to everyone else it’s just another small town in East Texas. You write that Americans have always viewed capital punishment with a degree of ambivalence. What do you mean by that? At a big symbolic level, the death penalty is the way we say as a society that some people are irredeemable. It represents the turn towards punitiveness that the criminal justice system took over the last forty or fifty years. We’ve only executed a small number of people in the grand scheme of mass incarceration, but the fact that we have the death penalty has made it more acceptable to send people to prison for the rest of their lives. As individuals, we have impulses towards both punishment and mercy. Defense lawyers like to say that none of us would want to have our lives be shaped by the worst decision we ever made. We’ve all made decisions that we regret, and we feel lucky that we weren’t held fully accountable. Our ambivalence shapes the way we view capital punishment, and it also shapes the way we view mass incarceration more broadly. We want to throw people away for the rest of their lives, but we also have a real curiosity about the people we choose to lock up, wanting to know who they are and how they ended up there. There’s a whole genre of true crime that both gawks at the terrible things people have done while also expressing a curiosity about the psychology behind the acts. Part of that is driven by wanting to understand if evil exists and what it looks like if it does. In our better moments, I think we’re motivated to see around the corner of that evil. We’re all human, and we’re all capable of terrible things. In the effort to understand the psychology of people we deem “the worst of the worst,” we’re also trying to understand if there’s a human we can feel merciful towards, because we also want to feel merciful towards ourselves. How do you think America’s history of lynching is connected to capital punishment? Over the course of American history—having enslaved an entire group of people and then built an elaborate architecture of inequality based on skin colour—we often use race to close off the mental doors to mercy. In the era of Jim Crow, there was a rash of lynchings across the South. One of the points I make in the book is that it happened in Texas as much as any other Deep South state. Texas has had a cultural mythology that has allowed it to escape an association with the Old South. I think that has been detrimental to our state’s culture—it’s meant that we’ve gotten a pass on having to reckon with these things. Lynchings are the most violent and extreme example of the way that Black people and other minorities were treated as less human than white people. As you get into the contemporary era of the criminal justice system and the death penalty, it’s not quite as stark. There isn’t an overt idea that these Black men are monsters and evil, that they need to be held in bondage and fear. In the death penalty cases throughout the ’80s and ’90s, you can see in the trial transcripts that that kind of racism is more subtle. It’s the language of, “They are taking over the streets.” During the Central Park Five case, prosecutors, politicians, and Donald Trump were raising the specter of gangs of young minority men, rampaging around and beating, raping, and killing primarily white women. That was the dominant story, and it flows very naturally from our country’s older, more explicit racism. How would you say this more veiled form of racism informed our ideas around evil and retribution? Evil is not always used for Black and Latino defendants; there’s also a cultural myth around the white, evil serial killer. But a big part of what was fascinating about this research is that death penalty cases are so rich with symbolism. They’re high-stakes battles of life and death, so in the trial transcripts there are evocations of deep strains of American culture. In many cases, Christianity creates the atmosphere for people to be called evil. Evil is a term that Americans are pretty ambivalent about. There’s plenty of Americans that have a deep, theological commitment to the idea that there is evil in the world, but it’s a little harder when you get to the idea of people being evil. Can a person be evil? Or is it just their actions that are evil? There’s a lot of tension in these questions. In a lot of American churches, generally the concept is, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” People can do evil things, but no person is evil. At the same time, in these death penalty trial transcripts, there are descriptions of people as evil. I think many people are ambivalent about whether a person can actually be evil, because it’s a hard thing to admit. Our impulse to empathize with fellow humans is pretty strong, but there are times where a wall is put down between us and another human—racism or a word like evil can be that wall. And sometimes a word like evil along with racism can form a really strong wall between us and a fellow human. Defense lawyers have developed the ability to get people to see around that wall, to get the kinds of people on juries who are willing to do the mental labor to empathize with people, no matter how bad their actions were or what their race may be. I want to return to Texas mythology. You commented earlier on how the state’s failure to acknowledge its history makes it difficult for reconciliation to happen. If that reckoning with the past had happened, do you think Texas’s relationship to capital punishment would be different? It’s hard to prove a counterfactual. What I came to see is that Texas’s intensive embrace of the death penalty was overdetermined. There were all of these forces—legal, political, cultural—that conspired together to perform an outsized role, and at a certain point the effect became exponential and fed on itself. The more comfortable a prison system is with carrying out executions, the more executions that prison system ends up carrying out. One scholar [Brandon Garrett] has compared this to muscle memory. I don’t think that you can prove that if Texas addressed its obsession with Wild West culture that it would totally undo the death penalty. That said, the era in which the death penalty has declined coincides with Texas starting to lose that Wild West mythology. Certainly, plenty of Texans still like to think of themselves as cowboys living on the frontier—there’s a real element of that in Texas culture. But at this point, most people that live in Texas live in big cities. There’s a new vision of Texas that is much more cosmopolitan and urban, that is interested in empathizing across racial, cultural, and gender lines. I think that’s at least part of the decline in the death penalty. It’s a less saliently political thing; legislators and district attorneys don’t campaign on it as strongly. We’ve had a whole run of more progressive district attorneys get elected in major cities on platforms to use the death penalty less often. The fact that people voted them in says something about where Texas is going and how far it has come. I recently heard one district attorney admit that it’s hard to even find twelve jurors that can say they would give someone the death sentence. There’s still plenty of Texans that support the death penalty—well over fifty percent, even. But it’s a little harder, year-by-year, to get twelve of them in a room to say they’re all comfortable with sentencing someone to death. In 1982, Charlie Brooks became the first person to be put to death by lethal injection. Before this, Texas went nearly twenty years without an execution. But after Brooks, there was a steep rise. Can you explain this shift? The story of the shift actually begins in the 1970s. In ’72, the Supreme Court said that the death penalty violates the constitution and the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. This followed a decade of declining popularity of the death penalty