Hazlitt Magazine

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There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

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Supporting Details

There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance.

A few weeks after I lost the admin gig at NASA, I pulled a job at the men’s sauna downtown. The building was nondescript: gray, with a gravel parking lot, snuggled between the lofts beside Toyota Stadium and Chinatown. Inside, you took one flight of steps after another, passing white signs on black walls in dim lighting leaping out at your face: VIAGRA AND POPPERS ARE A DEADLY COMBINATION; IF YOU ARE DRUNK, WE WILL NOT ADMIT YOU; NO MEANS NO, EVERY TIME; ASK ME ABOUT PrEP. By the time I made it to the register—this glass window in front of a padded black door, behind which stood the locker room, which led to the baths themselves—I’d almost psyched myself out. But I’d already made it farther than I thought I would. This short Latino guy squinted at me from behind the counter. Dude had round cheeks behind rounder glasses. Soft voice. Sleepy eyes. His nametag said Eduardo, but the letters were crossed out, with Eddy scribbled in Sharpie above them. I asked him for an application, and then I asked if the place was hiring, or if I should make an appointment, or if I should just leave. Eddy blinked twice. Shook his head. Buzzed me in. We sat under a wall of keys, numbered from one to infinity. Another guy, muscled and Vietnamese, stood beside us folding towels. Eddy asked about my experience, scratching at his armpits. So I started in on college, and then grad school, and I stopped when Eddy yawned. Guess that wasn’t what you meant, I said. No, said Eddy. But you have a lovely voice. You ever even been to a gay sauna before? Seriously? You’d be surprised. Of course I have, I said. This wasn’t a lie. On a work trip to Dallas, like four years ago, I’d slipped into an oversized locker room on the edge of the business district. I paid in cash. Gave no I.D. After a few minutes of tiptoeing around, an older black dude touched my shoulder. He led me to a room, where he kissed me, gently, and then he sucked me off, gently, and when I did the same to him, or when I tried to, he moaned, gently, and then not so gently, as if he were singing to me, fondling my earlobes, pinching my neck. He tried fucking me, but I was entirely too tight, so he grinded in my mouth until he came. When he’d finished, and I stood up to leave him, he grabbed me, again, kissing me on the lips. Then he smiled. That confused me. I grabbed my shit and ghosted. Once, I told Eddy. And that made you want to work at one, said Eddy. I still think about it, I said. Eddy looked me up and down. There was something boyish in his face, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. That only made it stronger. Don’t take this wrong, he said, but you don’t look cut out for this. No one’s cut out for anything when they start, I said. That’s fair, said Eddy. But you still don’t. I just want to be around men, I said, surprising myself. Men like this. At that, Eddy smiled. It completely distorted his face. Like what, he said. You know, I said. I want you to say it. I’m looking for something, I said. I think I’m looking for something and I think that this is where I can find it. Eddy blinked at me. He laughed in my face. You and everyone else, he said. I worked every night but Tuesdays, from eight to four in the morning. After you’d made it inside, past the walk-up, the sauna had four floors. Every room was dim, and stocked with condoms and lube, from the lobby to the hot tub to the showers to the dry saunas. The second and third floors were mazes, both flanked by padded rooms with double-lockable doors. The fourth floor was where men went to sleep, with a mini-bar, vending machines, sofas, and an STI clinic. Mostly, at first, I plodded around the building in flip-flops. Picking up towels and wiping down mats and snatching up used paper towels and slipping on lube. Some nights, the tile stayed immaculate. Other nights, it was dotted with semen. Sometimes, I’d wake up guys who’d fallen asleep in their towels on the floor. Eventually, Eddy had me working the front counter, too. Logging I.D.s, checking dudes in. Most people quit within a week or two, he said. It’s been three, I said. Give it another three, said Eddy. The rules for employees were simple: no drugs. No photos. No phone calls. You could use the sauna whenever, but you couldn’t fuck on the clock. But I wouldn’t recommend fucking here at all, said Leo. He was other guy who manned the counter with me, with the biceps. His were thrice the size of mine. I’ve had experiences, he said. Trust me. I will, I said. Great, said Eddy, slipping between us for a key. But most people do. And the guys that come here, said Eddy, they aren’t your friends. Okay, I said. Really. They aren’t here for you. He heard you, said Leo. Of course he did, said Eddy. Most people say that, too. There was, I thought, a type of man who’d frequent a bathhouse. This turned out to be ignorance. I saw guys in three-piece suits. I saw guys in tracksuits. I saw frat kids. I saw fathers. I saw doctors. I saw chefs. I saw family men. I saw car dealers. I saw pastors. I saw teachers. I saw burnouts. I saw guys visiting relatives for the holidays. I saw guys visiting relatives in the Medical District. I saw guys entirely too fucked up from clubbing. Once, I recognized a gaggle of football players in town for a playoff game, and when I told Eddy, he only glanced at their driver’s licenses, which were fake, and shrugged. Later, Leo told me that this happened all the time. Nearly everyone wore the same smile. A tight pinch of the lips. Shoulders tensed. I’d pass them their towels and their keys and they’d shuffle through the door. Most guys stayed at least an hour. Some stayed eight or nine. Some guys sprinted right back through the entrance minutes later. But once they’d made it through the doors, most of these men were very different. They were stupid. They were goofy. They very deliberate, or not. Some of the men ignored me, but most of them at least nodded, and every race and ethnicity passed through those fucking doors, although of course most patrons would follow a single whiteboy around the sauna for hours. The handful of black men I saw in the building held eye contact with me like a grip, literally shaking it. A few months in, some of the regulars made it a point to chat. One of them, a young Chinese guy, took to hanging around the lobby in the evenings. He’d stay past sunrise, sipping Powerade and tapping on the counter and chewing chips and scrolling through Instagram. One night, I asked him why he didn’t just pay for an annual membership. It’s not that simple, he said. I just can’t go home at the moment. Fuck, I said. I’m so sorry. No no no, he said, smirking. Calm down. I mean I missed the bus. So I’m stuck. Oh. I literally can’t get home most nights. Mm, I said, and I turned away, but he didn’t. You don’t look like you should be working here, he said. What does that mean? You look smart enough to know exactly what I mean. You don’t look like you should have an Australian accent, I said. But here we are. You’re funny, said the guy. But maybe not as smart as I thought. He said his name was John. He was a student, he told me, in the States on scholarship. Said he was smart enough not to show the university how smart he was, so he kept getting funding because it always