Hazlitt Magazine

'Power Isn't Necessarily a Blunt-Force Instrument': An Interview with Te-Ping Chen

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.

Melancholy Letters

I’ve spent most of my life reading literature that made me laugh. But something has changed.

The Children of Dzhankoy

A very Russian turn of events: no solutions, but the trouble passes—so why bring it up?

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‘Power Isn’t Necessarily a Blunt-Force Instrument’: An Interview with Te-Ping Chen

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.
‘How Much Suffering is Acceptable?’: An Interview with Melissa Broder

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.  
Melancholy Letters

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.   
‘It Was Like Playing Around with the Blood of the Alphabet Itself’: An Interview with Patricia Lockwood

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.
‘There’s Been a Kind of Erasure of the Pervert’: An Interview with Jeremy Atherton Lin

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.
The Children of Dzhankoy

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.
‘We Act Consciously on the Page and in Life’: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

The author of Craft in the Real World on revision, breaking habits, and fixing the writing workshop.

“This book is a challenge to accepted models of craft and workshop,” is how Matthew Salesses opens the preface to his latest book, Craft in the Real World (Catapult). “The challenge is this: to take craft out of some imaginary vacuum . . . and return it to its cultural and historical context.” For those who teach and are trained in traditional fiction MFA programs, the book might indeed feel like something of a shot across the bow. The first essay, entitled “Pure Craft is a Lie,” takes aim at certain workshop truisms that, in Salesses’s estimation, are less about objective literary merit than they are about reinforcing white European cultural hegemony. He gives the example of dialogue tags: writers are usually encouraged to mark their characters’ utterances with “he said” or “she said” rather than any other verb, because “said” fades into the background, while other verbs call too much attention to themselves. But, Salesses argues, that’s just because we’ve been trained to read “said” as a background word; another culture might use another term and see it just as neutrally. To tell a student that “said” is her only option is “not to teach her to write better, but to teach her whose writing is better,” Salesses argues. Salesses doesn’t just debunk; he also offers constructive, inclusive suggestions for rethinking and remaking workshop, drawn from his experiences as both a student and teacher in MFA programs. (Salesses holds an MFA in Fiction from Emerson College as well as a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston; he is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Coe College.) The second half of the book, entitled “Workshop in the Real World,” includes suggestions for alternative workshop models, a sample syllabus, and a collection of writing exercises intended to help professors start to detangle their understanding of the craft of writing from our cultural expectations of what a story ought to be. Salesses and I spoke by phone on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the day that a mob of violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to protest election results. It was impossible not to be thinking about the fact that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, perhaps the most famous MFA program in America, became what it is today in large part because its then-director, Paul Engle, solicited donations from conservative businessmen with the promise that the writing the workshop produced would fight communism. Storytelling has always been and will always be a politically freighted act; I was grateful to talk to someone who’s thinking deeply about how to do it carefully on such a difficult day.  Zan Romanoff: We've come to think that, if you want to be a writer, you will also teach, because that's how you make money. But as vocations, they're really not the same thing. When you pursued higher education as a writer, at what point were you like, I actually also want to keep teaching?   Matthew Salesses: Before I did my MFA, I taught English to students of all ages. I found that I really liked teaching; my parents were both teachers, and as a kid I thought, “This is never what I'm going to do! I'm going to do the exact opposite of this!” But once I got in there, it felt really great to have that interaction all the time. Also, I [was able to] get perspectives from people I never would have gotten perspectives from otherwise. Especially in an ESL context, they're just wanting to speak, and so they're sharing whatever's personal to them. Listening to all these different people's stories was like reading a short story anthology.  I felt like I knew how to teach ESL really well—I'd gone through training and been certified in it, and had very good results as a teacher. But then I got in the classroom, and I was doing the same things that I had been taught to do, but I could see that it was not nearly as good as I'd thought it might be. I felt immediately like, it could be so much better than this, and I didn't know how, because there was no training. In creative writing pedagogy, there's this idea that creative writing training has mostly been lore-based—we hear from other people what they do, but there's no written record or training or guide. So, I'd done the same things I'd seen in the classroom. The only resource I could go to was to ask more people, so I spent a whole AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference) just asking basically anybody I knew—and the good thing about AWP is that everybody you know is in one place—how they ran their workshops. Like you would expect, 80 percent of them said the exact same thing. But then I ran into [writer and Northwestern University Artist-in-Residence] Nami Mun, and she said, "I do every workshop differently, of course." It just really blew apart everything that I'd thought about teaching in a workshop style, which was mostly, you take the story and you fit it into the machine that the workshop is, and what comes out at the end is—I don't know what comes out at the end, really.  I started experimenting right after that, doing workshops differently for maybe half the class, trying to think about, rather than the kind of regular model that I'd learned, which stories might benefit more from people just talking about things? The thing that I hated, as a student, about workshops was when we spent five or ten minutes talking about something that the author could have just spoken up and said, “This is a cat, not an imaginary being.” [Many MFA workshops operate under the so-called “gag rule,” which stipulates that the work’s author must be silent for the bulk of the classroom discussion.] And so, instead of having those conversations, I started asking the authors, “Can you just tell us what you were trying to do here?” And it worked so much better. We had more time to talk about other things.  Then I started doing things that I did during revisions. I was just troubleshooting things that I found not that helpful about the workshop, which is that you've got this sometimes great, sometimes terrible advice, and you go home and you're like, well, now I have all this advice, but no one's actually taught me anything about how to revise the manuscript from this point. Nobody's said, “Here's what you do next.” No one's said, “Here's how you actually apply the advice to the manuscript.” So instead of doing the advice, which people were writing in their letters anyway, we started cutting up the manuscript and moving it around in class, and doing some of the things that people might do on their own together in a shared space. One thing I really liked about workshop as an MFA student was, my thesis professor was [the writer] Margot Livesey, and she would do these really amazingly ... I don't want to say bad, but she wasn't an exceptional artist—they weren't really good drawings, and we got to see things, like how her mind worked visually. So, I started doing that too, and everyone would laugh at the drawings. So we'd have a good icebreaker where everybody thought, “Look at that, he's a terrible artist.” But it would actually free up a lot of different ways of thinking about the story.  So, you're teaching and you're experimenting with all of this stuff—at what point do you start to think, “This should be a book?” That didn't happen until much later. I'd been writing a bunch of the Pleiades blogs about craft, and I'd written a bunch of op-eds around the internet, for NPR Code Switch and places, about the workshop. I had so much material. I'm always thinking, “This should probably be useful in some way.” I'm very much a product of productivity culture, so I started thinking, “This has to be a book at some point, because otherwise it's just wasted material.” And then [the writer] Roxane Gay tweeted something about how it should be a book, and a few editors contacted me, and I sent these links to my agent and was like, hint hint! So, we wrote a book proposal and went out with it.  And then what was it like to pull all of that material together? Were you surprised by how much you had, or did you feel like you had a lot of gaps to fill in? It was more the latter. I had way too much material, but a lot of it was about revision. I wrote about revision for a long time, and I wanted the book to be more focused on what craft is, and where it comes from, and how we can use it to better serve marginalized writers.  I also found because I had written these things for different venues and different editors—and the blog posts were blog posts, they were very much in blog post voice—so a large part of it was, how do I make all of this writing for various audiences into a cohesive argument for a specific group of people? I couldn't do it completely—that's why I separated it into two halves, because I felt like there were two separate but related audiences. There was the part that was really teaching-related, and you could use that in the classroom, and then a part for both those people and people who just wanted to write on their own.  That's actually something you talk about in the book: how important it is, as a writer, to define your reader to yourself, to understand who exactly you're trying to reach. So, I'm curious who the audience is for this book, beyond, of course, MFA instructors? I'm always writing specifically for my friend Kirsten Chen, who's also a writer. She's also Asian-American, but she grew up in Singapore, and so she has a slightly different background—she came over in high school. So, there's certain things I have to tell her more about to give her the context that you might have gotten just from growing up in America. There’s a certain amount that I have to fill her in on, but I think that's a good amount of filling in, that could be done for anybody who doesn't have exactly the same background or interests.  After that, I was thinking of friends of mine who are teaching right now, writers of colour who are teaching, trying to find something that they could use in the classroom. Some of the pieces just came out of people asking, do you know any craft essays by a writer of colour on this, and me going, “No, I don't know anything—maybe I should write one?” Some of this stuff came out of talking to students of colour in MFA programs who would run into difficulties trying to make their experience feel important to their professors and the administration and having nothing to point to. It's hard to do that, even though it should be easy, just by your own experience. It's hard to do it unless you have something to break in and say, “Look, we can use this as a resource.” And so, I really wanted it to be able to do that for students in those programs, or in any workshop setting.  And then of course it's the editor's job to say, “Let's broaden this to everyone!” And, of course, this is my bias, because all I do is write, and think about writing and talk about writing, but I think everyone who reads fiction should want to understand how it gets made. I loved that this book articulated some things I felt were missing in my own reading practice, in terms of reading mostly fiction by American authors and not understanding much about other narrative traditions.  I felt like when I was writing the book, partly what I was doing was taking the stuff that literary theorists have been talking about since the ‘80s in America, and before that in Europe, and just moving it to a writer's perspective. That felt strange, too, because you could find those books out there if you were just looking in a different place. Most readers of regular fiction are not necessarily going out there looking for post-structuralist theory or something. Right, and this felt like an approachable way to start having that conversation around how what we think of as right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of storytelling is actually a culturally constructed standard.  Something you mentioned earlier was that you write a lot about revision, and that makes a lot of sense to me, because one of the things you write in the book is that a first draft is often your first instinct, and those instincts are often not the most original thought you could have, so you have to drill down further to find out what you actually think or want to say. Can you talk more about why you feel like revision is such an important part of the process? I feel like that's something that I, as a beginning writer, did not understand at all: how much something could change in the revision process, and maybe should change. What we learn as revision is more like editing things to be more presentable, and less the kind of revision that fiction writers do all the time. But that was the education I had, too, so when I got to it, I just knew, what I'm writing is crap, I really don't want it to be crap, so I had to [do] something! So, I'd just work on a story endlessly, making the little edits, until I could figure out more macro changes. I believe really strongly in revision. I used to make my students take an implicit bias test at the beginning of a course and I would get the same result: we all had implicit bias, obviously. My students would say, “I'm not racist, I'm not sexist,” or whatever. And I would say, “Well, that's because you're able to think about it. You don't always act on your first impulses. We have a mind, and we can use it to correct our behavior and do better and become better people.” To me, that's revision. You put on the page all of this really deeply culturally informed subconscious stuff, and you have to use revision to be able to think about why it's there and what it means. And not just what it means on the page, but what it means that you're writing that thing in the world that we live in. It takes a long time and a lot of work to make these unconscious things into conscious decisions. For me the idea is, we act consciously on the page and in life, but I don't think that's a quick and easy process, trying to break your habits.  You also had a novel come out this summer, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. Can you talk about how you’ve applied the craft lessons from Craft in the Real World to your own fiction-writing process? So much of [Craft in the Real World] came from teaching, and trying to teach better. But also, so much of it came from the novel. I sold it on spec in, like, 2015. I thought it would be so much better to sell it on spec and then not have to worry about it being sold, and it wasn't better. It was just bad in a different way. So I ended up, instead of worrying about it being sold, worrying about what I was doing writing it, and it took me a long time, after it sold, to get a working draft going. I wrote a ton; I was working on it constantly, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted it to be for when it wasn't for selling the book. And so, a lot of my thinking on craft came out of thinking, well then, what am I doing here? What is the purpose of this? In my MFA we got the whole, there is no purpose for art except art, and this was the first time I had to face the fact that that wasn't really a thing. I really did have to spend a long time trying to figure out, one, who was I writing for—a lot of it came out of that—and then, why would they care? Unless it's just for the fun of reading a story—which is fine, it's a good purpose, it just wasn't my purpose. A lot of the book came from trying to figure out what I was doing and why I thought writing was important, and why I kept holding onto this idea that writing could do something in the world, why I was doing it and not doing something else.  One of the things I love about Craft in the Real World is that I think a lot of MFA students have gone through the process and felt like—well, that didn't work for me, and so I must be broken in some way, I’m not a real writer. And this book is you saying, no, it's not you that's broken, it's the process. Giving them permission for their experiences to be validating, instead of deflating. I took a couple of years off after my MFA and just taught, and worked, like, a regular job, and I was so sick of it that I wanted to go back and do more, so I got my Ph.D. But when I got into my Ph.D., it seemed like an accepted thing amongst everybody that workshops were terrible and they hated them, which seems like a weird thing to do, if workshops are terrible, to do another five years of those. I don't know if people thought it was their fault; people come to accept that it's just a thing, a crappy thing that they have to go through, like some kind of initiation process or something.  I actually really believe in the workshop process as a thing. I think there's a lot of value to it, and I also think if you're only doing workshops, that's probably not the best way to educate someone in creative writing. But I have a lot of faith in the workshop, and I think it can do a lot of interesting work.  I'd love if you could talk about how you've seen workshops evolve at the level of the institution. Obviously, you've been evolving your own methods pretty substantially, but what about your colleagues—how much interest is there at institutions? I think you've got two camps, really. One camp that thinks, “This is just the way we do things, and this is how we're going to do things, and to do it this way is to be a real writer.” But I actually think the other camp is—it's definitely growing faster. It's the only one growing, probably, at all.  At first, when I started doing [different types of] workshops, I would get a lot of pushback to them, just because they were used to the other way, and they thought, “This is the right way.” Even though they didn't like doing it that way! They still thought it was the way they were supposed to do it. I don't get that much anymore, but I teach mostly undergraduates now, and they've been less indoctrinated into it. But I do think still a ton of the workshops are being taught exactly the way they were taught in my MFA—gag rule, et cetera.  I think a lot of people say, “We can't let the writer talk because then they'll get super defensive.” But like, why would they get defensive? They would only get defensive if you're attacking them in some way. It doesn't have to be attacking. That's not the only mode a workshop can offer. I wanted to ask about one of your specific phrases in the section you call “Banned From Workshop.” You ask students not to use economic language to describe stories—"this didn't feel earned," "it didn't pay off," et cetera. I realized that those are things I say all the time, and as much as I don't think stories should be economic exercises in theory, the Western story structure is very much built around the economic concepts of earning and paying off. So, I'm curious how you try to think around that conflict. I do that because my friend, [the writer] Laura van den Berg, banned those economic terms from workshop, and I was like—I had never banned anything from workshop before, and I was like, if Laura's gonna do it, I can do it. I do think everything is so capitalistic, and it's nice to escape from that for a little while! We talk about how something feels: "The character feels like this here, I see it building up to this emotion at this point, and yet it doesn't seem as if the character in this passage has the reaction ..." Or we talk about expectations that the author has set up. The expectations that we're setting up, that we've gotten from reading other books. The expectations from what we think the audience is and what tradition we think the novel is in, whether it's fulfilling those expectations, or trying to undermine them in some way. We talk more about our personal readerly reaction to things and more in terms of expectations.  My students don't really have a problem with it—they seem able to avoid that kind of language. What is really hard for them is avoiding the relate language: "I relate," and starting everything with "I think," or "if it were me"—things that totally center them in the process. That is really hard for them to break. I find things relatable; it's just a funny way of speaking about things. Students seem to have it as a saying that they use, like, "relatable!" That's a thing and it's fun to say, but I don't think it gets at what's operating in the words themselves. It's not something the author can control: whether or not something is relatable to somebody. It's a totally legitimate reaction to something, [but] I don't think it's very helpful to an author at all. It's not very helpful to their craft decisions.  So obviously this has been an incredibly weird time to teach—how has it been running workshops in the pandemic? It's very different. I think the most successful things are when I try to approach it as if it's a totally different thing from teaching in person, and the least successful is when I try to port the things I was doing in the face-to-face classroom to an online environment. The attention is different.  My students seem to have a hard time—there're some classes where they're expected to do the same amount of work as they were before the pandemic. When I was a kid, I always thought, “What do my teachers do when we leave class? They must go in the closets.” But I think sometimes teachers do that with their students too—they think they don't have other things weighing on them, but of course they do, and in some ways the pandemic has been much harder on a lot [of] my students than it has been for me.  They just have so much stuff going on.  All right, before I let you go, are there any questions you wish I'd asked, stuff you haven’t gotten to talk about yet? The exercises! No one ever asks about the exercises! I spent probably more time writing the exercises and thinking about the exercises than the other parts of the book combined. It's interesting to think about what gets focused on later, even though the exercises, I was literally putting in front of my students and asking them to do them and was revising them as the students responded to them.  I really wanted it to be a practical book. I have this whole long rant, actually, about the mystical writer, the person who comes in and is like, “You just figure it out, you know when it's done because you feel it.” I had so many famous writers who'd visit and say nothing that was in any way substantial, and I thought, “They're getting paid so much money for this, it's ridiculous.” One of the funny things in the research is seeing how people in other countries think about characters versus how Americans think about characters, which is, “Oh, I heard a voice! A voice in the wilderness, and I just wrote down the voice that I heard.” Nobody else in the world thinks about it like that. They're like, what? These are made-up things, that you yourself are making up! 
The Business of a Marriage