and also really active efforts by civil rights lawyers, specifically the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Throughout the ‘60s, they managed to stop executions. People were comfortable with no executions happening, and it looked like the death penalty would disappear. But once Americans were deprived of the death penalty, people began to speak out in favour of it. I write in the book that this comes as part of a larger backlash to civil rights protections. The death penalty is symbolic. People started pushing their legislators to write new laws. So, in ’73, Texas wrote a new law and in ’76 the Supreme Court looked at the range of laws that legislators have passed throughout the country and they approved some and rejected others. Texas’s law was accepted even though it looked a lot like other laws they rejected for being too harsh. So, Texas snuck in with this law and that’s a big reason why more and more people started to be sentenced to death. After the first lethal injection in ’82, Texas slowly carried out more and more executions, and this is where the muscle memory started to kick in. You write that “by the late 1990s, retribution had become an organizing principle of the American criminal justice system.” Would you say Texas set the precedent? It did. There’s a great book called Texas Tough by Robert Perkinson that talks about the state’s prisons. The idea is that Texas pioneered these very punitive ways of organizing its justice system for people who have been convicted. There’s more solitary confinement, more hard labor in the fields. It’s a really terrible place to do time. I see executions as the pinnacle of that system. If you believe that some people forfeit their rights to be human because of what they’ve done, the death penalty is the ultimate expression of that idea. In a cultural sense, Texas led the way. In a very practical sense, because they figured out how to execute people smoothly, efficiently, and often, other states started to send prison officials to study the Texas model. I appreciate that you took time in your book to describe the living conditions of incarcerated people. What were some of the things that stuck with you when learning about day-to-day life on death row? There have been two death rows in Texas. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was at a prison called the Ellis Unit, which is also in the Huntsville area. It was one of these prisons that really evoked the Old South and the plantations that these prisons replaced. Men would work in the fields and do harsh, punitive farm labor. But the death row prisoners were held in solitary confinement; some were given a little more freedom and the opportunity to work in a factory indoors. I found that the conditions for Texas death row prisoners mirrored the larger story of American incarceration—in the ’80s and ’90s we were increasingly warehousing people, but we were willing to allow people to work in factories or receive art supplies. At the end of the ’90s, as America shifted towards solitary confinement and warehousing people in a stricter sense of the term, Texas changed its death row to a different prison in Livingston called the Polunsky Unit. That’s where death row prisoners in Texas have been for the last twenty years and it is horrible. It is all solitary confinement with people locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Prisoners can barely communicate with other people. One detail that stuck with me is the only human touch a death row prisoner gets is when they stick their hands through the slot in their cell door and the guard places cuffs on them. A lot of men with mental illness became psychotic as a result of these conditions; even men who were relatively healthy when they went in started to have psychological problems. Prisoners see their family less, it’s harder to use the phone, and letters are read by prison authorities. It’s just an awful place to live. Even in that horrible place, you have men who manage to play Dungeons & Dragons with each other. Several death row prisoners corroborated that they managed to doctor their radios into walkie-talkies so they could talk with each other. There’s a culture of connection and encouragement that I found heartening, even in such a dark place where people are struggling with mental illness and depression. Let the Lord Sort Them reports on the fine details of legal proceedings. How familiar were you with the laws around capital punishment before taking on the project? At the oral history non-profit I worked at before becoming a journalist, the director and the founder were both lawyers. The founder, Walter Long, defends people on death row. We would have long conversations where he would explain the complexities of death row cases. At the trial stage, it’s relatively straightforward. The human drama of the system plays out in the complicated gauntlet of appeals. When defense lawyers in the ’90s were sparring with state lawyers over whether or not an execution was going to happen, they argued about very technical details, but there were also a lot of accusations about faith and personal enmity. One lawyer told me he almost got in a fist fight with a prosecutor at a bar in Austin, which may have been a bravado story but seems plausible enough, given how much I’ve heard about how these people hate each other. The Marshall Project is not afraid of complexity, so I got to do a lot of reporting that gave me a familiarity with capital punishment. In writing the book, my editor Emma Berry (who was amazing) encouraged me to introduce the ideas in a way that put the reader in the shoes of a lawyer or a law student, to teach the reader by showing the character learning this material. The implications of the complexity came to life that way. We’re speaking during the last days of Trump’s presidency. What do you make of his push to execute people on his way out of office? And what do you think the future holds in terms of capital punishment in America? One lesson that I continually returned to as I worked on the book was that the death penalty is in decline. The number of factors that would have to come back into play for it to have a true resurgence are so many that it feels unlikely. That said, the executions under Trump—he’ll have carried out roughly a dozen by the time he leaves office—I think we’ll look back on it as the last gasp of capital punishment. It won’t be the last gasp of white supremacy in America or the many other terrible aspects of our society that the Trump presidency has brought to the forefront, but the number of people who are sent to death row every year is dwindling to single-digit numbers, and the number of executions is going down. There will still be debate about the death penalty in rare cases like Dylann Roof or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; there will be one-off acts of atrocity that shock us and make us think that maybe the death penalty has a place in our society. There was a big drop in executions during the coronavirus (with the exception of the federal executions) because they were harder to carry out. The coronavirus, which has killed so many people, has shown us that the death penalty may ultimately be a luxury that we don’t want to afford any more. We like to have the death penalty in theory, but when it comes to putting it into practice, we’re ambivalent about really doing it. There are hundreds of people on death row who will likely never be executed and instead live out their lives. They could have been sentenced to life without parole, but they won’t be because we have this commitment to the idea of the death penalty even if we don’t want to carry it out. It feels like a relic of our earlier selves.
Talking to the author of Fake Accounts about writing for magazines versus writing a novel, leaning too heavily on structural devices in fiction, and books that could use more sentences.