looked like he was improving. Another guy named Arash leaned on the other side of the counter. He said he’d thought I was Sri Lankan. That’s what Leo told me, he said. When I first saw you working here, I was happy. I thought—finally. Leo’s a liar, I said. We’re all liars, said Arash. But this one’s too good, said John, nodding at me. He won’t even kiss me. Not even a kiss, said Arash. Impressive. I’m not here for you, I said. You’re only here for me, said John. I pay your salary. You’re talking like a colonizer, said Arash. Of course you’d say that, said John. You’re saying that because I’m Indian. He’s saying that because he’s an idiot, I said. I’m saying that because I can, said John, scratching at his hip, eyeing a whiteboy who’d been lingering behind him—and, without a word, John gave us a look, before he followed the guy upstairs, slapping his heels on the steps. Arash was a nurse who lived out in Bellaire. He slept at the sauna four nights a week. It was cheaper than paying rent. He sent most of his checks to a sister overseas, although he wasn’t sure that it wasn’t really going to her husband’s family. He’d been in Houston for ten years. He’d worked at the hospital for seven. They love me because I work holidays, he said. Never took a sick day. Not one. One morning I broke my toe and the next hour I was at work. But I never see any of the money. You think you’ll go back? Your answer’s in the question, said Arash. Ten years here, what can I do? I rarely ever saw Arash pair off with anyone, but it happened from time to time. Burly brown dudes stuck in the city on layovers. Sometimes whiteboys, too. Mostly, he slept on the third floor, watching men walk up and down the stairs. And John was his polar opposite, talking entirely too loudly at the counter before disappearing for hours at a time. But at some point or another most evenings, both men lingered in front of me. Toying with their phones, pulling crumbs from the same bag of chips. Men are disgusting, said John, adjusting his towel, scratching his belly. You only say that after they’ve fucked you, said Arash. You’re assuming I’m bottoming, said John. And I say that because it’s true. They’re foul. We’re foul. You sound like every spurned lover there’s ever been, said Arash. Shut up, said John, and he threw chunks of a cookie at him. I told them both to stop fucking around. I forget, said John. You’re working. I am working, I said. For you, as you’d say. You’re learning, said John. But you’re here for the same reason as everyone else. I’m not here to fuck. Fucking has nothing to do with it. I thought you said you had a Master’s. You have a Master’s? said Arash, gurgling a chocolate chip. It doesn’t matter, I said. I’m curious, said Arash, what brings us here, if not fucking? Of course you know why, said John. I don’t, said Arash. Enlighten me. Enlighten me, mimicked John, in a voice four octaves higher, tossing another cookie into his mouth. Some mornings after my shift I’d walk from the sauna’s lobby to the upper levels, sweeping up stray condoms but mostly listening. Loose moans oozed from closed doors. Yelps popped from the mazes. That smacking sound followed me from staircase to staircase. And porn—skinny white guys fucking each other senseless—played from the televisions above. These were just the sounds of the workday. In a way, none of this felt too different from the old office: coffee dripping, hushed conversations. There, I wore something like a suit. Here, I had a different uniform: a black t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I wore a name tag for a minute, until I realized that nobody cared. Some days, I changed the name, just to see what would happen. Around the sauna, men leaned over others having sex, like they were watching sports, just snorting at the score. They hunched on one another in benches by the stairs, laughing or whispering or just rubbing their eyes, staving off sleep, biding their time. Eddy called the sauna a sort of purgatory. But a good one, he said. I’ve never heard of a good purgatory, said Leo, folding towels. I was raised in the church. I heard everything. So you think it’s like a break from life, I said. It is life, said Leo. But distilled. Like mezcal, I said. Sure, said Leo. Or soju. Now you’re just naming liquors. But there’s a point, I said. Drink too much and it’ll kill you. The only point here is time, said Eddy. If these guys wait long enough, they’ll get what they’re looking for. Maybe, I said. Now you’re the expert, said Eddy. He’s right, said Leo. Some people have to wait quite a while. But they wait regardless, said Eddy. And they pay to do that. What it comes down to is who can afford to wait. Who has that kind of time. Who can spend it. Or who can spend it because they don’t have shit else to do, said Leo. They’re still spending something, said Eddy, picking his ear, twirling a set of keys. I pitched the thesis to Arash and John later that evening. They leaned on the counter, sweating and sticky, working through a bag of spicy Cheetos. I’m not saying I agree with it, I said. Then why even tell us, said Arash. Because he’s an idiot, said John. And he’s wrong. You know what this place is really like? Educate us, said Arash. A bottle of Pop Rocks, said John. Pardon? I don’t know what your brown man’s equivalent would be, said John. Put one Pop Rock in a water bottle, and that shit explodes on contact. But fill an entire bottle with Rocks, and none of them move. They have nowhere to go. That’s what everyone’s doing here, said John. We’re all waiting for someone to free up some space. So one of us can move. Some days, there’s a whole reaction. Like an orgy, I said. Obviously, said John. You told us you study at a university, said Arash. What I could do with the money they use to teach you these things. Capitalist, said John. You’re finally an American. I will never be an American, said Arash, smiling, examining a Cheeto. They aren’t even that hot, said Arash. You people will call anything spicy. In the mornings after my shifts, I’d drive back to my place just north of downtown. Grab a few tacos. Sleep for a few hours. Fuck around on the internet for two or three more. The panic attacks had mostly subsided, they weren’t nearly as bad as they’d been, but there was, in those months, a sort of fretting that was going on in my life. My parents were bereft. They’d heard that I’d lost my last gig. They were both West Indian; they’d grown up in the mountains; they’d found cushy middle-class gigs in the States. When I’d told my mother about losing the job, she’d sobbed on the phone, intermittently, for thirty minutes, just wailing. My father just shook his head. I’d been their hope for new money. After I came out, they’d mostly stopped asked questions, and we’d mostly lost our points of connection—but this they could understand. Aimless young men are like roaches. We exist in every pocket of the world. I told them I’d figure it out. They asked if I could do it at home, back in the suburbs. I declined without declining every time, steering the conversation to relatives who couldn’t have given a fuck about me. There was the ex, too. We’d met on the apps. He was a bear-ish white guy, the kind that always happened to me. For a while, I thought he was with me because he was just into black guys, and I still don’t think I was wrong about that. But he was nice. I was old enough to know that niceness is a rare, fleeting thing. And he was rough when we fucked, a bit like a savage pillow, and the loudest