After my wedding, I began looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted.

Married people are supposed to share their money.  I found this out a few days after my wedding. My husband and I were eating the misshapen remains of a cheese tray in bed, after the tempest of uncles and hailstorm of aunts had swirled away. The last of the Greek cousins were gone. My mother-in-law, having conjured ice cream for a hundred people out of a freezerless kitchen, and my mother, her finger-joints swollen from pulling apart the maddening layers of ninety-six fuchsia tissue-paper flowers, had escaped back to their own lives. But our guests had left something behind: the yellow-striped card box, teetering on top of a bin of dirty forks. At the hall, while I was busy identifying the dead body smell as an actual dead body (a mouse, found expired under the snacks table and borne away in a festive napkin), my sister had dressed the box in wrapping paper, taped a purple pom-pom on top, and cut a slit through which our guests could drop their best wishes as well as cheques, gift certificates, and cash. The generosity of our friends and relatives, now tumbling out onto our bedspread, was humbling. Humbling, too, to take these gifts to the bank and be told we couldn’t deposit them unless we opened a joint account. “Neither of you can cash a cheque made out to both of you,” the teller informed us. “We get this all the time after weddings.” It never occurred to me that I would share money with another person. I moved in with my partner not long before we got married, and for the preceding ten years, aside from a brief, sad stint at a previous boyfriend’s, I had lived alone. I loved living by myself. In the life I knew, I was dictator and sole citizen of my personal republic. Our national drink was instant Nescafé; our national dish was spaghetti. Our flora was a single valiant cyclamen. Our anthem was silence. Our finances were a ball of earwax tied together with skipping ropes: a mix of magazine and newspaper journalism, arts grants, editorial services, and grant-writing contracts. But now our friends and relatives had invested in us—literally—as a joint endeavour. It was hard for me to grasp. My family is not much good at marriage, but we are spectacular at divorce. Both sets of my grandparents were divorced, back when such a thing was still scandalous. My parents divorced when I was seven, and they both got remarried and then got divorced again. Our home life reached equilibrium after the demise of my mother’s third marriage, and from what I could observe, the most stable household configuration was a lady, an armchair, and a newspaper. Other elements might come and go, but these three formed a perfect union. I tried to explain this to my husband early in our dating life, when he broached the subject of a future together. It’s not exactly that I don’t want to, I said. There’s just nothing in my experience to suggest that it works. For our honeymoon, we spent five days camping by the beach, and my wallet was stuffed with receipts: who paid for raspberry ice creams, who bought the hot-dogs, who bought the firewood. Friends inquired, Is this for your divorce lawyers? Meticulous records of the small purchases could hardly address the greater inequities: not only did my husband make twice as much money as I did, I had moved into the house he owned. I paid rent and half the bills, but every time he brought home a block of expensive cheese I had a sinking feeling that I was living a lifestyle I couldn’t afford and didn’t deserve. My husband’s parents have been married for fifty years, and in his eyes, keeping track of whose assets are whose is a purely academic exercise. To me, it seems dangerous to get too comfortable. As we started sending out our thank-you notes, I began reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Economy. I was looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted. Love is a system of exchange, and cohabitation and marriage seemed to literalize its terms. Home economics is a redundant concept: “economics” comes from οἶκος for “house” and νέμω for “manage.” I wondered if the marquee theories of supply and demand offered any insight into how our household should be run. Perhaps, in dividing up the grocery bills, my husband and I should be Marxist: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Or maybe we should spend hedonistically rather than saving for the future. After all, as Keynes famously said: in the long run, we are all dead. Or perhaps the answers were hidden in the love lives of the canonical Western economists: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Romance is famously a form of lunacy, irrational to the core. But historically, marriage is a business deal. Building a shared life seems to demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping, in which a column counting cash and a column counting feelings are somehow reconciled.  *  Adam Smith is famous for two ideas that came to form the basis of free market thinking: that an “invisible hand” hovers over the exchange of goods and services, ensuring their fairness and rendering intervention superfluous; and that if everyone pursues their own self-interest, all will prosper. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote in 1776. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” A laissez-faire approach to love has appeal: if naked self-interest could really make for a happy household, perhaps the difficulties of marriage have been oversold. The trick, presumably, is to pretend to be asleep when it’s my turn to make the coffee, and to pocket the cash my husband leaves lying on the dresser. His ornery cat hisses at me and pees in my shoes, and her ill-temper represents for me what economists call an opportunity cost—because of my husband’s pre-existing mean cat, I can’t get a dog. If I ran on self-interest alone, some accident could easily befall her. In terms of romance, it would be advantageous to me to have more trading partners, but not if my husband can also trade with whomever he wants—a clandestine affair is to be preferred over an open relationship. Ultimately, I would want to work myself into the position with the greatest bargaining power by being the one who needs the relationship less. Smith could have designed the modern dating app. It is possible to dispense with Adam Smith’s romantic entanglements fairly briefly, because as far as we know, there were none. He never married and declared that anyone in love inevitably seemed ridiculous—a sucker. To an outside observer, the feeling is “entirely disproportioned to the value of the object,” he remarked. John Maynard Keynes is a different story. The thirty-five-year period of prosperity after the Second World War, an outlier that has nonetheless fundamentally shaped our expectations in the Western world, was dominated by Keynesian economics. Before the 1930s, most theorists believed that Smith’s invisible hand regulated employment, and that the market would naturally provide jobs for everyone who needed or wanted them. When the calamity of the Great Depression put millions of people out of work, Keynes proposed a revised role for governments. Unemployment, he argued, happens when people aren’t spending enough money on goods and services sold by their neighbours. The way to get consumers to spend more is for governments to put more money into their pockets. Any government stimulus package that seeks to spend its way out of a recession borrows from the playbook Keynes wrote, the 1936 treatise The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  But I’m here to talk about his love life. The twentieth century’s most influential economist had the face of a swollen eel, so Virginia Woolf said, and they were quite good friends. She also wrote that he looked like a gorged seal with a double chin and a ledge of red lip, “sensual, brutal, unimaginative.” Keynes’s own opinion of his looks was no better. At twenty-three, he wrote to a male lover: “My dear, I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”  He got over it. And with a statistician’s zeal for spreadsheets, he created an itemized list of the many men he slept with. It reads like a series of detective novels: The Bootmaker of Bordeaux; The Sculptor of Florence; The French Conscript; The Stable Boy of Park Lane. Keynes’s circle, the Bloomsbury group, was tolerant of gay sex, but British law was not. Oscar Wilde went to prison for sodomy when Keynes was twelve. His Cambridge friends distinguished between “Lower Sodomy,” which involved actual sex, and “Higher Sodomy,” when men loved each other’s minds. Keynes himself appeared in a celebrated list: a database of ten thousand case studies compiled by Magnus Hirschfeld, a doctor from Berlin campaigning for the decriminalization of homosexuality. He sought patterns in the physiological and psychological attributes reported by the gay men he interviewed. Can you easily separate your big toe from the others? Hirschfeld’s survey inquired. Are you talkative? Are you logical? What was logical, at the time, was to marry a woman. In 1921, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet company mounted a production of The Sleeping Beauty at London’s Alhambra theatre. A Russian ballerina named Lydia Lopokova danced the role of the Lilac Fairy. Her style was unusually robust, even cheeky—she once lost her underwear onstage. She was Georgian London’s manic pixie dream girl, and the public went wild for dolls with her face. Keynes watched her from the audience night after night, and then went around to her dressing-room door and introduced himself. “Don’t marry her,” Vanessa Bell warned him. “However charming she is, she’d be an expensive wife and would give up dancing and is altogether to be preferred as a mistress.” Lopokova’s finances were indeed in disarray. As a child, she was upwardly mobile: from a lower-middle-class background, she had managed to get free tuition as well as room and board at a dance school by the age of nine, and by the early stages of her career made twice as much money as her father. But by the time she met Keynes, she had weathered twenty years of the vicissitudes of professional dance: ballet politics, endless travel, vaudeville roles alongside bicycle-riding dogs. At thirty, she had been married and divorced from the Diaghilev company’s shady business manager (he turned out to be a bigamist), and the company itself was teetering. She knew she couldn’t keep dancing forever. Many of the letters Keynes and Lopokova exchanged (hers endearingly misspelled) during their courtship are about money. “Oh! One of the important happenings! Our engagement is extended for eight weeks,” Lopokova wrote of a theatre contract in 1923. “I am quite rich. I will write with tenderness all the expences in the book.” Keynes had given her a special notebook for her bookkeeping. Not long after they met, it turned out Diaghilev hadn’t paid the Alhambra’s rental fee; the theatre kicked them out and impounded all the props and costumes. Loppy, as Keynes called her, went into business for herself, booking gigs in various productions, and mounting some shows of her own. “Tomorrow I shall have my salary, is it not a pleasant thought? I am such a calculatrice nowadays.” Keynes began negotiating her fees with producers, sometimes writing business letters that he signed in her name.  The two married in 1925. For the first half of his career, Keynes had subscribed to the classical economic theory that a laissez-faire market would, when working properly, employ everyone. Keynes now wrote that the market, left to itself, would naturally come to rest in a condition of high unemployment. In the biography Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, Richard Davenport-Hines compares the revolution in Keynes’ approach to economics with the about-face in his sexual life. Keynes seems to have abandoned male partners altogether. The couple’s letters glitter with pornographic coinages: “I taste your buttons,” she wrote; “I want to be foxed and gobbled abundantly,” he replied. Despite all his friends’ predictions (Woolf considered Loppy an ignorant pleb), Keynes and Lopokova’s marriage was long and happy. The major disappointment was the stubborn non-arrival of children, even though Keynes tracked Loppy’s cycle as meticulously as he had once recorded his lovers. He became an advocate of government oversight to enforce fair pay standards for women in the workforce. She nursed him in his final decade, and then embarked on the kind of free-and-easy widowhood that comes with not giving a tinker’s toot: sunbathing naked in her garden; walking down the street with a shopping basket upside-down on her head; speaking Russian when she got bored of speaking English, whether her interlocutors understood her or not. What strikes me most now in Keynesian thought is its optimism. Reporting on a meeting with a potential booker, Loppy wrote to Keynes: “I did repeat what you said, noble failure is preferable to cheap success, that financial ruin was not so desperately important.” How fine and freeing to think so. As a unit, Lopokova the artist and Keynes the economist were seen, both by their friends and by historians, as complementary, a surprising fit that made for a stable home life with a bright seam of recklessness. If I am not behaving lovingly enough, the answer in a Keynesian marriage would be to give me more affection. The love I receive, so the bet goes, will overflow my coffers—I will be spurred to spend it back liberally into the home market. My husband objects that this is implausible and makes Keynes sound like a sop. “If I shower you with more love, won’t you just value my attentions less?” If my husband were married to Keynes, he might retort that currency devaluation isn’t as monolithic as it looks, and besides, the point is to reach full employment. A marriage in which no labour potential is wasted—no opportunity for making each other happy missed—seems a worthy goal.  *  On October 20th, 1918, Fanny Jacobs and Harry Rosenberg, near strangers, were married in a cemetery in Philadelphia. A crowd of over a thousand people, all Jewish immigrants from Russia, cheered from among the gravestones. It was a shvartze khasene, a black wedding, which folk tradition held would protect the community from pestilence. The Spanish flu had then killed over half a million people in Philadelphia alone. Holding a wedding in their resting place would please the dead, elders from the Old World said, and the dead could intercede with God to beg for mercy for the living. I started this essay in what now feels like the old world. Our emergency savings are in the joint account we opened with our wedding money. The teller who helped us was named Neena, and it was her first joint account too—first week on the job, she confided. A younger woman hovered over Neena, occasionally pointing out where to click on the screen. When our provincial government declared a state of emergency on March 17th, we spent some of our wedding money on a sack of rice, a gallon of olive oil, and a deep freeze. I’m still confused about the deep freeze—a couple of months ago we were vegetarians, and now we are talking about spending hundreds of dollars on an eighth of a cow in case global food supplies give out. But the deep freeze seems to make my husband feel safer, and in our household’s current economy, even an illusory sense of safety has a value higher than gold. In the past several years, a spate of studies by North American banks have found that more and more couples are choosing not to combine their finances—a Bank of Montreal survey found that only a quarter of Canadian couples completely pool their resources. There are regional differences: couples on the prairies are the most likely to share everything, and Quebec couples the least. Millennials are far less likely to use joint bank accounts than their parents. When Neena asked for my SIN, I wrote it down and slid the paper across her desk. But reflexively, I shielded it with my hand so my husband couldn’t see. I’ve always been told to keep my personal information secret—no one said secret until you get married.  Of the many conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s shadowy origins and agenda—5G, biological warfare gone wrong, Zuckerberg finally eliminating real-world interaction altogether—it feels to me like a dystopian victory for a particularly narrow vision of nuclear family. No sex unless you live together. Limited contact with friends and extended family. Historically, marriage was an outward-facing arrangement that wove otherwise unrelated groups into mutual-aid networks. Peasants used to sing songs and recite folktales that made fun of married love, as a way of reminding couples who were too wrapped up in each other not to forget their obligations to the wider community. Theologians used to caution married people not to love each other too much—it might distract them from the image of Christ in each other’s faces. But over time, western European and North American culture has idealized an ever smaller, more private, and more self-sufficient unit. At time of writing, my city’s by-laws impose a fine of a thousand dollars for being caught within six feet of anyone from outside my household. When I look out my window, the pods trooping past are like ads for conservative family values—mom, dad, two kids. The model for a virtuous life under current conditions matches most closely with the kind of marriage I was brought up to avoid—insular, isolationist, fearful of outsiders. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, my sense of myself as a person with an independent existence from my husband suddenly seemed like a fantasy—I couldn’t believe I had ever taken it seriously. It seemed clear that whatever happened to one of us happened to both of us, and any decision one of us made—to touch anything, to go anywhere—was being made for the other. The idea of reckoning up whose money had bought more of the cabbages or lemon concentrate in our emergency box was a dark joke. What future would we be keeping track for? The wider economy was running on the same calculation. Suddenly, it turned out, the imperative to earn a living had been a myth all along—none of that mattered. What mattered was not to die, and the government ordered everyone to stop working and go home. They would simply print money to keep us alive. As an economist commented on Australian national radio, “We are all Keynesians now.”  