Lauren Oyler, best known for her fanged literary criticism, has written a novel of her own. Fake Accounts (Catapult) opens with a startling discovery on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration: After snooping through her boyfriend’s phone, the protagonist-narrator learns he is an online conspiracy theorist, which gives her the gumption to break up with him. Newly resolved, she leaves New York for Berlin, where they first met. The impulsive one-way ticket is the most decisive we see the protagonist, who arrives in Berlin aimless and feeling vacuous. Capitalizing on being a stranger in a strange land, she goes on a series of dates and in each one assumes a different personality styled after astrological signs, trying them on and discarding them like costumes. That is, until a second revelation arrives. I spoke to Oyler about the challenge of portraying evasive personalities, “fantasies of being found out,” and the class of millennial creatives who belong to the globetrotting “Easy Jet-set.” Connor Goodwin: Is it hard to switch gears between criticism and fiction? Lauren Oyler: I think the more difficult thing is actually writing for magazines and not writing for magazines; they edit a lot harder than if you’re writing a book. When I’m writing for magazines I do feel sort of guided by limitations—what I think the editor will change, the stylistic stuff I can get away with. When writing a book, I had to keep reminding myself I could do anything and no one was going to say, “We can’t do this because our readers aren’t going to respond to that.” Reading this, there were definitely moments where I felt like you were wearing your critic’s hat. The protagonist is very analytical and makes some commentary on contemporary fiction. In particular, there’s one section where you parody the fragmented form, not just in format but down to the sentence-level. What made you target that style and why did you choose to include this particular section, which marks a sharp departure from the rest of the novel? What I like about the novel is that it is a very flexible, capacious form. You’re not limited by truth. You can also put chunks of criticism in there. I was thinking about the obvious—Ben Lerner, Knausgård—but really, many novels will have long tracts stuck in there, and I always really like that. I mostly wrote that section between 2017 and 2018 and, at the time, there were tons of fragmented novels and essay collections; the aphorism was really trendy. While I was writing that section, I understood the appeal of it because it’s really easy to do—you can really get into the mindset of thinking that way. I think there are writers who do it well, but I think it's a default structural thing when writers don’t want to think through the more difficult problems of their stories. Aside from this section, most of the novel is written in chunky paragraphs, ballooned sentences, and really hones in on thought processes with microscopic detail. I’m curious how you settled on that style, and if there isn’t some element of criticism baked into choosing to write the novel in that way? First and foremost, I just like it. I like getting really deep into one idea and parsing out all the implications of various events or feelings. That’s always what I’m drawn to in a text. If I put my contemporary critic hat on, I increasingly notice these books where I’m like, “You could’ve put more sentences in here.” I always want to know more about what the author is talking about, but then they move away. From a practical perspective, I imagine literary fiction editors and agents in particular working with young women authors encourage you to write a 75,000-word book that is compact and digestible with little Instagrammable bytes, which is a bummer. There are lots of great short books—who doesn’t love a short book?—but the short books I love the most also have these long, dense paragraphs where a lot happens. This is a novel where voices are rarely singular. There’s the chorus of ex-boyfriends, the chatter of media Twitter—even the narrator's own neurotic, internal voice is self-negating and frequently reverses opinion mid-sentence. What drew you to write voices at that volume and, because they are so voluminous, was it difficult to keep the voices consistent? There’s an illusion of consensus that is almost paradoxically produced online and [reproduced] whenever we take an idea or news story or an opinion from the internet and start talking about it offline among our friends. I think it’s natural to want to arrive at consensus, particularly when you’re faced with such large, insurmountable, incomprehensible numbers. The world is huge and that’s clearer to us than ever before, because you can see so much at once on the internet, and I think, frankly, the human mind is not capable of understanding the ways that trends and statistics work on a large scale. I wanted to press on that—criticize it, satirize it, but also establish that it’s very real. When [the protagonist] is at the women’s march, for instance, she sees this crowd going on forever and iterating forever. The fact that there’s so many people there in this one, overwhelming mass speaks to the same principle. There's a section where she goes on a roulette of dates and in each one assumes a different personality styled after astrological signs; there's a sense in which this is not only a polyphonic novel but also poly-personality. How does the narrator view the self? Is selfhood always performative, or is there something essential nestled in there? Even though she’s sort of funny and self-deprecating about it, she ultimately wants someone to say, “You’re being really weird and clearly lying.” I think that’s what she wants, particularly when she’s lying to her babysitting client and she’s having these fantasies of being found out. She’s imagining a world where there’s, not to use cheesy, social media corporate language, but fantasizing about having a real connection with someone and someone really seeing her. But they’re not going to [laughs]. She feels, in part, she should have some fun with it. So she’s tormenting these guys, most of whom I hope seem relatively normal, or at least not deserving of this weird performance she’s giving them. I like that you said “fantasies of being found out,” because I felt like a core theme was this quality of elusiveness or evasiveness, which, to my mind, suggests there is something essential to be had about selfhood. And it also introduces this great tension between the protagonist’s analytical demeanor, maybe even the very project of writing itself, and how stubbornly evasive she is with regards to her selfhood, motives, and emotions, which remain mysterious to her and to the reader. And we have that same bundle of mysteries with regards to her ex-boyfriend, Felix. What about this underlying tension interested you? Was it challenging to represent that dynamic on the page? Yes, very challenging. The most challenging thing was to have enough of Felix in there to make him seem really mysterious without giving too much away or not [giving] enough. I think there’s this tendency now to see analysis or criticism as something of a front, like a defense mechanism, and to interpret critique or neurotic intelligence as being fake and not allowing your true feelings to come out. And I think that’s really wrong. You can quite easily analyze your feelings and arrive somewhere else through analysis. How would you describe the emotional journey you charted for the protagonist? I came up with the basic outline of the plot at the beginning, which was quite useful. She snoops through her boyfriend’s phone because she thinks he’s cheating, but it turns out it’s a weirder, more shocking thing, which is that he’s been operating these conspiracy theory accounts. My initial idea was to have a sort of joke-y apocalyptic structure where the reader knows something bad has happened, or is about to happen, at the very beginning, and then you watch how it happens. So the idea was the apocalypse that’s going to