noises he ever made around me were when he came. Afterwards, he’d become himself again, and I’d set my head on his stomach, and that’s exactly how we were when I told him I’d lost the gig. And it’s exactly how we were when he broke it off, a few days later, in a whisper: he didn’t come from money, but he’d never known anything but middle-class. Losing my job wasn’t the only catalyst, I don’t think. But it didn’t help. Six months in, the sauna’s internal rhythms gelled with mine. Eddy was big on theme nights. We held them pretty often. Foam parties on Wednesdays. Black-Outs! on weekends. The spa kept Happy Hour prices at lunchtime, and we’d hit up to 250 men in the building. Locker keys appeared and disappeared and reappeared, creating a fucked-up Rorschach behind the counter. Leo called it our little exhibit, curated by heathens. These were the days that our building was the loudest. Everyone fucked everywhere but the spa, and only because of a large, laminated sign that said NO FUCKING, PLEASE. Every few days, Eddy drove it to midtown for relamination. Someone would’ve inevitably pulled it from the wall, blurring the print in the steam, and we’d find condoms in the hot tub hours later. One day I asked Eddy how he fell into his job. He looked at me a long time and then he looked away. We were smoking on the roof. We’d made it a point to check the balcony twice a night. Sometimes we found stashes of pot, pipes, and spent condoms; Eddy said no one had ever jumped, but that didn’t mean no one ever would. A few weeks back, I’d asked John and Arash about the roof, and Arash had simply shaken his head, muttering about idiot Americans looking for new ways to die. John had clicked his teeth. He’d been up there once or twice. Why, I said. Drugs, said Arash. Fuck off, said John. I thought he asked a question, said Arash. I thought you’re supposed to answer questions. It was a long time ago, said John. The view up there is unreal. But it was too tempting to jump. So I came back down. And we’re grateful, said Arash. Shithead, said John. It was obvious that drugs flowed through the building, but Leo and I didn’t go out of our way to search for them. Eddy didn’t either. When I asked him why, and if checking bags might stop people from coming, Eddy looked at me and he smiled and said that people would never stop coming. But the last thing the sauna needed was a police presence. Eddy called that a death blow for business. And now, he stood beside me, leaning on the railing, exhaling smoke. I used to work in an office, too, he said. For a politician. Local government. Fun, I said. A very Christian, wholesome man, said Eddy. I was his assistant. But that only meant scheduling his girlfriends’ calendars around his wife’s. I was good at that. Sounds like perfect training for this job. No, said Eddy. It’s completely different. A few days later, we had an incident. A bigger whiteboy had been chasing this Latino kid around the building. After a third rejection, he’d decided to put his hands on him, and one of the younger guy’s friends called for help from the staircase. I yelled Eddy’s name and sprinted up. Some other men had separated the two of them, holding the whiteboy by the arms. The younger one was crying, cradling his friend. The whiteboy asked what our fucking problem was, why anyone was here if not to fuck, and why he couldn’t fuck, and it took a moment for me to realize that he was on something. His eyes were beet red. No one answered him, but they didn’t let him go, either. When Eddy made his way upstairs, he told the man to leave. He didn’t raise his voice. He kept it cool. We were pulling the man’s membership, he said, a lifetime ban. The whiteboy called Eddy a wetback and a faggot and a dog. He yelled something about reporting the sauna. Eddy told him that was fine, but it also meant he’d be outing himself. The whiteboy said that was okay. But from his tone of voice it didn’t sound that way. By then, the crowd had dissipated. The Latino boys had disappeared. The incident had become significantly less interesting than whatever sex could be found. Afterwards, I asked Eddy what I should’ve done. I told him that he’d handled it so calmly. This was an event, and he’d defused it seamlessly. Eddy widened his eyes at me. But then that dissolved into a grin. He shrugged. This is work, he said. This is a job. It’ll become boring for you like everything else. When Arash and John were at the counter later, Arash wore the biggest smirk, the first time I’d ever seen him smile. You got rid of him, said Arash. Good. He was an animal and a predator. All of the white men here are. I don’t know if that’s true, I said. All of them, said Arash. You did the right thing. Good. I don’t mind white people, said John. Of course you don’t, said Arash. They don’t mind me, said John. Of course they don’t. You’re just mad because they won’t fuck you, said John. You should listen to yourself, said Arash. Imagine what your grandparents would think. Their distant descendant, in Texas, chasing after white dick. They did too, said John. How do you think they ended up in Sydney. Then I guess you’re making them proud. Guys, I said. You’re dropping crumbs all over the floor. All I’m saying is that you did the right thing, said Arash. Eddy got rid of him, I said. Of course, said John. You never do anything. I talk to you, I said. I clean up shit and cum and the rest of it. I keep you from slipping and busting your fucking forehead open on the tile. Sure, said John, but by then he’d lost interest, crushing more cookies in his palm. The three of us stood at the counter. The door buzzed open behind us, revealing another man. We looked up, glazing over him, and he looked up, too. But then he finally smiled just before he turned away. My parents never asked about my employment, but at some point they became aware that I was working. They’d heard about my breakdown because everyone had heard about it. A friend of a family friend at the office had told them. It’d been a subject of discussion at the West Indian Foundation meetings my folks attended—that was their attempt to stay plugged into the community. Everyone met in the back of a library downtown. Fifty parents, a handful of toddlers, and even fewer of their grown children thumbing through Twitter in the back rows. Everyone mostly ignored me. One lady said she’d heard I was unemployed, smiling. I usually spent the time opening and closing apps, scanning faceless profiles, attaching them to bodies in the room. These were the only times I saw my parents, really. Probably because the meetings convened halfway between the city and the suburbs. Afterwards, the three of us would go out for dim sum, where we’d talk about nothing. My father ordered one of everything. My mother smiled politely at everyone wheeling their carts. One day, out of nowhere, after my father had stepped in his car, my mother asked if I worked at that gym downtown. What, I said. It’s okay, said my mother. It’s not fucking okay, I said. Why are we talking about this? Who did you even hear that from? I’m not saying you shouldn’t work there. Of course you are. Isn’t that why you brought it up? I asked a question. You said everything else. All of this aggression is yours. Okay. So calm down. Alright, I said. Who told you? You ask too many questions, said my mother. God, I said. I just want you to be safe. I’m working there. Not fucking. Excuse me? Sorry, I said. It’s just a job. Fine, said my mother. But it’s not sustainable. Surely you