And yet—these dynamics have a way of reasserting themselves. As people locked down across the globe, the labour exchanges within households have come under heightened scrutiny. The economic impact of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women, especially women of colour, as jobs in the service sector have disappeared or become more dangerous. For some couples with children struggling to work from home, the imperative for someone to provide childcare in periods of school closure has pushed the lower earner out of the workforce. And in families in which one or both are still going out to work, all previous cost-benefit analyses that led to career choices have utterly changed—while pay may have remained the same.  * Shoshana Grossbard contends that you can, in fact, buy love. [[{"fid":"6707821","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In this equation, which Grossbard published in 2018, the U stands for “utility,” which is the term economists use for what the rest of us call happiness. The individual’s happiness will depend on an equilibrium between the loving care moving from one partner to the other (i-j) and back (j-i). Loving care might take the form of home-cooked meals and folded linen on one hand, cash and approval on the other. Happiness in a marriage is a function of both love and self-respect, the latter of which is produced under several conditions: recognition of one’s labour competence; the ability to achieve a desired standard of living; a choice about what kind of work and leisure to engage in and when; and an inherent belief in one’s own worth. Love in lockdown is a paradox in which the value we ascribe to each other’s lives is high, and therefore we seek to minimize each other’s happiness by limiting each other’s freedom. I’ve never wanted to be one of those couples who exercise together, but to avoid going out we set up an exercise circuit that had us running back and forth between the weights in the living room and the skipping rope in the yard. After one of our biweekly grocery expeditions, my husband started coughing. We found a small neighbourhood grocery doing delivery, wrote all our emergency numbers on a sheet by the door, and prepared ourselves for the worst. Our ability to isolate efficiently is, of course, strongly associated with class. We have the kind of white-collar jobs that can be done from home, and we can afford (for now) the higher prices for local delivery. An apartment building abuts our lot, and I guiltily avoid looking up at its windows as I, the yarderati, get my safe exercise. We wouldn’t be in our current situation without a lifetime of help from our upper-middle-class families, and it is very plain to both of us how little we have earned our good fortune. My husband is still coughing, but over the past month no other symptoms have developed—our immediate fears have subsided. Instead of helping my husband get organized for the months to come, I’ve been distracted, lying awake planning out what I would have done if I were still alone in my old apartment. Being loved means I am no longer solely responsible for taking care of myself, but being cared for makes me feel less competent—I respect myself less.  Even though Grossbard goes by @econoflove on Twitter, she doesn’t tend to use the word “love.” The equation itself is derived from the work of another economist, Charlotte Phelps.  Grossbard argues that what Phelps calls love looks an awful lot like what she prefers to call work-in-household (represented here as H): [[{"fid":"6707831","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Here happiness is a function of the exchange of work between partners, combined with L for waged labour, X for consumer goods, and S for leisure time. Phelps, writing in 1972, argued that although a woman who becomes a housewife receives payment for her loving care through her husband’s provision of material goods, this exchange stops short of making love a market commodity. “No currency, money or approval, can buy love,” Phelps wrote. Why not go all the way, Grossbard asks, and say that the rewards for loving care (work-in-household) should be monetized? “Providing more legal support to exchanges of loving care for money is a key to more fruitful negotiations among partners and potential partners,” Grossbard writes. In Richard Thaler’s 2015 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, he talks about his affection for honour boxes. You see them at highway farm stands or unattended campsites, nailed to a wall or a post: you can drop coins or bills in, but you can’t take them out. For Thaler, it’s a nutshell explanation of human nature. Enough people will voluntarily put money in the box, even if no one is watching, to make it worth the farmer or the parks service’s while. But if the box were easy to open or steal, it wouldn’t be long before someone did.  Before the crisis, my husband and I had set up rules to govern who paid for what proportion of which things in our household. There are plenty of apps designed to help couples keep track but our method is old school—a blackboard in the kitchen, on which each of us is supposed to chalk up our expenditures. The beauty of this honour system was that it allowed us to cheat on each other’s behalf. When I decided to buy a fancy jam that wasn’t on the list or pay more than my share for gas on a trip to visit friends, I could fudge the numbers.  Now we don’t seem to have any system. My husband set up the grocery delivery on his credit card, and depending on which news he’s been reading, the box arrives full of pie and ice cream (it is hopeless, everyone we love will die) or cabbage and canned sardines (we will all live long enough to lose our jobs in six months). We’re still figuring out what proportion of these emotional purchases I should be responsible for. One of the major contributions of behavioural economics is the distinction it draws between Econs and Humans. Econs are the purely rational agents found in economics textbooks: they buy, sell, change jobs, start businesses, and plan for the future in the most beautifully ordered way, always choosing perfectly between available options to maximize their own utility. Humans are the dazed, impulsive, occasionally altruistic characters you meet standing in a panic before supermarket displays of six kinds of apples. In decisions that involve any kind of self-control, a Human is actually two selves trying to act as one. There’s one self-trained on the future and one who sees nothing but the present. Human marriage is four selves trying to act as one; it’s like doing the dishes from inside a horse costume. One of the dominant metaphors for marriage in economic literature is the firm. Or The Firm, as I started to think of it, for the 1993 Tom Cruise movie. Whoever is behind on their share of cooking and vacuuming is letting The Firm down. McDeere was also supposed to stick with The Firm until death did them part. The idea is that marriage vows are in fact an employment contract, albeit with fuzzy terms. As always, exploitation is a strong possibility. In the 1950s male breadwinner model of the household, wives are the workers and husbands the cigar-waggling industrialists. Much Marxist-feminist ink has been spilled on the inequality of this relationship, and even though the proportion of contemporary partnerships that fit the male breadwinner model is low—in 2015, Statistics Canada reported that both partners reported income in 96 per cent of couples—the gender wage gap means that inequality follows most women home.  Intra-household bargaining matters to the politicians and bureaucrats running the economy. In part, for its role in driving buying patterns. Some theorists argue that the home is no longer comparable to a firm, because these days it’s not a site of production, but primarily a site of consumption. Although there is one essential product, an adequate supply of which is considered necessary for the smooth running of a country, that is manufactured at the discretion of the home firm. Families are the factories where children—i.e., future workers—are produced. When I lived alone, I had no one else’s income with which to compare my own, and success was defined as paying my rent and bills every month. Now, I am keenly aware that my husband makes more money than I do. Neither of us wants this fact to be meaningful. There’s lots to explain why we aren’t bringing home the same amount of bacon, since we do different jobs in different sectors. But it’s tricky to maintain an equal relationship when it’s so easy to quantify how unequally the outside world perceives your value.   * “You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. Quite the contrary. If I had to begin my life over again, I would do the same,” Karl Marx wrote in 1865. He was corresponding with Paul Lafargue, a protégé who wanted to marry one of Marx’s daughters. “I would not marry, however. As far as it lies within my power, I wish to save my daughter from the reefs on which her mother’s life was wrecked.” Jenny Marx, née von Westphalen, was born into the Prussian aristocracy. She died in London after a lifetime of dodging bill collectors, begging from friends and relatives, pawning her belongings, and seeing four of her seven children die of poverty-related diseases. Karl and Jenny were childhood friends; he had studied with her father, who was himself a proto-socialist. Her family was nonplussed by the match, however, mostly because Marx was terrible with money. His happy-go-lucky spending habits at university (he was president of a drinking club and chose the most luxurious lodgings in town) drained his own middle-class family’s resources, and Karl and Jenny’s engagement was a negotiation that lasted seven years. Eventually, Marx agreed to sign a contract waiving Jenny’s liability for any debts he had incurred before their marriage. There would be plenty more debt to come. They married in 1843, when he was twenty-five and she was twenty-nine, and moved to Paris, where Marx wrote radical articles under a pseudonym. Within a year, a police commissioner knocked on the door, and Karl was expelled on the charge of atheism (actually for rousing sentiment against the Prussian royal family), with twenty-four hours to leave the city. He left, and Jenny stayed behind with the baby to sell the furniture to cover outstanding rent and bills. This pattern was repeated with dreadful monotony over the next forty years. Every time a wealthy relative bailed him out, Karl promptly rented living quarters fancier than he could afford, spent whatever was left on furniture, and was quickly broke again. The family was in rags and lived close to starvation. When Karl tried to pawn what remained of Jenny’s family silver, he was nearly arrested—how could such a vagabond have gotten hold of silver with the Argyll crest?  The Marxes serve as a chilling example to anyone contemplating marriage to a writer. Early on, Karl got an advance for the book he was writing on “political economy.” Jenny rejoiced that the book would soon make her husband’s reputation, usher in a socialist paradise, and yield enough royalties for the family to live on. Instead, Karl pretended to be two weeks away from finishing the manuscript for sixteen years. For most of this time, he hadn’t even started. The publishers demanded their money back as Karl spiralled off into more and more research, endlessly broadening the scope. There was so much more he needed to read and think about, sitting at his desk in the British Museum while Jenny fended off creditors.  All this paints Marx as a terrible husband. Yet, as the Prussian spy assigned to peep through the Marxes’ windows attested to his superiors, Karl was quite a cozy person to have around the house. He played stagecoach with the children, letting them tie him to a row of chairs and whip him; when he and Jenny went out, he was a good dancer. A friend remarked that he had seldom seen so happy a marriage, “in which joy and suffering were shared and all sorrow overcome in the consciousness of full mutual dependency.” Like Keynes, Marx was described by friends and strangers as hideous—short and squat, his rampant beard reeking of cigar smoke, his coat buttoned wrong. Jenny, like Lopokova, was considered beautiful and elegant, though eventually her face was scarred with smallpox, the doctor’s bill for which Marx described as “hair-raising.” It is also not the case that Jenny was Karl’s victim. She was an ardent socialist who considered her own health and safety secondary to the propagation of her ideals. “Where could we feel more at ease than under the rising sun of the new revolution?” she asked in her memoirs.  Even the Marxes, however, could not live on ideals alone. In 1850, pregnant and desperate once again, Jenny sailed to Holland to plead with Karl’s wealthy uncle for more money, to no avail. “I believe, dear Karl, I will return home to you with no results, fully deceived, mauled, tortured in mortal fear. If you knew how I yearn for you.” Meanwhile, Karl was impregnating their housekeeper, Lenchen. The baby was given up for adoption, and Karl’s friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, claimed to be the father. Jenny left no evidence of her private thoughts on Lenchen’s condition (the maid had come to Jenny from her own family back in Germany and was more like a sister than a servant), but historians speculate that it was nearly impossible for Jenny to have been entirely oblivious—the entire family lived in two squalid rooms.  We do know that by the end of her life, her husband’s book still unfinished, Jenny Marx was so depressed she could barely get out of bed. Her mother died, and with Jenny’s inheritance the family managed to rent adequate housing (again, it wasn’t long before the money was gone and they were out on the street). In her memoirs, Jenny wrote of this period, “We were sailing with all sails set into bourgeois life. And yet there were still the same petty pressures, the same struggles, the same old misery, the same intimate relationship with the three balls of the pawnshop—what was gone was the humour.” Poverty wasn’t funny anymore. Engels, the hero of any Marx biography, had gone to work for his father at the hated family mill so that he could support the Marx family while Karl completed his important work; now Engels cleared their debts and put them on a yearly allowance. Jenny did not live to see the success of the book for which she had sacrificed her health and peace of mind. Not because she died before it was published—Das Kapital came out in 1867 and Jenny lived until 1881—but because the book was a flop. It was not until later that the book found its unrivalled place in the history of economic thought. The Marxes, in short, did not manage a Marxist marriage. In emotional terms, neither of them seems to have got everything they needed, and in financial terms they certainly did not. There’s an authoritarian streak in me that whispers the appeal of rigid planning to enforce fairness—left to my own devices, I am well aware of how often I fail to consider the needs of others. For a household to be run in such a way that everyone feels in control of their own labour, and yet the mutually desired amounts of clean laundry, cooking, and sympathetic listening are produced, a manifesto may well need to be drawn up. Whether the Marxes each gave according to their ability is harder to assess. Who can be certain how much love they really have to give?  * Adam Smith was born at the tail end of the last outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe; between 1720 and 1723, half the population of Marseilles died. In Smith’s lifetime, smallpox also devastated the Indigenous populations of the Americas, in part due to its deliberate use as a biological weapon. While Karl Marx was living in Soho, the neighbourhood was the locus of an eruption of cholera; 23,000 died of the disease in England that year. John Maynard Keynes lived through the Spanish flu. Marital norms also fluctuated during these economists’ lifetimes. The eighteenth century saw the rise of the love match in western Europe, a trajectory that mirrored the rise of the market economy and increased independence from the family network. While Marx sat in the reading room of the British library, the British upper classes were sentimentalizing the role of married women as the moral and emotional core of the household—the thin edge of the wedge we would now call affective labour. Keynes, who died in 1946, lived long enough to see sex take up a central place in the popular conception of a good marriage.  Among the many unknowns of how the coronavirus pandemic will reshape our societies is how the psychological and material effects of lockdown will affect people’s desire for partnership. As a lifestyle choice, marriage is objectively in decline: a United Nations report from 2019 found that, worldwide, people are marrying later or never, and divorcing more often. In the U.S., data from the past few years project that a quarter of today’s young adults will stay single for life. Some studies suggest that, contrary to popular belief, married women are sadder, sicker, and shorter-lived than their single counterparts. Marriage has always been a risky business, containing, as it does, scope for exploitation, violence, and the general misery of spending time with someone who makes you unhappy. In an age when companionship, for those able to exercise some control over their exposure to others, is more scarce, the calculations about what kind of household formation to seek become more complicated. The utility of a good marriage is even higher, while a bad marriage poses a greater threat than before. Quarantine conditions intensify all the dangers of a bad relationship, and advocates are calling the rise in domestic violence a pandemic-within-a-pandemic. The limited social contact outside the home means reporting avenues are blocked, and ongoing confinement makes it easier than ever for abusive partners or parents to monitor and control the communications, movements, and finances of victimized members of the household. Medically speaking, solitude is the ideal state. Early on, experts suggested that even people who shared a home should limit how much they touched each other. And solo living can allow for greater agency in choosing a desired level of risk tolerance. For those choosing to date during the pandemic, romantic dealbreakers can be incompatibilities of hand hygiene, or of willingness to roll the dice on attending a birthday party. Financially speaking, too, our society tends to place a high value on financial independence. But the economic imperatives that have driven partnership for millennia could set many searching for traditional forms of cooperation as we enter an era of global financial hardship. During the Great Depression, the divorce rate fell—people couldn’t afford to separate. Now, as then, the social forms our emotional lives take carry the imprint of more widespread crises not of our making, created by systems most of us only dimly understand.
The Year in Time