take place is that she’s going to dump him, and then her certainty about this apocalypse is thwarted by the fact that he died. I found that idea very funny and the number of emotions one would have in that situation to be very fruitful. From there, there’s quite a lot of stuff to do with that confusing morass of what’s happening—she thought she was going to have to process a depressing event, and now she has to process a totally different depressing event that there’s no precedent for. She goes online looking for personal essays people have written about their boyfriends dying, but they’re all very heartfelt. She also feels like she can’t tell anyone because she’s embarrassed by the conspiracy theory thing and she doesn’t want to seem like she’s heartless. So she feels quite alienated by her friends, even though she is alienating herself by not talking to them. That makes her go to Berlin. I was interested in Berlin for this because I love it, but also because you think it’s going to be totally fine because everyone speaks English, but the fact of being in a new country where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone [makes] you sort of helpless. So she becomes even more alienated and I think that’s what produces this weird project she embarks on. Did setting this in Berlin specifically contribute to these themes of inauthenticity, evasiveness, over-analysis? Absolutely. The protagonist is very proud, obviously, and she has this analytic capacity she uses for evil a lot of the time [laughs]. When she’s in this Berlin setting, she’s constantly tested to do new things. More generally, the Berlin ex-pat culture has not been written about a ton in fiction, and I think questions of authenticity are very important to them. You see generations of ex-pats who’ve shown up at various points and each new generation thinks they’re the “real” Berlin and the new people don’t actually live there and are faking it. You’ve tweeted before how you like “sad girl in Europe” novels. Were you reading anything that informed your writing of Fake Accounts? What was important to me was to establish the protagonist is very new to Europe and she’s part of this class of Americans who are a part of the Easy Jet-set—this international creative millennial class, for whom traveling around Europe is not this elite or special thing that it once was. But, crucially, we all know that used to be the case and we’re sort of nostalgic for that. I really like Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me from NYRB, about a woman in Paris, and I really like Christopher Isherwood. There’s always this temptation of meaningful history all around you in Europe that I wanted to resist in the book. History is pretty touristic now, particularly in Europe and particularly in Berlin, where there’s quite a few exhibitions just walking around. Have you been there? No I haven’t, but I read Red Pill by Hari Kunzru this past summer, also set in Berlin, and he does lean on this history stuff, and I felt like that was a move you could’ve made and didn’t and was curious why. Yeah, I think there’s always this fiction of like, “Here’s the history section of my Berlin book.” [The protagonist] is really alienated so she’s not going to be on Wikipedia learning about the Berlin Wall or whatever. My favorite street in Berlin—not really my favorite, but that street where she’s riding her bike and there’s this trolley, this old [German Democratic Republic] car. And on the other side of the street is the Topography of Terror exhibit, which used to be the SS Headquarters, more or less. The thing that’s separating the SS Headquarters exhibit and the road is the Berlin Wall, which is so literal to me. It really encapsulates many tourists’ fake relationship to history. I gotta say, when I saw you were coming out with a novel, I envisioned writers lining up to take a whack at this debut like a piñata. Is that in your mind at all, on the eve of this release? I really believe if you’re a writer and you’re lucky enough to publish a book and it gets attention, you should be able to take it. My mom used to say [to me], “You can dish it out, [but] you can’t take it.” I think it’s only fair. I do think, quite candidly, the fact that everybody is expecting so much attraction means it won’t be as exciting as it would be if it were coming out of nowhere, you know what I mean? I am gossipy-excited to see who gets assigned to review it and who says what.
Overheard intimacy pulls the listener into its orbit, insinuating complicity where there is none.
There’s a woman who has very loud orgasms in my apartment block in Berlin. Olympian, operatic, verging on the absurd. It’s hard to tell where the orgasms are coming from because the apartments are stacked around a courtyard, but they keep coming. For the past two months, in the hottest summer on record, (since 1970-something, someone somewhere said) the woman has exhaled euphoria at least three times a day. I wake up to her morning release, have a cup of tea around the same time as her afternoon delight, and smoke to an orgasmic soundtrack every evening. We all have our windows open, you see. There’s no air-conditioning, so it’s the courtyard’s job to provide cool, shaded air, and allow any built-up heat an escape route. It’s on those swirling molecules that the woman’s voice is carried, bouncing around the block and into kitchens and bathrooms and living rooms and bedrooms. Sometimes one of the neighbours replies with an angry shout or a mocking moan. If the woman registers it, she gives no indication, save for occasionally getting louder. It’s hard not to think about the woman. Her days and nights bleed into mine. Her performance turns me into the audience. Is that why she does it? Maybe she doesn’t know anyone’s listening—too caught up in the moment or hard of hearing. She might be a sex worker. A terminally ill patient going out with a bang. Or maybe she’s just having plain old fun. It’s hard not to think about what thinking about someone else’s pleasure means. Is this my internalized misogyny flaring up? Trying to define the woman by her sexuality? I like hearing her. It makes me smile, especially when she turns up the volume after a slammed window. I imagine that she doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, and then I think about what that must feel like. I have an idea because when people glance at me in the courtyard, I can tell they’re wondering if I am the woman. I know because I look at every woman like it’s her, too. … Overheard intimacy pulls the listener into its orbit, insinuating complicity where there is none. Any contextless sound asks something of the imagination—What was that? Is someone outside?—but eavesdropping on a stranger’s pleasure forces the self into frame. Over 60 windows looked out onto that courtyard, the white plastic kind that swivel on their hinges to offer two ways of opening. My sublet was a fifth-floor walk-up off Kottbusser Damm, not far from the canal with its self-possessed swans. In summer 2018, during an extended visit for work and play, I opened those windows as wide as they would go every day. It was too hot not to. But looking out the window wasn’t as exciting as listening through it. White walls, white windows, the angle too steep to allow much of a peek into anyone’s apartment on the floors below. The advantage of being on the top floor was that the view included a red-tiled roof, above which a slice of blue-if-you’re-lucky sky beckoned. The disadvantage announced itself when my partner sprained his ankle and ended up needing crutches. Somehow, he pulled himself up five floors of stairs after it happened, but he didn’t go back down for over a week. The extra time inside gave me the opportunity to think about my mystery neighbour more than was necessary or polite. My partner was the immobile one, but I was Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, building an ever-evolving narrative from scraps. In the 1954 Hitchcock film, the combination of a broken leg and a heatwave lands Stewart’s