don’t think it’s sustainable? I think it’s a job. I think I’m making money. Honey, said my mother, and my father blared his horn from the truck behind us. My mother and I just looked at each other. A handful of bystanders walked around us. I wondered what we looked like to them, talking too loud in front of Ocean Palace. I want you to take care of yourself, said my mother. We can find you another job. That’s why we come to these stupid meetings. I thought you came to see people, I said. I can see them on Facebook, said my mother. Let me find you a job. I don’t need you to do that. No child needs their mother to do anything. They don’t even know what they need. And my mother started to say something else, but then my father honked again, longer, so that two men smoking on a stool beside us looked up, along with everyone else. My mother smiled at me. She mouthed, Text me, and set her hand on my shoulder. I walked back to my own car across the lot, glancing at the smoking men. One of them turned to the concrete. The other guy smiled, like we shared a secret. And maybe we did. That evening, the sauna was dead. Arash played synthy K-Pop on his phone. John kicked at the counter. They had sadly, inevitably, become my only confidants. I told them about the dinner, and the meeting, and my mother. You care too much, said John. Try not caring. It’ll clear up your skin. Everyone cares, I said. Stop kicking the door. You asked for advice. This is the weight of knowledge. If that door dents, you’re paying for it. Bullshit. And everyone cares, I said. Even the ones who say they don’t care end up caring about caring. That’s some grad school word game bullshit, said John. Arash opened his mouth to say something, but then he didn’t. He closed it, chewing at his cinnamon bun. And then he reopened it, singing along to the song’s chorus, some beautiful thing we couldn’t understand. One night I was off and the ex hit me up. We’d been texting here and there. Mostly boring shit, how was your day have you eaten lunch what does your weekend look like and so on. But we’d spent the week building up to something, a tangible thing, and it surfaced when he asked if I’d see him for dinner. The question preceded a gang of eggplant emojis. I replied with the nerd face, which I thought said a lot. And also, worst-case, nothing much at all. The ex lived in the same apartment. He’d kept all of our nice guy apartment things. We pretended to sit down for dinner, with the rice and noodles he’d ordered from up the block, and while he unfolded the napkins, unsheathing the chopsticks, the ex told me he missed me, and that he missed this, gesturing amorphously toward the wall. I said that I did, too, waving in that same popping-your-wrist way. And then the ex leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back, and then our shirts were gone, and then our shorts. At some point, I was sucking him off. At some point, I climbed onto his lap. At some point, I took him into me, but then I changed my mind, and I lifted his legs, instead, and after a chuckle and some throat clearing he made a sound I hadn’t heard before. Then he made more of those, like he was running through scales. A few minutes later he yelled, Stop. Shit, I said. Sorry. Am I hurting you? No, said the ex, you’re good. I’m alright. Was that too fast? No. This is fine. It’s not fine. You said, Stop. Not in that tone. That’s exactly how you said it. Alright, said the ex. It’s just that what you’re doing is a lot? Okay, I said. No worries. I’ll try something else. Cool, said the ex, but something we’ve done before? Something we’ve done before, I said. Yeah. Something normal. What we were doing is normal. No, said the ex. I mean, I just hadn’t expected it. I don’t know if that’s what I wanted. What you wanted, I said. Yeah. Like you’d ordered me off of Prime. Wait, said the ex. What? That’s not what I meant. You called me, I said. Listen, man. You’re overreacting. You know what I meant. I do, I said. Fuck. Next time, just order your fucking takeout. I didn’t expect the ex to stop me from leaving and he didn’t surprise me. I drove to Whataburger. I drove to work. Eddy wasn’t around, but Leo stood by the counter. He raised his eyebrows at me, but he didn’t make any faces, and I told him that I just wanted to sit in the sauna, and he nodded, smiling. But I couldn’t read the bend of his cheeks. Play safe, he said, handing me a key, buzzing me in. The building was mostly dead. I sat in the water for an hour. Re-showered. Went back in. After a while, I drifted from floor to floor, plodding around with half-moist heels. Every now and again a guy would look me over twice. There wasn’t anyone I recognized. I’d nod, briskly, settling my fingers on stray hands, tapping them gently until they loosened their grip. At some point, I bumped into one guy in the dark maze, a little shorter than me, and he caught me, or I collapsed onto him. He laughed. And that had me laughing. And then we were both laughing. And then I saw that he was a little lighter than me, and that he had a bit of a belly, and it sat on his towel. He touched my shoulder. And I—just reacting—touched his. We held each other, briefly, and then the guy toed open a door behind us, lined with a padded floor. We fucked for two hours. I did the thing I’d tried earlier. This guy whispered, Fuck, once, but he didn’t ask me to stop. It took entirely too long for me to find my way inside of him, and then I just stayed. Every now and again, he’d stand to lather more lube on himself. We finished at the same time, which had never happened to me before. I was exhausted, wheezing. He was, too. He lay on his back, and I set an elbow on his belly, and then he began to chuckle, a slow laugh, and that was it, we were both laughing again. He asked what my name was and I told him. He said that his was Selly. Or Zelly. He’d come to Houston from Malaysia to fix cars. I asked if he liked Texas, and Selly or Zelly frowned. The food is not so good, he said. It’s not that bad, I said. Yes, he said, rubbing my shoulder. But not so good. We stayed that way, toasting, sweating beyond belief. I imagined, for thirty minutes, for an hour, what our life together might look like. We’d fall into various degrees of trouble. We’d never buy, we’d only rent. We’d both be broke for the rest of our lives, probably, but we’d travel from time to time. Selly or Zelly would cook dinner. I would cook breakfast. We’d smile at our neighbors in Alief, transplants from all over the world. Neither of us would meet one another’s families. Neither of us would much care. Neither of us would ever be upset about anything ever again. Eventually Selly or Zelly sat up. He was sleepy, he said, and sore. Sounds like you need a shower, I said. A shower would be nice, he said. We both smiled, a little sadly. Then Selly or Zelly asked which one of us should leave the room first. John saw me walk out of the room. There was no reason for him to be on that floor. He sat on a bench behind the dark maze, fiddling with a bottle against his nose. I recognized it, immediately, and he recognized that I recognized it. It was almost comical how guilty he looked—how guilty we both looked. I almost laughed. What, I said. Nothing, said John, blinking. Why are you here, I said. I’m always here. And what are you doing? I could ask you the same thing, said John. You’re following my schedule? Don’t be fucking daft. The two of us stared at each other. John lowered his arm, swinging his feet. He set the bottle