This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Before 2020, I measured my time in movement, and my work as a Black Jewish writer and filmmaker focusing on international human rights issues required it constantly. Six months in Israel and Palestine documenting the community organizing of African asylum seekers, three weeks in Japan and Korea filming with a US human rights delegation, four or five trips zigzagging across the United States for conferences and screenings. Humming Wyclef’s “Gone Till November” to myself went from cliché to ritual as I rolled luggage and film equipment through each new airport, and time away from home was a unit to measure life by. I arrived in Boston the first week of March 2020, just as COVID-19 began systematically shutting down the United States. I was there for a three-month arts and activism fellowship through Harvard’s Religion Conflict and Peace Initiative, an exciting and legitimizing opportunity in a career forged in conflict zones and stateless communities far away from the mainstream. I was determined to make the most of the kind of institutional access and resources that had always been out of my reach, and fought hard to keep up the facade of my plans. But every day my world got smaller and smaller. I remember surreally moving in reverse of the tide of abruptly dismissed undergrads scrambling for flights home on my way to pick up a key card for an office that I was only able to use once. I had exactly one night out at bars with my co-fellows who could only talk about finding somewhere else to ride this all out, and then a small going-away party for a colleague who left by the end of the week. Soon my Boston housemates packed up and left for nearby family homes, and I was alone under lockdown in an apartment and city I’d barely gotten the chance to meet. I contemplated packing up my life once more and going to stay with my parents until this was all over, but an urgent inner voice told me I had things to do right where I was. After an entire young adult life marked by travel, I had to learn to stay still, and do so entirely alone. The hardest part was finding new ways to keep time. I no longer had big plans to set the rhythms of my life to, and had to rely on the kind of rote daily routine I had always avoided to keep myself sane. I not only embraced routine, I became it: reading and writing in the morning, working out and editing video in the afternoon, Zoom calls with friends and sleeplessly waiting for the next day each evening. But ticking off each day on the calendar until my fellowship ran out wasn’t enough—I needed to account for the passage of time in a way that meant something. My grandfather had died just weeks before I left for Boston, and his funeral was a reminder of why my secular Reform Jewish family has kept our traditions and identity alive in the face of decades of assimilation. Judaism outlines clear lifecycle obligations, including what to do when someone passes, and fulfilling them held us together as we moved through grief to give my grandfather the send-off he deserved. Most meaningful to me was the mitzvah of accompanying your loved one to the grave and covering it with a bit of earth to lay them to rest, and doing so for my grandfather was an act of love and service that also called up the Black Muslim mourning rituals I learned from an Aunt who would also pass this year. All this brought new appreciation of obligation to my weeks alone, observing rituals like Shabbat helped me not only feel close to him, but separated one week from the next. I measured out my time in the Target tea candles I lit each Friday, going to the liquor store to buy wine for Kiddush, and surprising my Orthodox Jewish neighbors with a “Gut Shabbes!” greeting when we passed in the street. But once you can measure time, how do you make it meaningful? Most of the meaning in my life comes from work in service to others, and throughout the pandemic it seemed like the best thing I could do for anyone was to avoid others and not spread the virus. The principle of the preservation of life superseding all other duties, what Jews refer to as pikuach nefesh, for a time relieved me of my restless belief that my own worth was wrapped up in my ability to move and create. But that relief only lasted so long. In spring, the Black uprisings fueled by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd hit Boston and brought with them a sense of urgency that forced me into the street, in the name of this very same principle of preserving life. After spending months alone in my apartment, I found myself and my remaining co-fellows marching from the historically Black Roxbury neighborhood to the Massachusetts statehouse, calling out the names of those lost to police violence. It was a shock to the system to move from a state of total isolation to suddenly being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, all wearing masks, and moving as one. In an instant I went from individually counting out my time in rituals and routines to breaking free of all of that to follow the demands of a singular collective moment. It’s that contrast, and connection, between personal and collective time that has come to define this year for me. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the November election—all have marked this year and brought with them the need for personal and collective responsibility for how we respond to the times we live in, and what we do with the time we are given. This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves. In truth, every individual sacrifice of this pandemic is part of a collective goal of fighting for a time when we can be together again. I left Boston in June, but live a similar life in San Francisco, this time with housemates to keep me company. I still count my time in routines and rituals, yearning for the day when movement returns to my life, but for now it is enough to know that even this is time well spent.
The Year Inside and Out