character, Jeff, in the position of neighbourhood voyeur. To be fair, he had something of a head start in that regard. The walls of his apartment are adorned with money shots from his career as a reportage photographer: a car crash, an explosion, people in distress. On a phone call with his editor about a potential assignment to war-torn Kashmir, he says excitedly: “Didn’t I tell you that was the next place to watch?” In lieu of a tragic landscape to shoot, Jeff takes aim at his neighbours instead. While not so crass as to actually get them on film, he tracks their every move—night and day—building a picture of them in his head. The men he makes out more clearly; his morbid hunch about one of them turns out to be dead on. The way Jeff sees the women in his vicinity, however, reduces them to a snapshot. He calls the ballet dancer that lives across from his top-floor apartment “Miss Torso,” his razor-sharp gaze severing her from her craft and character. On the ground floor, an older woman who lives alone is nicknamed Miss Lonelyhearts and viewed with pity, her apparent struggle with depression reduced to her lack of a husband. The woman. The woman. The woman. I never knowingly saw the woman in Berlin, but that didn’t stop me making a fiction of her, too. In my mind, she became a symbol of ferocious sexuality, of untouchable confidence, of never giving a fuck. A one-dimensional render made up entirely of an expression of pleasure. A portrait that says everything about me and my aspirations and next to nothing about the person I overheard. … Seeing is a form of storytelling. The seer imprints the seen with their own perspective and assumes all manner of things by way of privilege and prejudice. The same can be said of hearing or overhearing. The position of storyteller is intoxicating. Sometimes it’s possible to forget that storytelling, like glass, goes both ways. Windows became magnetic at the beginning of the pandemic, an excuse to go full curtain twitcher. Like Jeff in Rear Window, my New York apartment—in Queens, not a made-up bit of Greenwich Village—looks out onto a patchwork of small fenced yards. Unlike Hitchcock’s expensive Hollywood set, however, they are for the most part empty and uncared for. Hardly anyone who lives in the cluster of railroad apartments and residential blocks seems to have access to the outdoor space. There’s a stark little plot outside my kitchen window, but it’s not for tenant use. A note in the hallway instructs: “Don’t feed the stray cats because they’re ruining my garden!” (Once the first wave is over, the landlord and his wife turn over the soil and plant vegetables.) There’s one ground-floor apartment way in the back that opens directly onto a small patio garden. In the first couple of weeks of quarantine, the only person I saw out the window spent days clearing years of overgrowth to make way for a barbecue grill. What I see more of is wildlife. A squirrel making a highway of the fences. A family of stray cats who love to lay in sun-warmed soil. An opossum, at three in the morning, feasting on leftovers next door had thrown out for the cats. I didn’t know there were opossums in New York. I spotted it when I was leaning out the window, perfuming the night air. I’m very grateful to have a bit of space to breathe in. Witnessing the arrival of spring through that window lifted my spirits on several occasions. While I rarely see people out the window, I hear them. The excited squeal of a child. A snippet of a testy phone call. Someone going on about something to someone. Voices of people I don’t know and have likely never seen—I moved into the apartment a couple of months before lockdown—but that doesn’t stop me imagining families, scenarios, relationship dynamics. Living in close proximity to other people in a city requires a level of denial. I hear other people, but sometimes—usually during sex or an argument—I forget I can also be heard. Then I remember and I wonder what stories people are telling themselves about me. The truth of Rear Window is that an unwavering gaze turns a window into a screen; a screen upon which drama is projected, complete with typecasting and plot holes. If it was set today, it’s unlikely Jeff would spend so much time making a screen of his window. He’d be glued to his laptop instead. Windows are screens and screens are windows. The most startling moment of the film comes when Jeff is caught in the act of looking. Being seen upends the power dynamic. Likewise, looking into the homes of friends and colleagues during video calls evens the playing field to the point of paralysis. When I’m on camera, the awkwardness of being watched trains my eye to my own image in the corner of the screen. What is my hair doing? Why did it freeze when I was pulling that face? Who even is this person? What is she doing with her life? There is as much subconscious storytelling involved in looking through a screen as a window. It’s just that the stories directly refract the self rather than bouncing off other people first. When I re-watched Rear Window recently, it made me think about overhearing the orgasmic person in Berlin again. How we shared space but all I know about them is my own projection. Isn’t that the way most detective stories go? What the film illuminated about ways of seeing and not seeing, however, went beyond the script. How the dynamics of the window frame hide as much as they highlight. That a carefree gaze often comes with an attempt to fix. And how much of a leap it would take to see someone on their own terms or a situation as it really is. As a million things at once and constantly in flux.
The musician, writer, and actor on revision, truth, and liking books more than people.
For years, Richard Hell was plagued with regrets over how his sophomore album with the Voidoids turned out. He calls the original version of Destiny Street a “morass of trebly multi-guitar blare.” But it didn’t seem like there was much he could do about it—the 24-track master tapes had disappeared. In 2009, he decided to create a new, definitive version of the record anyway. He re-recorded it with new vocal and guitar takes, using a cassette of rhythm tracks from the original recording sessions as the basis for a reinterpretation of the LP. This is the version of the record Hell has stood by since its release. Then, a decade later, the masters turned up; in 2019, Hell was returned three of the four tapes, discovered languishing in an Intergalactic Studios storage facility in upstate New York. Bringing on Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and engineer Erin Tonkon to help him produce and oversee the remastering of the album, a deluxe package known as Destiny Street Complete will be released in January 2021. It includes the 1982 original release of the album, 2009’s Destiny Street Repaired, the new 2021 remaster, and a host of demos—making good on the title track’s spoken word prophecies of meeting a younger version of himself in an uncanny time loop. Across five spirited and chaotic decades, Richard Hell’s career has defied categorization. His musical contributions with Television, The Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids during the early waves of punk rock have been hailed as period-defining. Battling heroin addiction, Hell pivoted away from music in 1984 to escape the temptations of the rock ‘n’ roll musician’s lifestyle. After acting roles in films such as Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens and Ulli Lommel’s Blank Generation, Hell established himself as a writer and cultural commentator, publishing with Spin, GQ, and The New York Times Book Review. His books include The Voidoid, Hot and Cold, Go Now, Godlike, Massive Pissed Love: Nonfiction 2001-2014, and his mordant autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp. I corresponded with Richard to reflect on the album’s 40th anniversary, his work philosophy, and his future plans in a post-pandemic world. Jean Marc Ah-Sen: The big news on your end is Destiny Street Complete. This is the second time you’re