on the bench. Look, I said, are you good? Yeah, said John, after a pause. Or I thought so, he said. Until you asked me. But I think I’m okay. And you, he said. Are you okay? I’m fine, I said. You’re sure? Three-hundred percent, sir. Then we’re both good, said John. So there’s absolutely nothing to talk about. And he stood, tightening the towel around his waist, snatching his little bottle, whistling and turning the corner. One morning my mother called to tell me she may have found something for me. An actual job. Through the West Indian church diaspora network, probably. I’m not looking for anything, I said. It’s not in finance, said my mother. You probably wouldn’t be using your degree. Ma, I have a job. You’ll have to drive out to Memorial. It’s this office on Eldridge Parkway. Your father can give you the car in the garage, yours has too many miles. You aren’t listening, Ma. You’re not saying anything. I said I’m employed. I mean gainful employment. I am gainfully employed. You are working at a sex club. Ma, I said, and she probably heard me bounce my palm on my forehead Okay, said my mother, but it’s still a job that’s there. You can’t be making enough money right now. I make money, I said. Okay, said my mother. But not enough. Let me know when you want the number. The next evening Eddy glanced at me when I buzzed in, but he didn’t say a word afterwards. I folded towels beside him, signing men in and signing them out. When he took off for dinner at Mai’s, he asked Leo what he wanted and disappeared. As soon as he left, I looked at Leo. I don’t know, he said. He’s just been like that. Did you do something? Have I ever done anything? Did I do something? I don’t know, said Leo. Maybe. He’s probably got trouble at home, with his guy. That shut me up, because I’d never thought of Eddy that way. As someone with a lawn out in Montrose. Plants around the house. A dinner table with two busted chairs and a bookshelf and shows to watch on Tuesday evenings. When Eddy made it back, already chewing at an eggroll, I asked if he wanted a cigarette. He blinked at me. Then he glanced at Leo, setting the bag on the counter. When we made it to the roof, fumbling with lighters, I turned to Eddy and just said it. I fucked someone here. What, said Eddy. I wasn’t working, I said. And I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I don’t know why. Eddy took a long drag on his cigarette. He exhaled way too quickly. Do you want me to congratulate you, he said. I just wanted to put it out there, I said. I didn’t want someone else to tell you. Why in the fuck would anyone tell me about that, said Eddy. You still don’t get it, he said. Most guys your age get it too quickly, and that’s their problem. But it hasn’t clicked for you. No one cares what you do here. This is a place where you aren’t the main character. That’s why these guys come here. No babies or boyfriends or wives or anything to make them feel special, like they matter. At all. They’re just here, and that’s it. Eddy leaned on the railing, turning his back to me. I looked him over, his ass and his back. Then I stooped beside him. That’s very zen, I said. Shut up, said Eddy. I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at you. But you aren’t mad at me, I said, and Eddy coughed, slapping at his chest. Disappointed then, he said. That’s fair. So what does that make us if we work here, I said, and Eddy laughed. We’re context, he said. Then he passed me his cigarette. Okay, I said. Supporting details. Okay. These guys need us to be sustainable, said Eddy. Protagonists come and go. But the details remain the same. Those are the things that last. A few hours later, back in the lobby, I texted my mother for the number. Chatting up a new boyfriend? said Arash, cracking his knuckles beside me. New boyfriends are just old boyfriends in flux, said John. Shut up, I said. And stop eating up here. You always say that, said Arash, but you don’t mean it. Fuck you, I said. You don’t mean that, said John. If you meant it then I’d stop, said Arash. I looked at John. He made a face, shrugging. The sound of something slapping, and a loose moan wafted down from around the hallway. When my phone dinged, I glanced at the banner. It was my mother, followed by a handful of numbers, a handful of blue hearts. My breakdown at the admin gig happened during a workday, right before a presentation. I don’t need to tell you what it was about, but this was NASA, so you can guess. Some coworkers had just made some changes to a plan I was presenting. Pretty major ones. I told them they wouldn’t work, that they were illogical, but nobody cared. And I just felt thirsty the whole time. I hadn’t eaten that afternoon. Or that morning. Or the evening beforehand. The whiteboys I worked with didn’t ask if I was well, although I clearly didn’t look it. They hadn’t asked me anything. Not until just before the presentation, which they’d assumed I’d taken care of. It was our annual review, a year’s worth of work, and now it was changing on the fly. The whiteboys wanted to add mics to the auditorium. They wanted to add a projector. This was a meeting we’d planned for months—that I’d prepared for for months. I told them that wouldn’t fly, and they asked why I couldn’t make it work, because they’d thought I could handle it and I was being a little bitch. And I didn’t say anything to that. I told myself I would figure things out. But then the room began to fill, people began to take their places. That left me on the stage, alone. Fanning myself. Trying to smile. They all looked up at me, ready to produce. It wasn’t burnout, exactly. But I was roasting. Squinting. It started off fine, I guess, but then my throat caught in the middle of speaking. I tried to continue. I couldn’t. I touched my throat. I reached for some water, but it wasn’t there. And the entire time it was happening, I knew what was going on—but there was a disconnect between how I felt on the podium, and how I felt. I could’ve laughed, watching everyone’s faces. It was like watching a movie. I watched myself leave the podium, loosening my tie. I watched myself drop my jacket. I watched myself parting the crowd, past the whispers, walking out the door. It was warm outside. We weren’t expecting rain for another few weeks. You really felt it on the balcony. You were just grateful for the breeze. A few nights later, I was folding towels when a young black guy came sprinting past the corner. I’d seen him around. He fanned wildly towards the stairs. Eddy had stepped out for a cigarette, so I glanced at Leo to watch the desk, and when he nodded, I jogged upstairs. There was already a tiny crowd around the body. It convulsed in the center of the dark maze. My flashlight blinked, and I felt the body’s wrist, and then its thigh, and then its face, which belonged to John. He shivered, tucked into himself. A towel lay damp beside him. Arash held the back of his head, scooping him whenever he jerked, squinting into the light behind me. I gestured to him, and two bigger guys standing beside me, and we lifted John out of the maze, and the guys surrounding us dissolved, slipping back into their usual rhythms. The body had been moved. They’d finally been un-implicated. We carried John into the elevator. What the fuck, I said. Shit, said Arash. Do you know how it happened, I said. Do you know what he took? I don’t, said Arash, looking away. But he isn’t foaming, said Arash. He’s just dilated. He’s probably tripping. So we don’t need to call an ambulance? If