There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Like most of us this year, I have developed new tactics for not screaming into the void more than my daily quota allows. Mask on, I force daily sanity walks on myself, darting away from those who get too close, dancing up sodden little hills and down curbs until I’m back at my tiny apartment, covered in stress sweat. Despite my love of deking around barrel-chested men, I’d rather not drain my adrenal stores while buying tampons. I began taking evening walks, free to wander far into the quiet recesses of Toronto’s many neighborhoods, with only the occasional dog to nod at. The benefits of this adjustment, besides the comparably empty streets, include something that I’ve always enjoyed, but have never formally embraced: looking into strangers' windows. Before you dial 911 on your microwave, let me elaborate. When I began making a more conscious viewership of interiors, I determined a set of rules to avoid feeling like the wrong type of perv. By my own authority, I may “glance” “within” someone’s window if a) they've left the curtains open, b) they are not present in the room, c) I do not fully stop to get a better look, and d) I do not leave the perimeter entailed by the sidewalk. Politely canting my head towards the house in question could be construed as a sign of respect, if also a minor intrusion. To me, it’s like window-shopping. Instead of mannequins, I browse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, hovering bunches of helium-filled balloons, tiers of potted plants, and once, in fact, a serenely armless mannequin. Kitchens are best. Nearly every night, I pass a butter yellow one that faces my local park. I always fall to admiring the wall-mounted wooden dish rack that displays plates front wise, a thing I’ve only ever seen in New England-set dramatic feature films. To me, an empty room represents potential. Back when I used to attend plays, few things made me happier than sitting in the house—a beautiful contextual use of the word—gazing at the bisected interior of a living room or a kitchen or an entire home; a life-sized Polly Pocket. I knew that presently, some door would spring open, a light would turn on, a newspaper would be tossed on a chair. There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living. Sometimes, though, my mood sours when passing certain favoured houses, feeling the distance between the turreted mansions and my own lightless apartment; the distance between me and the better me, who would live in one of these glowing houses. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that where I live is a reflection of me as a person, and wouldn’t I be just so much better if I lived in this Victorian rowhouse? Architectural Digest surely thinks so. A value so often applied to distance is the realization of the bigger picture—the vista we are only capable of seeing when forced to move a few paces back for one airborne reason or another. In May, I began noticing the tents pitched in many of Toronto’s downtown parks. At first glance they looked like impromptu campgrounds, perky and colourful under trees in full flower. Huh, I thought. That seems new.  With the already overcrowded city shelters unfit for safe use due to COVID-19, and evictions looming, encampments quickly spread beyond the places where you might typically see them, for instance, tucked between trees and under overpasses in the Rosedale Valley—shelters of all shapes and material. Over the years, there has been a redoubling of city-initiated sweeps—intentional clearings of improvised shelters deemed, among other things, as fire hazards. City officials say that this is done in an effort to direct people living in camps to shelters or other, safer, temporary housing options. Many of those evacuated return to the in-between spaces, quickly rebuilding their modest shelters until another inevitable sweep once again clears them out. Nearly two years ago, Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote in Toronto Life that, “As wealth fills every crevice of the downtown core, [people] aren’t just excluded from prosperity—they’re punished by it, left to watch as the city’s affordable housing options are knocked down to clear the runway for Toronto’s rapid, unstoppable ascent.” Hune-Brown wrote about the “gradual accretion” that led to the then—and now current—crisis. At present, there are 8,700-9,000 people in Toronto experiencing homelessness (a number that reflects only those who can be accounted for). This adds more than 2,000 people to the number Hune-Brown cited as growing between 2016-2018. Numbers don’t offer the most sympathetic perspective, but they don’t lie. Whatever is pushing people out of permanent housing and into the window of temporary or chronic homelessness, it is only growing stronger. As of summer 2020, camps were pitched in just about every park I passed on my walks, including the southern spots like Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods, and Cherry Beach. Clusters and lines of tents and tarps and sleeping bags and kitchen chairs and piles of soft belongings and Gatorade bottles; everything that a person with a home has the privilege of keeping tucked in some IKEA storage unit or another. Here it was, placed out in the open. This includes the residents themselves, who might seek shade under a leafy tree, or smoke with friends, or otherwise find ways to fill the hot days that we all sought refuge from. Encampment residents are frequently harassed by police, threatened with eviction, ticketed, and neglected by the underfunded social services meant to help them. Bolstered by a municipal by-law that forbids camping in public parks, tents have been slashed, overturned, and violated. Mayor John Tory lifted the ban on encampment evictions in August, which has made the encampments even more vulnerable to the whims of those who want them gone under the bad faith argument that it’s for the residents’ own good. In June, there were 14 current COVID-19 outbreaks, 528 confirmed cases, and four deaths—in shelters. In the encampments that have been tested for COVID-19, there were none.  All this happened more-or-less coterminously with Toronto’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the calling for a 10 percent defunding of police services. Instead of defunding, two thirds of city councillors voted to keep the $1.2 billion gross operating budget of the police intact. Contesting those who would have the encampments removed is the volunteer-led Encampment Support Network. Since the spring, ESN has mobilized an ad-hoc team of people to be present for the various encampment communities sprawled across the city. That could mean providing them with donated water and energy bars during the hottest days of summer, first aid, outdoor yoga classes, use of phones/tech, and friendship, to name just a few essentials. They have publicized their advocacy for the encampment residents, calling them neighbors and featuring encampment friends on their social media by name. ESN is further dissolving the boundaries between the housed and the unhoused by creating opportunities for supporters to participate however they can, from organizing winter boot drives, to donating ice and food, to spending time with the residents and getting to know them more intimately, Many artists, like Michael DeForge, have created art (that rips) in support of the encampments—colourful and energized graphics that reflect the optimism behind the efforts of the residents, organizers, and volunteers. One of the most surprising accomplishments of ESN is their insistence on making the encampments—and the city’s efforts to break them down—as visible as possible. The public nature of homelessness, in this case, has been the thing that allows us to begin really seeing what has been here all along. More and more, the beautiful houses that I swoon over felt symbolic of something painful in our city. Awareness of inequality manifesting as pleasure in these beautiful and unavailable homes, a way for me to avoid thinking too hard about the more pressing disparities. Instead, I nurtured the reliable gripe I’ve held for years in some form or another: that I don’t have enough. In Toronto’s well-kept parks, the encampment communities have become a palpable reminder of the people whom the city, when not facing a pandemic, does an excellent job of keeping on the fringes of awareness. During a very cold winter, I will worry about the people who curl up in sleeping bags in front of banks or over warm-ish grates, but they are intermittent enough to be forgotten by a self-absorbed person like myself within minutes of passing. But I can’t do that now, not with the constant reminders of the encampments, which flow from public space to public space, even filling a little roadside arena at the corner of Queen Street and Dufferin, tents climbing up the incline. Never have I been so viscerally reminded of shelter poverty and the enduring housing crisis that existed in Toronto long before Trump suggested we might protect ourselves with bleach infusions. Upwards of 1,500 people currently live in Toronto’s encampments, more than twice as many as the number of new shelter spaces the city has created, including an interim respite, installed at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. When the images were released in November, public response was aggrieved, to say the least. The Better Living Centre respite is perhaps one of the bleakest interiors I have ever seen; a squat building converted to a chilling warren of glass walls with cots that look poised to interrogate hostages. As ESN plainly articulated in a statement released on October 23rd, “We visit the same encampments every single morning…People want housing, they want homes where they will be safe and warm. Every day we lend residents our cell phones to call 311 and ‘Central Intake’ who coordinate shelter spaces. We ask for temporary shelter, for hotel rooms, for beds. Every day we are told there is nothing available.” When I started writing this, I intended to discuss my love of interiors. But, as I often find when lingering on something comforting, I also discover its inverse truth. Considering something like beautiful home interiors makes it unconscionable to discount the reality of exteriors. I stand by what I said: empty rooms represent possibility, and as we move into another cold, in many cases fatally cold, Canadian winter, what is it that we as individuals, a city, a province, a collective psyche need to do to join those empty rooms with the people who want and need them, with dignity and aid to make places where they feel safe, dignified, and wanted? How do we apprehend what to me feels obvious: that shelter is a human right and its commodification has made us defensive of what we have, and wary of those who don’t? I love kitchen nooks and big cushion-strewn beds and fabulous windows that let in the morning light. I love original moldings and hand-painted ceramic tiles and shelves built of wood “rescued” from old barns. Rooms, and those permitted to fill them, exist on a continuum. To possess the good room I must avoid the bad room. But I can’t persist in believing myself worthy of the good room when I live in a city, in a country, in a world that thinks and politicizes the belief that so many of us are not. In 2020, we have all been forced to reckon with a suffocating sense of what’s ours, and how we might make each other sick because of it. This year, I have so frequently felt that I am pressed against the window of my own existence, desperate to find my way back to a world where I may feel what others feel, smell their pungent perfume, get my foot stepped on. It was not the briefly glimpsed interiors that made me aware of this, but the encampments. In a different world, the tents would disappear as our neighbours ceased to need them. But until that happens, I hope we never stop seeing them and everything they mean about this place where we all live, despite how it can feel, together.
‘There’s Some Kind of Evil Behind Every Great Work of Art’: An Interview with Alex Ross

Talking to the author of Wagnerism about uncovering counter-narratives, keeping a healthy skepticism of your relationship with art, and totalitarian intolerance of eccentric creativity.

Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) opens with the death of its subject, clutching his heart in a Venetian palazzo. When Wagner’s erstwhile acolyte Friedrich Nietzsche heard the news, he fell to bed ill, overwhelmed. That malady proved incurable for Nietzsche, who still agonized over the idol-turned-rival until his mental breakdown years later, and it lingered down through the century he helped usher in. A longtime music critic at The New Yorker, Ross purposefully ignores Wagner’s own peers, focusing on how his grandly ambivalent ideas blasted through every other medium. “The composer came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity,” he writes, “an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence.” Wagnerism reaches monumental proportions. One gets the impression that Ross read everything ever published by or about Wagner, then wandered through the appendices. There are chapters on literary admirers like Willa Cather and W. E. B. Du Bois, on the ways cinema has absorbed or mimicked his music, and necessarily on Nazi Germany. Hitler adored both the deathless melodies and their creator’s grotesque anti-Semitism. Wagner told his patron Ludwig II that “I consider the Jewish race the born enemy of pure humanity”; his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music” describes German Jews as the worms feasting on a corpse. Studies of cursed art often amount to glib apologetics, as if the author were hovering cross-legged over a prayer mat, serenely undisturbed by politics. Wagnerism climbs towards a reckoning instead, following the inferno into Valhalla. Chris Randle: I didn't realize this until actually reading the book, but I was amazed that you eschewed any mention of Wagner's musical influence, and I'm wondering if you were always working under that restraint. Was the book in its present form from the beginning? Alex Ross: Yeah, I decided right at the outset I wasn't going to talk about the musical influence, because it's such a huge topic in itself. There's thousands of composers who've been influenced by Wagner in one way or another—it would've added hugely to the scope of what was already a huge book. I actually don't think that the topic of Wagner's influence on music is as interesting, because there's nothing too surprising about it. He was this powerful figure in musical history, and he introduced a new musical language to some extent, especially in Tristan and Isolde, but he's not more influential than a bunch of composers who came before him, or even after him, from Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven to Stravinsky or the Beatles or whoever. Whereas this phenomenon in the other art forms—literature, architecture, dance, film—it is kind of unique. I don't think anything quite like it had happened in cultural history. I didn't know how prolific Wagner was outside of music, often arguably in a bad way—even outside of the anti-Semitic writing. His politics especially, I got this sense that they were never quite coherent, constantly shifting in a way that many distinct people latched onto. There's just a gigantic amount of research involved with going through that material, how did you go about all that and keep track of it? Yeah, he wasn't just a composer, and an important fact about the work is that he also wrote the texts. There are a lot of aspects to his non-musical activity which are...distracting at best, and malignant at worst [laughs], but in terms of the dramas, he was kind of a brilliant dramatist. He wasn't an acclaimed master of the German language in terms of his literary output, and a lot of German people, when they look at the librettos in isolation, it's very difficult, this strange, mangled, pseudo-archaic version of the German language, and it's just not conventionally beautiful. But when that libretto is sung, and the singing is placed in this dramatic situation that he creates, it becomes really compelling. Wagner was actually really good at structuring acts of an opera and building tension, undertaking these ambitious stories filled with so many interesting psychological details while pursuing grand themes—power in the Ring cycle, the lust for gold and the opposite force of love, all the philosophical underpinnings. He was a great psychologist, and all these characters are really rich; like, Wotan is so fascinating because he's this man of power who wants more power and ends up destroying himself in his need to always have more and more. He ends up plunging into this state of psychotic despair and self-pity, which is one of my favorite moments in all of Wagner. So there's a lot there, but there is also thousands of pages of the prose writings, a lot of which is just very difficult to make sense of, and yes, his politics were all over the place. If only he had simply written the music and written the texts and worked as a conductor, as a theatrical director; if only he hadn't felt the need to spew verbiage on every subject under the sun. But that was who he was, a completely irrepressible and verbose and monomaniacal figure who had to have an opinion about everything. The research was pretty huge. I started out by going through all the operas very carefully, the scores and the librettos. I didn't read or reread all of the prose writing, but I went through the main ones. And then I just started absorbing the material needed for each chapter, so many novels, plays, poems, I don't know how many hundreds—including some big-league works of literature, like Proust and Finnegans Wake and The Waste Land and several big novels by Virginia Woolf. None of which was a chore [laughs]. Part of why the book took so long, I think, was that it was so enriching for me to revisit all this literature. Some of it I was reading for the first time, some of it I had read back in college and hadn't understood very well, and it was great to come at these classic works from a fresh angle, looking through this curious lens of how they reacted to Wagner. A lot of the book is about them, it's about this period in art and literature, and not so much about Wagner himself. Wagner is sort of this thread that I follow through one of my favorite historical and cultural periods, the fin-de-siecle, decadent, somewhat insane, endlessly fascinating period from around 1880 to 1914. I've always been maybe unhealthily attracted to it, since I was a teenager. This fantasy-land when art reigned supreme. It just seemed like in Vienna and Berlin and other cities, artists, composers and writers were the superstars, the celebrities, and everyone in the streets was aware of their work. The cab driver would recognize Gustav Mahler on the way to the Court Opera. For me as a kid, who grew up worshipping art in all these forms, it feels like Disneyland [laughs]. But at the same time there were a lot of ominous currents underneath that world, so I'm also very mindful of how anti-Semitism was spreading, how hyper-nationalism was spreading, so it's a tale with an unhappy ending in a lot of ways. My favorite discovery from that era might've been Joséphin Péladan, the Catholic occultist writer. He really comes off like a Ronald Firbank character, this ludicrous— I loved writing about him. It was so much fun, he was just such a madman. You're never sure whether it was just a massive put-on, a way of seeking attention—setting himself up as the magus of this Rosicrucian order that was basically just him and putting on these wild art exhibitions, holding rituals and ceremonies. I think he was a performance artist to some extent, but also a serious, if extremely eccentric, literary figure. He wrote this 21-volume novel cycle, La Decadence latine, of which I absolutely did not read 21 volumes. I made my way through maybe four or five of them, and it's crazy stuff. When I did my audiobook, there was one moment where I just burst out laughing while reading it, about his novel Le Gynander—the androgynous and magical figure whose mission is to convert lesbians to heterosexuality, and generates all these replicas of himself, each of whom seduces and marries a lesbian, and they all worship a giant phallus. And Wagner is playing [laughs]. It's just so crazy. But it's also part of the fabric of the time, this was a period when artists were seen to be social figures, very much in the vanguard. It was thought that art really could help bring about a revolution in society or great spiritual transformation. You also go through a series of counter-readings: Black Wagnerites, Jewish Wagnerites, queer Wagnerites. Was there anything especially revelatory in that for you?  Yeah, at the outset I was aware of some of that material, and I definitely wanted to uncover these counter-narratives. The issue is that so many people equate Wagner completely with anti-Semitism and Hitler and Nazism, and they kind of erase everything else that went along with the phenomenon of Wagnerism. So what I was trying to do, without at all marginalizing that other narrative, that line of succession from Wagner to Hitler, which is extremely important and very real—it becomes more and more central to the book as it goes along. Without concealing that at all, I just wanted to add to the picture, to complicate it, with all these other ways in which Wagner affected people; from the far left to the far right, all these different social groups and minority groups who identified with Wagner and found him inspiring as they looked to ennoble their own traditions. So I was aware of W. E. B. Du Bois and his love for Wagner, and I was aware of the fact that for a lot of early gay-rights activists, as gay culture emerged into the open at the end of the 19th century, Wagner was a sort of icon, seen as an ally figure or even "one of us." Some people thought that he was gay based on the very romantic letters back and forth between him and King Ludwig II, when in fact they were just these flowery letters. And there are wonderful descriptions of Wagner's fashion sense.  Yeah, there was this androgynous side to him, he liked to wrap himself in these soft, silky fabrics, so there was this cultivation of a feminine mode of dress—which he was conscious of, and he talked about androgyny as an ideal in his work. His whole attitude towards gender and sexuality is really complicated. I mean, sometimes he can sound like a total misogynist when he talks about women, but there was something unconventional about his gender identity—it was not just standard masculinity. And that emerged into the public eye in an uncomfortable way for him when these letters to his designer-milliner about his favorite satin fabrics were exposed and published. He was widely mocked. But then somewhat later [the sexologist] Magnus Hirschfeld reviewed that episode and said, no, this is part of why Wagner is so interesting as an artist, because of this gender identity that he possessed ... There was more of that than I realized there would be. I knew about Du Bois, but I discovered this singer Luranah Aldridge who almost sang at Bayreuth in 1896, and who was the daughter of the great Black actor Ira Aldridge. Some of that Hirschfeld stuff, I just found out more about Wagner and Hirschfeld than I realized there would be. Those sections of the book kind of grew in importance, just because I ended up feeling like it wasn't just one or two eccentric cases, this was actually a deeper phenomenon. Even the case of African American intellectuals identifying with Wagner, that was more widespread than I thought at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. It shows you how a figure like Wagner can be inspiring and useful to audiences and spectators who might otherwise be hostile to him—you would think, by contemporary standards, that they would've rejected him, and of course this goes for the Jewish Wagnerians as well. But in fact they felt the right to take the work and make it their own, and ignore whatever aspects of Wagner were inimical or even directly hostile to them. People in this era worshipped art to an extreme degree, but they also felt free to take it and manipulate it however they wished, and I think today we tend to feel more bound to the original intentions behind a work and the biography of the artist, the context, so some of that freewheeling approach has ebbed away. I found that relationship between spectator and artwork really interesting. I don't know if you saw, but when Florian Schneider [a founding member of Kraftwerk] died earlier this year, people were sending around this amazing clip from 1990 or so, Detroit clubgoers on some local TV dance show just losing it to Kraftwerk's "Numbers." Obviously Kraftwerk don't have the racist baggage of Wagner, but they're easy to caricature as these impossibly white German guys, and yet they were closely intertwined with so much techno music. It is easy to reduce these things in that way. Yeah. The side of the relationship that I've always found so interesting is—I go through a whole series of examples of people being overwhelmed by Wagner, to a degree where they're losing control, they're put under a spell. It has this narcotic effect on them, they feel drugged by the music. There's this almost sexual vocabulary of being penetrated by the music—Baudelaire says that. And yet the spectator doesn't end up being passive and powerless. At the end of the process they emerge, having reinvented Wagner for their own purposes. That's what the Baudelaire relationship is all about. At the end, despite seemingly prostrating himself before the god Wagner, his Wagner is almost unrecognizable next to the original. He's just converted Wagner into this proto-avant-garde French bohemian figure. And that happens again and again. I'm fascinated by the doubleness of that, that you lose control, lose yourself, in the music and the work, but you emerge owning it in this very dramatic way, taking possession of it ... It's this pronounced pattern that you see over and over with a lot of these figures. The music has a strong visceral, sensual effect, but it's also extremely vague in terms of what it's actually conveying, and the spectator ends up projecting themselves into the work rather than receiving some clear message of meaning. I really like that one detail you mention, the Jewish music fan who was a contemporary of Wagner, who had the bust of him crowned with both a laurel and a noose. I love that. It's such a great visual encapsulation of the relationship that a lot of people had with Wagner, which is kind of my own. I meet so many people today who don't worship the man at all—they're fascinated by him and the work, but there's this adversarial, critical aspect to it too. They're constantly fighting with Wagner ... I think it's a healthy relationship to have with a work of art, to always be a little on guard and skeptical and aware, and not naively trusting the work to give you a pure and innocent and positive and uplifting message. I like that dimension of wariness [laughs] listening to Wagner. I always feel very awake and alert listening to Wagner and wondering what exactly is going on while I'm swept up in the music. Until very recently, the prize for the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and I've seen multiple essays from people who won it saying, "I turned mine to face the wall," or turned it to face a Samuel Delany book. At another talk I was doing, during the question period, someone drew that connection between Wagner and Lovecraft. I was actually talking about African-American Wagernism, and they pointed out that the new show Lovecraft Country—I've only seen a couple episodes of it, but it feels like it has some of that same dynamic as the older Jewish engagement with Wagnerism had, or African-American Wagnerism. Du Bois was actually pretty much straightforwardly worshipful of Wagner; he objected to the anti-Semitism but he never sensed any kind of anti-Black racist threat from Wagner, so far as I know. Jews were Wagner's fixation. He didn't have very much to say about Black people. I feel like they're similar in that they've both had this vast influence beyond their fields, Lovecraft more than he did within his own medium, but different in the sense that, if you read a random Lovecraft story, the racial paranoia really is inescapable, even when it's transposed to cosmic horror. Whereas Wagner I don't think is reducible in the same way. Yeah, it's not blatant with Wagner. There is this recurring debate over whether there are anti-Semitic stereotypes present in the works, the dwarves in the Ring cycle or Kundry in Parsifal or Beckmesser in Meistersinger. And people have plausibly said that they do match up with anti-Semitic stereotypes. The problem is that Wagner never gave any indication that he intended such a thing, and a lot of people actually didn't pick up on it at first. It's only really in more recent decades that people have concentrated on this strain of Wagner, it wasn't widely noticed at first. It's not blatant in that way. I absolutely feel there's something there, but it's quite hard to pin it down. But it's still the same problem. You can't look away from any of this with Wagner, you can't pretend it's not there, because he was so influential as an anti-Semite with that horrible essay he wrote in 1850, which was widely distributed. It definitely played a role in the expansion and intensification of anti-Semitism in German-speaking countries, because he was such a revered figure, and he put his weight behind anti-Semitism in a very dangerous way. There's a running joke in the book that I love, where you're discussing people like Nietzsche or Thomas Mann who have endlessly tortured relationships with Wagner, but now and then you mention figures like Marx or Brecht who were either indifferent or disdainful towards him. Do you feel like you learned anything from those reactions as well? Yeah, I mean, they're just fun, because there's a lot of over-the-top Wagner worship going on in the book, hopefully not from me. So it's refreshing to have someone come in and say, "This is just total repulsive nonsense." Marx was totally scornful of the whole Bayreuth operation and the commercialism of the festival. Brecht was quite dismissive. Mark Twain had some great put-downs of Wagner. So it breaks the spell a little bit, but those voices were also part of the