tackling the album’s re-release. Was it perfectionism that motivated the undertaking? I’m curious if revisiting projects is part of your broader artistic practice, or if this was more because of your dissatisfaction with the original recording. Richard Hell: I don’t think I have an artistic practice. Maybe it’s laziness mixed with obsessiveness? Writers usually think of the first draft as being the hard part, while the revising is fun. So, me, in whatever medium, I would rather have fun. Anyway, the execution is more interesting than the content. Take the way blues songs can be so similar to each other—it’s how they’re performed that matters. I had the fantasy after we released Blank Generation in 1977 that I’d never make an album of other songs, but just re-record that one differently every eighteen months. All that said, Destiny Street was frustrating. I was in a bad way when I made it and it shows, and pretty soon I wished I could fix it, especially since I’d left the music life right after, which meant I only had two albums forever. I made the first run at it in 2009 using a 1981 reference-cassette I’d found containing only the record’s live-played rhythm tracks—bass, drums, and two rhythm guitars—no vocals or solos. I realized I could make a clean version of the songs with it. I was able to get Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, and Ivan Julian to do the soloing. [Robert] Quine would have played on it if he’d lived. It was an improvement on the original version, strictly as an album of recordings of songs, whatever pros and cons there might be. Then, in 2019, when the 1982 24-track masters were found, I was able to carry out my fantasy of remixing the original. In my opinion, each version improves on the one before, but each has its own feel and is valid, with some tracks on it that are the best of the series. And to me it makes for a cool story—a story about time and fate (destiny), kind of, as well as all the banging around and weirdness. I wanted to ask about the album’s three cover tracks. The Kinks’ “I Gotta Move,” Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” and Bob Dylan’s “Going Going Gone” seamlessly weave through the other tracks. A listener could be forgiven for thinking they were your compositions. Were these songs you and the Voidoids happened to be playing around that time, or were they meant to complement the seven original compositions from the album in some way? Well, you know, my first album was pretty much written in four or five months when I was still new to songwriting. I’d only been a musician in bands for two years and half of the few songs I’d written were collaborations. So, the songs on Blank Generation were pretty much experimental—I was figuring out what did what. When it came time to make Destiny Street, three or four years later, I’d learned more about songwriting and I wanted to make an album of the kind of music that originally inspired me: American garage band music, the music I grew up on as a young teenager in the ’60s. Garage band music came out of the most driving English invasion songs—“I Can Only Give You Everything” was probably played by every second American bar band in the mid ’60s. That and “Louie, Louie.” And Bob Dylan, the sneer and the drive of his early electric albums. So that garage music—which is actually the music that was first called “punk”—was the inspiration for half of my songs on the record, and it was only natural to include some related covers too, the kind of repertoire of the ’60s party bands. This is how I think of it, though I can’t swear how conscious it was at the time. At any point in the process of putting the record for Omnivore together, were you tempted to return to the music business? You’ve done really well with your writing career, but a whole new generation got turned on to you when you reissued your debut record Blank Generation, and that’s likely only going to continue now. That album has stayed in print since it first came out on CD in the early ’90s, but there was a new surge of publicity and attention when the two-disc 40th Anniversary Deluxe was released in 2017. Also, the awareness of and respect for “punk” has grown steadily since at least the mid ’90s. Nirvana and Please Kill Me had a lot to do with that I think. The Ramones went from being a novelty to being an American classic almost overnight. It’s been interesting. But no—I’ve never been tempted to return to playing music as a working, touring band. Though if Quine had lived, the original Voidoids might well have made another album. We all thought it was a good idea after the one-off recording of a single song (“Oh”) we did on commission in 2001. But as far as getting pulled back in, no. Are you at all interested in where punk music is headed? You’re often touted as one of the prime movers of punk rock—you put the first safety pin through your shirt, right? There’s been a bit of a renaissance of late, from Australia and the UK in particular. I don’t know, maybe the conditions of living now are similar to those in the mid-seventies. You know, I don’t pay a lot of attention to popular music anymore, and I never paid any special attention to what people called “punk.” What I wanted to do when I started out in 1973 was replace the faux-symphonic and stadium and fake-hero overblown posturing that rock ’n’ roll had become by the end of the ’60s. I wanted to play music like what I originally loved: brief, driving, often angry, little spurts of real life. It’s kind of a teenage thing, or a young person’s thing. I was also excited by the possibilities of making all the other evidence of a band consistent with the messages of the music: the clothes, the hair, the graphics, the interviews, etc., etc. Some of those things got associated with sets of bands that were classified as “punk.” But I’m not into music by genre a lot—I just go for what moves me. I feel that your writing career has never shied away from provocation or archly probing the fringes of human experience. William Gibson described your novel Go Now as “vile, scabrous, unforgiveable, and deserving of the widest possible audience.” It was an indictment of heroin usage ending with the narrator Billy Mud violating a major social taboo and relishing the experience, while Godlike centred around a love affair between two poets, one of whom is underage. What’s your perspective on recent occurrences of staff protesting releases by their own publishing houses before audiences can decide on their merits? Do you think it’s a politically viable response? I wouldn’t call the book an indictment of heroin usage. It doesn’t have a crusading agenda that way. It’s just trying to capture the psychology and experience, as known to me, of narcotics addiction in the time and place it’s set. But your question is interesting—regarding this extreme sensitivity that’s developed on the left about appropriating other people’s experiences, which is kind of the definition of fiction. I suppose that’s part of the reason “autofiction” has become so popular: the people you hurt are only your own friends and family, not the rest of any readers, who may be offended and get angry at an author (or publisher) for a work that presumes to have a character from a demographic to which the author doesn’t belong (“identity politics”). But at least these demographics are not intimately betrayed and injured to the degree that a character in an “autofiction” may well be, so, then publicly, it’s safer for the writer, since significant segments of the general population aren’t being offended—only his or her friends and family. The whole thing is complicated, but for the most part I’m against putting anything off limits as material for artists. It’ll all come out in the wash. At the same time, I am in favor of seeking out and giving platforms to peoples who’ve been underrepresented. You don’t seem to get writer’s block, ever. Year in and year out, your list of projects and backlist seems to get more staggering. Is productivity a question of discipline, a philosophical frame