you need to ask then you should call. Don’t, said John, blinking my way, shaking his head. Is he insured, I asked Arash. How the fuck would I know? They’re not too expensive, said one of the men holding John’s thighs. You’re probably fucking covered, said Arash, and then the elevator doors opened. We walked John behind the counter. Arash and I supported him. I thanked the other guys, and they nodded, shyly, before they slipped back upstairs. Eddy leaned on one table, and Leo sat by another, manning the counter. We made eye contact, just for a second. Was it drugs, said Eddy. I don’t know, I said. Of course you know, said Eddy. You’ve gotta get him out of here. What? Just drop him outside. Are you looking at him? If something happens here, then we’re liable, said Eddy. That’s when the cops come by. And that can’t happen. We make too much noise, and that’s it. And if something happens to him on the curb? Then it didn’t happen in here. And we aren’t liable. That’s fucking bullshit, I said, and Eddy crossed his arms. He started to say something else, but I grabbed John again, flipping his body with Arash, walking him down the stairs. There was a chill outside. The three of us stood together, three buildings away from the sauna. It was late enough that there weren’t many people on the street, but a gaggle of white folks passed us in suits and too-tight dresses, smoking and laughing. One of them looked at us, nudging his buddy. They erupted into a laugh. Arash opened his mouth, and I lipped, Don’t, and then he closed it again, rubbing at John’s shoulders. John shook his head between us, leaning on the two of us. Fuck, said John. I know, I said. Shit, said Arash. Are you okay? Are you fired? I don’t know, I said. Maybe. It’s okay. Are you okay? No, said John, blinking. He glanced at Arash, and then me. I feel horrible, he said. I feel fucking horrible. So you’re back to normal, said Arash. Yeah, said John. You feel just like us. Yeah. And then, he started laughing. And Arash did, too. I laughed, a little bit, and then a lot, and then the three of us were laughing, falling all over each other, damp and cold. I didn’t get the joke then. I couldn’t put it together. But I’ve since realized that it wasn’t the point.
‘My Browser History Was This Appalling Record of Someone Wasting Their Life’: An Interview with Anna Wiener

The author of Uncanny Valley on becoming the perfect consumer, digital surveillance, and why Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. 

In 2014, Anna Wiener was twenty-six years old, making a plush annual salary of $90,000 at a data analytics startup in Silicon Valley. And she was miserable. Wiener once worked in publishing in New York. Uninspired by the direction of the publishing industry, she decided to make an unconventional move from the literary to the tech world—first at an ebook startup in NYC, and then venturing to the west coast—feeling a “relief to have joined a group that told itself it was superior, and a hedge against uncertainty, isolation, insecurity,” she writes in her debut memoir, Uncanny Valley (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). But the move bore hidden costs. Wiener, a feminist, found herself navigating a misogynistic workplace culture, well-documented by figures such as Ellen Pao and Sarah Lacy. While brushing off comments about everything from her lips to her sex life, she realized that she had also failed to secure the same equity in the firm that her male colleagues enjoyed. Moreover, she began to feel uncomfortable with the way the company she worked for, which she tells me helped “enable the surveillance economy,” was tracking user behavior without their knowledge. A writer at heart, Wiener often spun sympathetic narratives for the men in Silicon Valley who had essentially taken over the world, who she trusted to “tell me who I was, what mattered, how to live”—a situation that had become a “global affliction.” But after a few years working for them, she wised up: “I was looking for stories,” she writes. “I should have seen a system.” I spoke to Wiener, who now covers tech culture for the New Yorker, on the phone from her apartment in San Francisco. Hope Reese: You saw a “future” for yourself in tech that you didn’t see working in publishing. What did that look like? Anna Wiener: I’d been an assistant for a few years, and it wasn’t clear what the path forward was for me. I was interviewing for jobs that were also assistant jobs. It just sort of felt like a slow-moving, dues-paying culture. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to do that, but I didn’t know what the end game was. The decision was largely about looking at the jobs ahead of me in publishing and not being sure there was space for me, and falling backward into this publishing-adjacent startup and feeling like there was this whole world ahead of these guys. This whole industry with so much momentum, where people moved quickly. It felt like the opposite of publishing. But, in hindsight, there’s a reason publishing moves slowly. There’s a really different approach to output, and a different strategy in how you release work. But I was just looking around and trying to figure out what the future held for me. For millennials, you write that “those who understood our cultural moment saw that selling out—corporate positions, partnerships, sponsors—would become our generation’s premier aspiration, the only way to get paid.” How much was money a factor in your decision to enter the tech world. To clarify: I did not have student loans. I want to be really clear about the different privileges I had that made it possible to go into publishing in the first place. For me, it was a combination of things. It was a desire to feel useful and to feel valued. In my mid-twenties, without a ton of work experience, money was how people attached value to things. Going to a job with a higher salary, there was some feeling that I was doing things right. It’s a really dark and slippery slope, and fucked up, but at the time, I was looking for anything that would tell me I was doing something right.  When you arrived in San Francisco, you describe observing the huge wealth disparity. And the fact that certain people living with rent control were not those that rent control was intended for. What did it feel like to see this? To observe the disparity and also understand that your presence is exacerbating it. It’s also a reflection of broader social ills and political failures. The narrative of blaming the homelessness crisis or the wider disparity on the tech industry is not the correct narrative—the tech industry has exacerbated and accelerated those problems, but they have very deep roots. Personally, I felt a lot of shame. I lived in the Haight, and there’s a lot of homelessness in the Haight, a lot of people slept in Golden Gate Park. I remember one night, we had leftover pizzas at the office, and I was stacking up pizzas to go to bring to the park, and a coworker said, “Wait! Don’t take the one with the prosciutto.” There was something that felt so horrible about that. You sort of have to laugh at that, because it’s so vile. Your salary at twenty-six was $90,000 a year, and many people working with you made more than that. What was it like to have this money? Did it change you? Did it change people around you? Money changes people. I wanted to be transparent about my own salaries and what my equity was worth, to show the stakes, but I also want to be clear that I was pretty low-ranking. There