conversation around Wagner. There was so much mockery and bitter, vicious, but funny criticism thrown his way, like the critic Eduard Hanslick, who said that the prelude to Tristan and Isolde reminded him of "the old Italian painting in which a martyr's intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." [laughs] There was such a fury around Wagner right from the start, people were deeply, viscerally put off by him, just as there were people who were swept away by him. I think some part of Wagner actually—he got very upset by all this criticism, but he was canny enough to know that it ultimately didn't do him any harm in terms of spreading his fame. There's some part of him that always had to have controversy around him, he always had to be causing a stink somewhere. He just couldn't leave it alone and have a peaceful, slowly expanding career. There always had to be this turmoil, that was just his personality. I wanted to ask you about the way Wagner was treated under Nazi Germany—I was struck by that detail about how performances of his music actually declined during that era. You distinguish between the Nazi high command, which loved him, and his uneasy place in the popular culture of fascism, which was mostly evil kitsch. Or, like, pop songs from America. I read about Nazi culture trying to figure out, well, just how much Wagner really was there saturating the landscape in Nazi Germany? And I came away feeling that there wasn't as much of it as people assumed, and one clear piece of evidence for that is the declining number of Wagner performances. I came to realize that the Nazis, and especially Joseph Goebbels, used a kind of American-style, technologically driven, mass-distributed culture as a way of controlling and distracting the populace. They ultimately found it much more useful to use movies and pop songs and outdoor entertainments to have that adhesive effect, more useful than so-called high culture. There's individual bits of Wagner which are very famous, the "Ride of the Valkyries" and Siegfried's theme, but the operas themselves are huge and complicated and unwieldy, and a lot of people found them very boring, including all of these Nazi underlings who were herded to performances of Meistersinger at the annual Nuremberg party rallies, basically under Hitler's orders. And they would fall asleep, they would sell their tickets to other people, they just wouldn't show up at all, so people would be herded in from a hotel area [laughs], forced to sit through Meistersinger. This was all Hitler's maniacal idea: He loved Wagner and had grown up with Wagner, and he assumed that everyone else could have and should have the same experience, so he sort of forced it on the masses. And there was tension between that attitude of his and Goebbels's more pragmatic approach, that popular culture was much more useful in terms of keeping the populace entertained and distracted. I mean, Hitler also enjoyed Hollywood movies, so he was aware of the strong effect of that. And the other interesting thing about Wagner in Nazi Germany is, there were some Nazis who simply didn't like Wagner, not because they weren't interested in the music or found it boring but actually because they found Wagner kind of suspect. There was just something off about Wagner. He was decadent, he was bohemian, there was something sexually off about him. There was a rumor that Wagner himself was Jewish. These sort of stories spread around, and Hitler Youth groups would be discouraged from going to Bayreuth, because it was deemed unhealthy for robust young German youths [laughs] to be exposed to this dubious, decadent composer. And there was this gay atmosphere at Bayreuth for a long time—it was known to be a gay mecca, where you could express yourself more openly, and that went back to Wagner himself, who was welcoming to gay people in his circle. And then his son Siegfried turned out to be gay, so he always had the entourage around him, and Cosima [Wagner's widow] seemed not to mind having gay people around. So gay men and lesbians would congregate in Bayreuth. That sort of atmosphere was persisting in the 1930s, and it was felt to be problematic in the Nazi period. But I don't want to exaggerate this. Wagner was a big propaganda figure in Nazi Germany, and Hitler did absolutely love his music. I was just trying to introduce some nuance and complexity and just point out the ways in which Wagner—there's a lot of aspects of Wagner that have nothing to do with Nazi ideology, the totalitarian ideology. When you set his anti-Semitism aside, a lot of Wagner's other political ideas are contrary to the all-powerful central state, the huge military. Wagner was always something of an anarchist when it came to political organization. It's interesting to compare him to Richard Strauss, who I imagine was the most revered living German composer—it seems like the Nazis both admired and resented him, maybe because they sensed that he despised them. I'm always chilled by that diary entry where Goebbels wrote: "Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic." I think that sorry tale of Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany may give you an idea of what it would've been like if Wagner himself had confronted such a state—which he couldn't possibly have done, because Wagner was a 19th-century figure and this kind of totalitarian state in its modern form didn't exist, they couldn't have imagined it. But yeah, Strauss also had these anarchistic leanings and unconventional political ideas. Music mattered to him above everything else but he thought the Nazis would be useful for advancing the cause of his own works and classical music in general, in the same way that Wagner thought the Kaiser would be able to take up his cause, and that he would become the official composer of the new German Empire, which did not happen at all. Strauss's disdain for the Nazis—he was somewhat anti-Semitic himself, or had been when he was younger, but he absolutely rejected the idea of Jewish composers being banned and resisted various aspects of Nazi policy, and eventually it became quite uncomfortable for him because his son married a Jewish woman and his grandchildren were considered non-Aryan. Signals were sent to keep him in line, that something bad could happen to his family, so he ended up in this private misery during the later stages of Nazi Germany, emerged intact, and ended up writing his beautiful final pieces. But that gives you an idea of what happens when an independent-minded post-Wagnerian composer collides with totalitarianism, which has no patience for the eccentric, self-willed artist. You did this whole investigation of Wagner in film; obviously there's the endless recursion of "Ride of the Valkyries," but I loved what you suggested about the use of leitmotif in cinema, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. Right from the start of movie history, there was this idea that Wagner could be used as a model for how music goes together with film images. Already in the silent era, Wagner was being held up as a guide for how you identify characters and situations onscreen by tagging them with these brief motifs, and people write, "Do what Wagner did." And Wagner's own music would be part of that library of motifs, that the movie-house pianist would have at their fingertips: Horses, play "Ride of the Valkyries"; a storm, play Flying Dutchman music. So at that basic level, Wagner was integral to the development of film music. Then when sound came in and you have these big professional orchestras recording symphonic scores by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, many of whom were emigres, who came out of this late-Romantic musical tradition, and Wagner was just inescapable in that tradition. Richard Strauss was also a huge influence, especially on Korngold, but there's Wagner all over how those scores are constructed and the orchestration. Film music is Wagnerian from the outset. In that chapter I was actually breaking my rule a little bit, not writing about Wagner's effect on composers, because I do talk about Steiner and Korngold and Bernard Hermann, but then I sort of expand it beyond what's on the soundtrack, what the composed score is doing—I'm also talking about Wagnerian motifs in the stories, versions of these classic mythic situations from Wagner's operas. There's a whole bunch of movie scenes where people are listening to Wagner—with the rise of Nazi Germany there's this instant cliche of identifying Nazis onscreen by playing some Wagner, or they're listening to Wagner. And then more eccentric strains, Luis Bunuel with the surrealist use of Wagner, and later Fellini, Ken Russell—Lisztomania is such an incredible film [laughs], it's such a bonanza for anyone who'd been immersed in all this for years as I was. There's so many careful little inside jokes in that movie. That chapter ends with Apocalypse Now, which is kind of the masterpiece, the most amazing Wagner scene in movies. And also maybe encapsulates the political contradictions. Yeah, that's why it's so great, I think. It's not just incredibly viscerally effective, how it's filmed and the helicopters and the synchronization of the music to the shots, but also there's this huge irony at work where the kind of music that was so often associated with Nazi aggression in movies and newsreels is now being used to portray American military aggression. With this racist edge to it, because Robert Duvall's character has these racist insults that he throws out as the assault is underway. It's basically America beginning to take on the role of global villain, there's this transference or inversion with the Wagner music there, it's tremendously effective. And then it sort of undermines itself, because it's so thrilling that you lose track of the ironic, subversive message, it becomes this glorious macho spectacle with Wagner playing. You have this absurd situation where soldiers are playing the music in real-life combat, just because they've seen the movie or seen the scene on YouTube or whatever, and feel like it's the right thing to do. That was not the message that the movie was supposed to be, I think [laughs], at least from Coppola. John Milius [the screenwriter] had a different political orientation. And that turnaround is also some Wagnerian irony, the scene from the movie being misappropriated and politicized in a new way. I'm curious, why did you choose to do that abruptly memoiristic turn at the end? I thought that was fascinating, it just stands out so much from the rest of the book. That was funny, because I'd been working on this book for 10 years, and I was finishing the draft in January of 2018—of course it had to be edited, that whole process before publication, but that was the moment where I was finally finishing the rough draft. My 50th birthday was coming up, and I told myself that I have to finish at least a semblance of a rough draft before my 50th birthday. Over Christmas I was maniacally working away. Then a couple days before my birthday I was flying back from New York to L.A., and I wrote a rough draft of that epilogue just on the plane, and I was saying, "I'm going to change all this, I'm not actually going to put all this in the book." I was sort of telling myself that I was finished by writing this stuff down, and I could claim at my birthday party, "I finished the book!" And then I left it all in the book [laughs], and never took it out. It is much more—obviously the book isn't personal at all, it's a work of cultural history. But I thought, I don't know, I just sort of used myself as an illustration of the same kind of process that I'd been depicting with all these other figures, where they have these personal experiences with Wagner and these unexpected associations come into play. They find this new relationship between the music and their own world. I realized that that had been happening to me, and I'd been replicating this familiar mechanism of relating to Wagner. Struggling with Wagner too, because I wrote about how I hated Wagner when I first heard him, I saw him as this huge historical problem when I was studying European history and culture in college, and then I developed this deeper appreciation for him. So that was...experimental. I guess usually with a huge book like this, on a topic that's maybe a little bit obscure, the author would usually put that kind of personal introduction at the beginning, to create relatability or something [laughs], and I guess I was being a little perverse by putting it all the way at the end and making people suffer through [laughs]. My own take on all this just didn't matter so much, that's not what the book is about, but I thought it would be—just confess my own personal stake at the end. It was this funny story, or funny in retrospect, of how I got dumped immediately after a performance of Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera, and then proceeded to sit through the remaining two operas with my now-ex-boyfriend, because I didn't want to seem to be too destroyed by this, even though I was [laughs]. Five or six hours of Wagner operas with this guy, it was a disaster. That kind of personal misery and humiliation, all this dark emotional stuff, I just saw that in the opera. Wagner loved to depict that kind of emotional state in his work, so that was jumping out at me as I was watching the opera, and I realized how amazingly piercing his psychological insights are. Do you have a sense of how the Wagnerian is shifting or mutating in our own time? I don't know, it's so complicated. He's still so controversial—people love him or hate him or can't make up their minds about him. A lot of what I describe in terms of Wagnerism in arts and literature, having these deep relationships with Wagner, a lot of that has ebbed away, but it's still going on, and you still find Wagnerian references in literature and there's still Wagner all over the movies. But there's also this philosophical conversation around Wagner, and I talk about contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek who've written about Wagner. I feel like there have been these waves with him: After World War II, there was consciousness of his dark political legacy, and some people tried to respond by emphasizing his connection with leftist politics, and other people really wanted to focus on the anti-Semitism and emphasize what had been covered up previously about Wagner's racism. I feel like maybe in the past 10 or 15 years, just in terms of the books that have come out—I talk about this wonderful book by Laurence Dreyfus about Wagner and sexuality, and that's been a revelatory book for a lot of people. People are still talking about the leftist angle of Wagner and trying to find that balance, in terms of figuring out Wagner's politics. And the way Wagner is staged is so wildly diverse as well, especially in Europe. You have no idea what you're ever going to get when you walk into a Wagner production, and that's good. Some of these productions are a little nonsensical at times, but the project is a really serious one, and sometimes those productions are revelatory, because they rip the operas away from the traditional situations and context; it can reveal powerful new layers in the works themselves and make you think very differently about them. I actually resent when people call some random superhero movie "Wagnerian," because I think they're all terrible and I hate them. Like, Jack Kirby is Wagnerian. Those things are not Wagnerian [laughs]. The word Wagnerian just gets thrown around a lot [laughs]. When people say "Wagnerian," they always mean grandiose and bombastic and bulked-up superheroes wielding weapons, and that's only part of what Wagner is about. So often all that grandiosity is a background, and what really matters is the psychology of these intimate interactions. The grandiosity is a foil. And it's why those psychological, intimate moments have such an effect against this huge landscape, to suddenly be so close with the emotional nitty-gritty of people's lives. It's startling when you zoom in on the individual in that way, like a wide shot and a close-up. At the end of the book I give some examples of the gross overuse of the word "Wagnerian" [laughs]. I was getting a Google alert, actually, and every week it'd just be crazier and crazier. I had to shut it off eventually, because it was too much. If nothing else, maybe the book will make people think twice about using the word "Wagnerian." Is there anything else you want to say about the book? I do hope that it makes people rethink whatever assumptions they might have about Wagner—I do think these are tremendous works of art, and they're absolutely worth getting to know despite the huge problems attendant on them. I think you can be aware of all that and still have this very personal relationship with the work. If you're not thinking about the bigger historical questions all the time I think that's okay, you don't always need to be focused on that. You can lose yourself in the work and then step back and regain that larger perspective, with all its troubling aspects. And I think we can do that with any artwork. There's some kind of evil, there's something foul, behind every great work of art in history. Nothing has ever come from some place of innocence and purity. What's that Adorno line...? "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime." Or Walter Benjamin, "Every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism." And those are sort of typically over-the-top, club-you-over-the-head Frankfurt School proclamations [laughs], but there's also a deep truth there, I think. I feel like sometimes with Wagner they just want to shove him to the side, like, this artist was so awful that we just can't deal with him. But the problematic assumption with that can be, if we just get rid of this figure and a few other bad apples, then everything that's left will be okay, when it's not. Systemically, in terms of racism and misogyny and homophobia, our whole cultural history is scattered with that, so it doesn't do any good to get rid of Wagner, because he's just an extreme representation of these omnipresent wounds, that we have to be aware of and come to terms with.
The Year in the Wilderness

Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. - notes from a suicide [abandoned] - When it all began to end, I took to wandering—up and down, to and fro—the grey sink rim of the city’s waterfront. Shuffling past the other occasional pilgrim-patients hunched in masks, all of us ridiculous and shapeless and sad, I kept seeing a strange bird in the harbor that I didn’t know. Setting itself while it worked at a careful but busied distance from the rough affability of the mallards and screeching anxiety of the gulls, it was black, angular, and ugly, riding low in the bobbing water before hook-stitching under and surfacing a few minutes and masts away—a puzzled, furious punctuation-mark of a thing, perplexed and perplexing. I’m not much of a birder (though quarantine has made me more sensitive and invested in their comings and goings—my head divebombed by a furious cheeping redwinged blackbird mother in June, listening for the backyard laserbeams of cardinals in August) and I thought it must be some kind of heron. But then one day near dawn, I saw one of these unlovely beasts on the wood of the dock, in perfect stillness fanning its wings outstretched in the early sun, and I realized what I was looking at.It was a cormorant. - Jesus spent forty days alone wandering the wilderness. Before the pandemic that robbed this year from us, the feat of that used to sound impressive to me. Strictly speaking, quarantine means simply forty—a quarantena of forty days was the length of time, for example, that ships and crew were required to remain in dock in Renaissance Venice’s bustling commercial ports during the worst years of plague. But the word quarantine’s earliest attestations in English in fact refer very specifically to the desert isolation and subsequent temptation that begins Jesus’ ministry in the synoptic Gospels. Oxford scholar William Wey, for example, while making a fastidiously documented pilgrimage to Palestine in the 1470s, described the vista of the vast waste Christ was said to have wandered: “By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne, Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne; In that holy place, as we rede, The deuyl wold had of stonys bred.” Similarly in the Stations of Jerusalem, written around 1500 and forming a compendium of tourist diaries analogous to Wey’s, we can see the word “Quarantine” morph into a proper name for this area itself: “And after we..turnyd vp to Quaryntyne, There Jhesu fastyd xl deys.” It has been seven times forty days now, and the “wilderness of quarantine” still yawns before us: skies now ashen and sober, leaves now withered and sere, of a year most immemorial. And this story feels now changed to me.The climax will unspool differently depending on which Gospel you read. Matthew (assiduous, conciliatory, eager to make his Jesus a palatable fulfiller of law rather than breaker of it) makes the temptation to power and wealth—the kingdoms and glory of the earth—his last, because it is their access his Gospel is most mourning, most tempted by, and most must repudiate. But Luke is more desperate and fugitive. Too long alone—too long without a good meal or the company of friends, and recognizing finally that the comforts and compromises of ease and power are never to be his, he is set upon the pinnacle’s height. And the devil said to him: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. And that would be proof, wouldn’t it? That this world of suffering has a purpose, and you a place in it. Surely the angels and archangels and the choirs of heaven will swoop like bats from their perches to break your fall. Surely someone will stop you. And then you will wake in the cooling bath, or your face in the sick, or in the bleached snugness of the hospital, clean and bright and hungry, and know you were spared for a greater purpose: a life worth living. So let it show you. Jump, the devil said. And if it means anything at all to live, you will be saved. And if not, well, what will it have mattered, anyway? - The cormorant is a water-bird that nature, in its cruelty, has not made waterproof. This is why while ducks, with their cheerful greasiness, perch like placid cake decorations on the waves, the cormorant looks always half-sunk, in crisis, always absurdly seeming on the edge of drowning. This is also why they must sun themselves; their soggy feathers otherwise keep them perpetually cold and wet—the evolutionary tradeoff they receive to plunge so low and so deep in pursuit of their wriggling twilight prey. I only know this because, for the poet John Milton (into whose sink I have sunk so much of my life), the poor ill-favoured bird is an icon of the demonic. For Milton, the otherwise ungainly animal’s sunning pose—limbs outstretched, head drooping in solemn silence—is a vicious parody of the crucifixion.In Book 4 of Paradise Lost (1667), when Satan penetrates into our reality and descends upon Eden to pervert Adam and Eve, it is as this bird he perches in disguise to watch the humans and discern how he can seduce them to ruin: Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,The middle Tree and highest there that grew, Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true LifeThereby regaind, but sat devising DeathTo them who liv'd; nor on the vertue thoughtOf that life-giving Plant, but only us'dFor prospect, what well us'd had bin the pledge Of immortality. So little knowsAny, but God alone, to value rightThe good before him, but perverts best thingsTo worst abuse, or to thir meanest use (4.194-204). The image is more evocative than even (so far as I can tell) Milton seems to have realized—the cormorant is now considered a pest, an “invasive species” though it is native to the region, by many Ontario farmers and land developers because its ferocious deforesting of branches as it roosts and its corrosively acidic droppings kill whatever tree it squats in. In nesting in the Tree of Life, then, the Cormorant-Satan foretells its destruction—turning the immortally blossoming tree into the dead wood that, in many medieval legends, would become the planks of Christ’s cross. - Almost every day of quarantine, now in its ninth month, I walk past the spot on the waterfront where, when I was eighteen, I almost killed myself. The disclosure of despair is always fraught, always risking a spillage of the toxic waste it is meant to rinse and flush away. The publication of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was banned in Leipzig in 1775 for the spate of copycat suicides it is alleged to have inspired; high schools still struggle to calculate their responsibility in teaching or staging Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet; and more recently teen drama Thirteen Reasons Why was accused of carelessness in its handling of its radioactive freight. Voices carry; it has real consequences to breathe our sorrows, and a cultural apparatus and habit has arisen to keep these in their own quarantine. Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore. But this year, with the spokes and axle of our world so manifestly and catastrophically broken, the claim to “being fine” amid all this would, I think, betray even worser pathologies. - Once in the dark, with the DVD menu looping, he whispered my name and kissed a zigzag constellation down the meridian of my face—five marks whose scorch I can still feel to this day, like cinders cast from a splitting log. Like the coal the angel pressed to Isaiah’s mouth. And he became my faith. And for a few months there were comic books and bad movies and waking up tangled in each other. And then, just as suddenly there was a girl, and I realized no promises had ever been made. And I stood exposed—bereft the confidante he had been, out on a ledge among classmates and family and my own soul who now suspected my secret but without the shelter of him to stand with. And I understood, in this sudden solitude, how broken I was. So I set a date, and picked a spot—both calculated to speak of the wound. But both too, probably, meant to be found out—and when I agreed to discreetly meet with a counsellor, I found instead that suddenly my confidences were betrayed, and there were teachers and a careless policeman and handcuffs “for my own protection” and a squad car and a padded room and a gentle doctor explaining that in the womb my genes had been “feminized” and that is why I was so ruined. All very tacky. All very tawdry. All very teen. When I walk past the secluded spot I thought once to make an indecent end, it feels now like staring at last night’s campfire in the cold morning, fine white ash and bottlecaps. Instead of the ember-sting I feel cauterized—like when I was young and prone to nosebleeds and the doctor shoved what felt like a lit match up my nose and burned away, I guess, the offending tissue, and I never learned what else because I didn’t want to be impolite. I know what it means to be suicidal, and feel like apocalypse is descending—a too-muchness, an attempt (feeble and desperate and sad) to wrench meaning into life. But I don’t know what to do with a bleached, bare aftermath. - In the 350 years since Milton jammed the devil down its throat, the cormorant’s reputation has not much improved. On July 31, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry startled conservationists and scientists alike when it declared that the cormorant, once almost wiped out by the profligate use of insecticide DDT, was now subject to a province-wide open hunting season annually from September 15th to December 31st. With a game license you can officially kill up to 15 a day, if you like—not that the Ford government has required any official disclosure of the slaughter. Birdwatcher and fisherman Bruce Cox has expressed dismay at this casual carelessness: The Ministry of Natural Resources dug deep into their Orwellian thesaurus and announced Ontario’s newest sport hunt as a “fall harvest” of the double-crested cormorant. […] What is the government’s goal? A 10-per-cent reduction in cormorant numbers? Fifty per cent? More or less? The unmanaged hunt of an inedible native bird that was virtually wiped out in Ontario but for a couple of dozen nesting pairs presents an ethical dilemma for conservation-minded hunters and anglers. With no management plan in place, the hunt is at best almost completely devoid of scientific grounding, and at worst, live target practice. The cormorant hunt, seemingly mindless in its perversity, is actually quite coherent as part of Premier Ford’s project to “open up chunks of the Greenbelt” for development. The province’s “Protect, Support, and Recover from COVID-19 Act,” for example, instead of managing the mounting viral threat, contains a suite of provisions to rewrite environmental laws, including a stripping away of conservation experts consultation and regulatory power over wetlands, forests, and flooding. It is “not policy and institutional reform,” remarked the Greenbelt Council’s David Crombie in his resignation letter, so much as “high-level bombing.” With the earth’s principalities and powers at the foot of the tree throwing dice for its raiment, it now seems the crown jewel of Ford’s “COVID recovery” consists mostly of the paving of the provincial wetland to put up a casino parking lot. - #wrap { width:615px; margin:auto; padding: 0 0 6em 0; } #left_col { float:left; width:300px; } #right_col { float:right; width:300px; } Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita In the middle of life’s path I discovered myself in a dark wood and found that I was lost In the seventh circle of Hell, Dante’s pilgrim, who began the journey hinting at his own self-destructive despair, finds himself plunged into the Forest of Suicides. There, the souls of the dead are now trapped immobilized in trees whose limbs and trunks are painfully thrashed, denuded, and befouled by an infestation of harpies. More grisly still, the tormented Pietro della Vigna tells the horrified pilgrim, when the Last Judgment returns their flesh to these spirits, these souls will instead have their inert bodies cast into their boughs like ragdolls, impaled on their branches by God like a shrike. This is supposed to be a far-cast vision of sadistic justice to come—the body that was carelessly thrown away thrown back just as carelessly—but instead it seems to me to figure the particular somatic experience, which the exiled and lonely Dante is like to have known intimately, of what it feels like to be lost to oneself. I have tried many times to anatomize what precisely quarantine has done to me. The first hundred days, all alone in a small apartment, without human touch or voice, I felt parts of my self slough off and fall away. My skin buzzed; tears came from a dull, flat depth, and then just one day altogether stopped; my face felt nailed on and my actions distant, as though all of who I was was suspended in some foul aspic of bone and fat. I became aerosol, a fibre-optic showpig, and the flesh of my body now feels like a piece of outdated hardware, drawered in a tangle of wires, its battery corroding. This virus is supposed to steal people’s sense of smell and taste. It feels like while I hid I engineered it myself, in my bones. There have been the real, measurable losses and indignities as well. My beard is suddenly grizzled, the coarse white hairs startling those who have not seen me in a year. My right ear has failed, my hearing lost to a mass of internal scar tissue. With it went my ability, however meager, to sing. It was never a great voice, but it was a little joy—a bellowing to bad musicals that has doubtless annoyed neighbours for decades. Now there is just a waterbird croak. There were the funerals, shameful in their inadequacy: grief smothered in antiseptic and gauze, maimed rites for kind people who deserved so much better a goodbye. - And now a second wave is cresting. They say it will be more brutal than the first—the pandemic bursting lungs like wineskins, with all the world again closed and everyone far away and under cover, and I feel myself shrink and harden like a fist at another season of these desolations. “God never gives us more than we can handle” has always seemed to me a very obnoxious sentiment from a religion whose founder died a brutal death on a torture post. God gives all of us more than we can handle; that seems to be something rather close to the point. I am, I admit, in despair. I do not believe that is a moral failing. Faith, hope, and love aren’t states we can will ourselves into—grace comes when it will come. Hope is just something I will have to hope for. I imagine I will survive. I have survived till now. On the ledge and on the water. - In the water of the harbor is the mismade cormorant. Unloveable, inedible, no song but a guttered grumble. Wet and cold. Waiting for the sun.