of mind? This question amazes me. I am really lazy and basically don’t see the point in doing anything, except that I’ve learned that it feels better to apply oneself, so I do, but not that much. And there’s also that itch to just assert—you know, like graffiti, like just putting your name on some wall. I guess I feel that. I want to be represented like everybody else. There’s this thing where you know you only really exist internally, that the subtlety and complexity of things isn’t present except inside, and you want to express it, depict it, just because it’s all you have and know, and the only way to do that is in art. That’s an urge. I will start feeling really bad if I don’t do anything. But I am not prolific. Are there any new frontiers you want to explore in your writing? New disciplines? You’ve professed an admiration for painting for quite some time now. I’ve always been interested in movies and painting and I have experimented a little in both. I feel like I could produce good work in those mediums, but I’m too lazy. Finally, I am a writer. It’s the easiest art medium because it doesn’t really require any cooperation from anyone else or any equipment to speak of. As for new frontiers in writing—every damn morning is another one. Are you planning on writing more memoirs? Your autobiography I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp ended its chronicle of your life in 1984 when you got clean and quit the music business. Do the last four decades warrant more self-interrogation, or is it still a question of protecting people in your life now? I think I already covered the action. Though maybe I’ll completely rewrite Tramp. Kidding about that, but it’s crossed my mind, in that it could have been written completely differently—with different attitudes towards things—and still be true. You have an extensive book collection comprising many first editions. You even tried to set up shop as an antiquarian bookseller at one point, right? Where do you stand on the digital proliferation of e-books, and of online book stockists dominating the book market? You must be referring to that one road trip [Tom] Verlaine and I took when we were nineteen and working in bookstores and thought we’d go out book hunting with the idea of then publishing a catalogue so we could quit our day jobs. But then we couldn’t part with the books, so that was the end of that. I’m really sorry to see bookstores die off, but I don’t think material books will ever be replaced by electronic ones. I’m glad I was young when dusty used bookstores were everywhere, but it’s also pretty cool to be able to find almost everything online. I would still much rather hold a book in my hands before I buy it. I imagine bookstores will have to become boutique affairs that are highly curated and cater to people like me who love books and have specialized interests in them. Your list of favourite films published on Criterion’s website was much talked about. I was really happy to see Léon Morin, Priest's inclusion, which I think is Jean-Paul Belmondo’s best film. There were no films from the past forty years, though. Have there been any recent films that you've enjoyed? Where was it much talked about? Also, they weren’t my favourite films—the company invites people to pick their favourite films that are available through Criterion. Criterion is fantastic (speaking of curated merchandise), but it doesn’t have every great film ever made, or even every great film that Bresson made. Too many good more recent films to tabulate in my head. The wildest, most unlikely one is The Shining Forwards and Backwards. Hale County This Morning, This Evening; Meek’s Cutoff; Gummo; Tarnation; Diane, much Chantal Akerman... These are completely random—I have a terrible memory and it hurts my brain to try to remember the best, most interesting movies I’ve seen in the last few decades. Especially now that, with streaming, I see a movie almost every night... Can I persuade you into giving a list of your favourite books? Sorry, my list of favourite books is boring. Proust, Borges, Primo Levi, etc. Everybody knows how good they are. I’m also excitable and lacking in the identity department—I often completely identify with any halfway decent artist I am checking out. One day I’ll be Raymond Chandler, the next day I’ll be Nietzsche, the day after that I’ll be Susan Sontag. I just like books; in many ways I like them more than people. Despite the pandemic, you've had a productive year. It just seems like business as usual. On top of finishing Destiny Street Complete, you had a Gucci clothing line show using images from Psychopts, your book with Christopher Wool, and you participated in the Anthology Film Archive's 50th anniversary video testimonial celebrations. What projects are you working on that will take you into 2021 and beyond? Since March lockdown, I’ve been steadily writing poems for the first time in my life, and that makes me happy.
“I guess I should tell you about something.”
I am standing at the foot of the bed in front of Jenny. She’s leaning back casually, nearly naked, waiting for something to happen. It’s our first date. I hold my hands out in front of my face. I turn them front to palm, palm to front, front to palm. I smile in the dark as I flex them open and closed and then open again. These steady, strong hands. We belong here; we don’t belong anywhere else. But then Old Peg rumbles in my head, “You don’t know anything, Petra, you half-witted, you asinine, you suckling pig. We’re disgusting; grow up. We smell; take a bath. Use soap this time and honestly, when was the last time you washed our hair?” My parasitic twin yammers on at the back of my head, my damp curls caught in her mouth. She’s not much more than a mangled face peeking out from my strategically grown mullet. Her nose is not so much a nose as a small piece of overworked plasticene, rubbery with the unfulfilled promise of nostrils. One of her eyes shimmers, milky with blind opalescence and the other, squinty and hazy blue, rolls around and around ceaselessly as though in a perpetual state of coming-to. Her deviated mouth, revealing a cluster of baby teeth on one side, and a tongue; white and scabby like a sun-soaked maggot. I can sometimes smell her breath if I turn too quickly. If I happen to accidentally roll onto my back while sleeping and momentarily suffocate her against the pillow, she screams me awake and I have to change the pillowcase she has burbled into, tacky and warm with her sputum—smelling of halitosis and hair oils. * From the foot of the bed, I get down on my knees and look up at Jenny, who I am this close to going down on. I’ve managed to keep Peg from her all night, never turning, keeping my hair strong and steady at the back. There is only a soft glow, a spectre from the streetlights outside. This method of concealment, although rehearsed often, has never been put into action until tonight. Curious, warm, aren’t you going to invite me up Jenny? As we kiss, I pull her into my chest. Jenny sucks in a breath just as a warm breeze slips in through the open window and wafts through my hair. Old Peg’s rancid breath mingles with the air. Jenny lurches her head back, looks down at me on my knees and says, “What is that smell?” Once you smell it, you can’t not smell it. I abandon all boldness and shoot off a flimsy smile. * Old Peg can’t talk; she can gurgle and whine like a colicky baby, but I’m the only one who hears it. She does, however, make herself perfectly understood when she grates bitter, unyielding humiliations into my skull so loud and probing, I can’t help but reel back onto my heels. It’s a miracle I managed to bring someone home. Peg typically seizes my confidence before my dates even begin, but tonight she’s relaxed. She might even be in a bit of a good mood, all things considered. She even helped me recall some vital details about the plague, a topic I awkwardly turned to when Jenny mentioned she had a fear of vermin. If we ever disagree, Old Peg and I, and we invariably do, she always wins. And not