were people making six times my salary. I wouldn’t say that I’ve extricated myself from that. My jobs have changed but my circumstances are stable, and that comes from my background. One of the things I found interesting in San Francisco in the last few years is the anticipation of this new money, how people are trying to build businesses or build real estate that appeals to this cohort. I had a lot of fun poking into open houses and seeing how they’re decorated. The lifestyle branding. I don’t know how many people enjoy that, but the aesthetics of this wealth are interesting to me. They’re somewhat self-denying, but decadent. What’s interesting to me about the money is that a lot of people aren’t interested in material goods or art or philanthropy. A lot of it gets pumped back into the industry. It’s a running joke here about people becoming angel investors once they’ve had a windfall working for a company that’s IPO’d—everyone adds “angel investor” to their Twitter bio. It’s this aspirational thing, but it’s a sign of a moral value. It’s funny to me … it’s seen as philanthropic, but what you’re really doing is perpetuating the cycle, giving money to the same people. Instead of specifically naming companies in your book, you call them things like, “the social network everyone hated.” Why did you choose to keep these companies anonymous? I did that for stylistic reasons. I wanted to separate the companies from any associations readers might bring. The primary reason was that I don’t think it matters. They were all expressions or reflections of structural forces. In a lot of ways, these companies that I worked for could have been any company, and the executives could’ve been any people. It’s a highly specific world, but none of what happened to me was unusual. I also think the names are ridiculous. Isn’t it mortifying that a portmanteau like “Facebook” has geo-political clout? I think it’s obscene. You worked at a data analytics startup. Can you talk about what, exactly, your company did? It’s a huge, highly unregulated area. The company I worked for did product analytics. Software that can help other companies track how users are moving through their app or website. So, anything that you do on an app, any information that you input, anything you press or slide can be tracked and aggregated and analyzed. This company was helping other companies look at user-flows through product and also helping other companies understand exactly who those users were, and where they were coming from. Basically, helping other companies move through their product in such a way that whatever the end game was, which was revenue optimization, that they would get there faster or more frequently. There’s another side of it, used for marketing. This was individualized. You could promote your product to a certain segment of users. If you want to reach people who are twenty-six, on an iPhone, active on the site between 2 and 6 a.m. and suggest they buy a gravity blanket. The company I worked for, at the time I worked there, only did aggregated reports for the companies they worked with. They didn’t sell data. But there were different ethical issues. The qualms I developed were that most people using apps or websites don't know that they're being tracked and don’t know that they're being tracked by a third party, and definitely don't know that they're being tracked by a third party whose employees potentially have access to that data. So, for me, it's more about this lack of transparency, or opacity, within the user experience where you have this imbalanced power dynamic and mediated experience in which the end user isn't even aware of what’s behind the scenes. Would you consider it a digital surveillance firm? What does it have in common with, say, a company like Cambridge Analytica, that used user data to help sway the US election? My answer is: Sort of. Or: Yes, but indirectly. The product facilitates surveillance, and helps companies collect information from users, often without users' knowledge. Data collection is almost always disclosed in a mature company's Terms of Service, but the names of any third-party tools that are doing the actual collection are not necessarily included. Basically, the company I worked for was a conduit, but I don't believe in neutral technology platforms; in my view the ethical issues of the company and product are inextricable from the broader landscape, and the behaviors they enable and normalize. I think the two serve very different functions, but they are in the same ecosystem. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that harvested voter information and sold the promise of "psychographic profiles" that sourced demographic data from various places, e.g. Facebook. The company I worked for made a tool for collecting, aggregating, and analyzing user behavior. The "tool" also had a feature where you could see individual user activity within a customer's app, alongside their personal metadata, and send targeted content based on that information. That latter feature, which is called "People," strikes me as a pretty pure expression/outgrowth of surveillance capitalism. In theory, the startup I worked for could have enabled its customers to engage in Cambridge Analytica-esque activity inside of their own platforms or apps, but the analytics startup itself did not build cross-platform profiles. I don't know what they would have done if a political campaign had an app or a website and wanted to use their tools; they probably wouldn't have paid it any mind, and I would assume that if the campaign was high-paying or high-profile enough, the company would assign it an account manager and have a paid employee helping the campaign optimize their products and outreach. More realistically, there's also no way for me, or anyone, to know what our customers did with the data they collected on their own users. It's possible they could have sold it or integrated it with other data sets. I don't know, and don't want to speculate too much. You call yourself a “self-identified feminist in a position of ceaseless professionalized deference to the male ego.” How did you handle this? I’m embarrassed about it, looking back. I’m a little ashamed about the way that I was so deferential and did my best to normalize everything that was happening, and even participated in it. I tried to erase myself. I wouldn’t say that that’s a brilliant coping strategy, but I really wanted to be a part of something. That meant that I was consumed by this thing.  