because of the volume she dials up in my head, but because of this: if my head is tilted back just a little (like it is now, as I’m staring mournfully at my was-going-to-be lover), she can open her mouth wide enough to bite the folded skin at the back of my neck. The packed-up bunch of teeth in her mouth are ill-proportioned and they sink into my tough skin like drumming fingers, a rolling gnaw that ends with her sharpest tooth, her one and only canine. Because of this, I do as I’m told, and right now Peg is about to tell me to shut my mouth about the smell, just shut my goddamned idiot mouth. But I like Jenny. I hold my stupid grin and say as coolly as possible, “I guess I should tell you about something.” Jenny gives me a little smile, “What?” and slowly draws the word out. She’s afraid to ask but is asking anyway. Peg clamps down on my neck skin. I flinch and quickly smack my hand over the back of my head. I cover her nose holes until she lets go, and when she does I am inundated with curses. “You asshole, you could have killed me!” I ignore her, stand up, and take a seat on the bed beside Jenny, who is nervously biting her lip. I tell her the basics: * We were born together, much to our dismay. I can’t speak to the state of our parents, but I have a hazy recollection of unmitigated frustration on Peg’s part. She has the gift of boundless memory, being able to recall the smallest detail of our lives that she has no choice but to share with me. Our clinical diagnosis is rather fancy, almost highbrow when compared to what our old-world counterparts got: “The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal” or “Poor Edward and his Demon Head.” We had Craniopagus Parasiticus bestowed upon us. A parasitic head. We didn’t like the way that sounded at all so we agreed that, because of her grizzled appearance and the way she fit me like a rivet, she would be called Old Peg. By we, I mean certainly not my parents, who refused to call her anything but a gestational disaster. Jenny frowns, perplexed. I know she does not understand, but I try to stay positive. I’m on a roll now; she’s still here, she’s got her hand on my knee. I feel like she might be able to handle this. I break into a sweat, my mouth dries up, and Peg is doing her best, begrudging but hopeful, to help me out, correcting me when I use the wrong words. * I always fancied her a kind of feral child, surviving in the thicket of my dark hair with almost no social development, quick to temper, and with no capacity for external communication. Old Peg doesn’t like this because, in addition to her incredible capacity to remember everything, she also has the exquisite talent of being able to assimilate what I learn. She retains things that I had long forgotten. And so, if I happen to stumble on the names of, say, the wolf-nursed pioneers of Rome, she is quick to jump in, “Romulus and Remus, you idiot, Romulus and Remus.” Old Peg shares her inexhaustible library of knowledge, while I make things beautiful with my hands. Each of us possesses qualities the other does not have; together we make up the properties of a rather desirable person. Were I alone, I imagine I wouldn’t be capable of more than carelessly hammering together scraps of wood. But it is Old Peg’s aesthetic that works with my hands, that has made me a rather successful carpenter and bookbinding hobbyist. Unfortunately for Peg, I have nothing to offer her but the use of my hands to create her vision and my mouth to articulate her purpose. The work is made up of her guts, but I get the glory. She agonizes over the fact that I control our body. She can’t feel anything I do. She can dish out an orchestra of insults without feeling the sting their issue has caused. Contrary to this, I have the great burden of not only feeling Old Peg’s anguish, which I feel regularly, but her physical pain as well. Earlier today, I happened to absentmindedly smack my head on the edge of a cabinet door. Peg acutely felt the shock of it against her good eye, but I felt the pain doubly, like a funhouse of mirrors—a slightly warped echo of the original. Because of this, it’s difficult to have a good day. Peg is never really happy, so even a good day for me feels a bit off. Sort of like tonight. * Jenny. Sweet, beautiful, could-be-mine Jenny is still frowning. I stare at her earnestly, eagerly, and like a fool, wait until she collects herself. She smiles awkwardly, sits up straight, takes my hands in hers. “Let me see it.” I flinch, waiting for the barrage of insults to come slamming into my head from Peg. It. Even I’m insulted. But there’s nothing from Peg, just the doubled-up hurt she and I both feel together. I turn my back to Jenny and part my hair tentatively to reveal the face of my squinting, drooling sister. Because she’s a nice enough person, I know Jenny is trying not to overreact, but there’s really no preparing a person for this. When she finally speaks, she speaks clumsily, ruins everything. “O wow, it’s like an abscess.” O Jenny. I can tell from the heat on the back of my head that Peg is blushing; she’s embarrassed and I, too, begin to the feel the heat blaze across my face. But I am angry. Without hesitation, I want to protect her. I brush my hair back over her face, keep her safe. For all of Old Peg’s cruelty and bitterness she is equal parts generous and patient. She is, after all, just a person who, without consent, must follow me wherever I go. And although I carry her around, she carries me too. Without Old Peg, I am not Petra. I turn around quickly and look at Jenny with different eyes. Sweet, beautiful, stupid, get-out-of-our-house Jenny. Jenny dresses quickly as I sit on the bed and stare at my hands again. These hands. These steady, strong hands. * I sigh and Peg says nothing as I turn on the table lamp beside the bed and flop down on my side. I part my hair again and put a clip in it to keep it parted. I can feel her breathe easier. In front of me, just beside the bed, is a full-length mirror. Behind me, on Peg’s side, is another full-length mirror. In this way, we can see one another in the reflections. I smile reassuringly; she struggles and then successfully focuses her good eye on me. I apologize. She does her equivalent of a shrug: she closes her eyes for a moment. A lengthy blink. She knows that I could have let it slide, I could have ignored Jenny and we would have had sex, and Peg would have waited stoically for it to be over. It’s happened before, in our twenties when I resented her, wore a lot of hats. I have a lot of scars on my neck from those days. But things change as you get older; you begin to see the value in things you love, in spite of everything. Old Peg knows it’s been awhile and so tries to soothe me by humming quietly in my head. She sounds like Cloris Leachman. She has the voice of a grandmother. She will live and die with me, only ever mourning—never having felt the inexorable grief one feels after having achieved the peak of orgasm only to understand that the body must relent and terminate the crescendo. And because of this, because I must feel both of us together, I mourn doubly when the final shudders of pleasure leave my body, and I find myself cold and bleary-eyed, turning my face to blink at the grimy dust glued to the sluggish ceiling fan above our bed. Peg continues humming softly as I reach behind me and stroke her face gently. It’s almost kind of us to do this for one another. She asks, “What does it feels like?” I have her call up a memory of us as children. It’s the simplest thing I can think of. Inside we’re talking: “Do you remember the sparkler Mom and Dad gave us?” We remember when the dying flashes from that sparkler began to sputter out, leaving my vision spotted with ghosts. Overstimulated from the glints of the flinty stick, my eyes attempted to recover and in doing so, distracted me from the loss of excitement; the thrill of something so fleeting, so ambrosial, dying—burning out as I stood there helplessly, like an idiot, blinking over and over, watching it fizzle out in front of me.