As someone who was a non-technical employee at a pretty low level, who felt really grateful to be included, it was what I needed to do. I think that if there was someone who was a senior technical woman with experience and credentials, who had already been affirmed by an industry, she might've had an easier time with it. But to be honest, I'm just thinking about other people that I've encountered that do fit that criteria, but I don't know that they were given the credit that they deserved either. It sort of led to a complete dissociation from who I knew myself to be. I own my mistakes. You write that “the tech industry was making you a perfect consumer of the world that it was creating,” and describe about going down these rabbit holes online, as most of us do. When did you start noticing the problem with this? I felt it. I had this job, I was working remotely, I mostly worked from my apartment and I had these days when the day would be over, I'd be done with work, it'd be 7 p.m., and I would just feel so bad for myself. I wouldn't be able to account for how I spent my time or what I had learned that day, or what I had even produced. Working customer support is sort of like, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. It doesn't really build into anything, for the most part. My browser history was just this appalling record of someone wasting their life. It was more a sensation, a building feeling of dread and anxiety, and feeling like I had chosen a profession where I was, potentially, perpetuating that cycle. Ironically, I’m now in another profession that requires that I be on the internet quite a bit. I write about the tech industry, and a lot of things that happen in the tech industry bubble up on social media. I’m still hanging out in these spaces more than I wish I did, but I don’t know very many people in tech who manage to avoid spending a lot of time on the internet. At the end of the book, you write that you were “looking for stories and you should have seen a system.” Can you explain what you mean by that? I have always been very focused on personal narratives and personal ambitions and justifications and psychological motivations that people have. But actually, what I should have been looking at was the structure—not working on such a micro level. For my own understanding of this world and why things are happening the way they were. I have a friend, Moira Weigel, who is also a writer, and we were having a conversation about Mark Zuckerberg, who she had gone to college with. She's just sort of threw her arms up and said, “if he didn't exist, the internet would have invented him.” That encapsulates what I mean by it. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t matter. The people that I worked for don't matter. In terms of their individual intentions or motivations, good or bad. I think that even people with the best intentions, who think they can push against this industry, are running up against the same problems with people who are succeeding, who wouldn’t see them as problems.  I think structural analysis can be very forgiving, if that makes sense. I would’ve had an easier time, even in my own life, if I hadn’t been so focused on the individual narrative. But isn’t it partly a writer’s instinct to do that? Yes, and the industry relies on good storytelling. The industry has told these stories about itself. The biggest strengths are marketing, branding, packaging. Part of what was compelling to me about working at the analytics company was that data is a kind of storytelling. Looking at data in aggregate is fascinating, it’s about how people are living their lives, even if it’s how they live their lives online. I wouldn’t say this isn’t a world with a lot of storytelling. But I think, for me, zooming out would’ve eased the burden of trying to understand this world. You mentioned to me earlier that when you moved to the West Coast it was because you didn’t know what your end game was. Do you know what it is now? I’ve always had a very hard time picturing the future. I try not to do it. I remember having a conversation with my manager at the analytics company, and we were trying to figure out what my job should be. He said, “Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?” Classic question. As a working professional, you should have an answer to that question, even if it's bullshit. And I was very honest and I said, “I don't really know.” And he said, “You could start a company!”  I think the fact that that's the end game, that’s the most valuable thing a person can do in this world, is part of the problem. I don't see myself starting a company anytime soon. I have really enjoyed writing. It took me a long time to admit it was something I wanted to do. This book is an admission of that. 
‘Go to Where the Rawest Stories Occur’: An Interview with Chuck Palahniuk

Talking to the author of Consider This about “dangerous writing,” testing your story-telling instincts for emotional responses, and finding laughs in transcendent tragedy.

There’s a short but telling section in Consider This (Grand Central Publishing), Chuck Palahniuk’s new memoir on writing, that simply says: forget about being likable. The book, a collection of personal essays on everything he has learned about writing in the last twenty-five years, quotes people from Tom Spanbauer to Amy Hempel to Ursula K. Le Guin on technique, style, and form. It was Spanbauer, a former student of Gordon Lish and the author of five novels himself, who created the Dangerous Writing workshop, which pushed Palahniuk to write Invisible Monsters and then Fight Club in the mid-’90s. What Spanbauer meant by “dangerous writing” was to explore the work that personally scares or embarrasses the author; to make it dangerous is to express those fears honestly through art. It was through Palahniuk I found Spanbauer’s workshop, too. In 2013, I spent a weekend in Portland working on a short story in that Dangerous Writing workshop, and then two subsequent years working with Spanbauer on my own novel. Palahniuk has never been one to write characters people would see as likable or upstanding; rather, they are deeply flawed. In Choke, one of my favorite books by Palahniuk, the narrator, Victor, concocts a convoluted plan to pay for his dying mother’s hospital bills which involves pretending to choke on food at restaurants. While he chokes, he waits for a person to “save" him so they can bask in the glory of being the hero, and as a result, these "saviors" send Victor money, which he uses to pay the bills. In Diary, the main character, Misty Wilmot, suffers through caring for a husband in a coma following a suicide attempt, after having given up her dreams of an art career to raise a family; she struggles with her past of poverty, the desire for fame, and the oppression of the wealthy islanders who are related to her comatose husband. Many of Palahniuk’s characters are trying to find success through some kind of glory, and are willing to humiliate themselves, lose all dignity, and hopefully live through it to get there. In Consider This, Palahniuk says this kind of obliteration of self is also the writer’s job, that the point of writing is to coach one’s self where one would never have gone voluntarily. The problem with being vulnerable as a writer is there’s a paradoxical desire for the work to be liked, whether that means validation through the publishing process or being accepted by some sort of readership, while simultaneously shutting out self-critique or worry about whether others will accept the work. I once talked to a writer friend who discussed the need to “lean in to your disaster”—disaster being the raw, distinguished pain of one’s words which makes a writer’s work unique, wild, and telling. Often in Spanbauer’s workshop, this practice started with an assignment about the thing you’re most afraid to tell. The idea was you might exhaust all of the emotional or psychic pain of a moment through writing, make the pain totally vulnerable, and come to a new place on the other side, changed. Perhaps this is what draws people to Palahniuk’s work: the sense that a flawed character always has the hope of being redeemed (even if they never are). I recently spoke with Palahniuk by email about craft, writing workshops, and who inspires him to be a better writer. Elle Nash: Could you talk a little about the effect of Tom Spanbauer’s teaching on your life? Consider This is dedicated to him, and the subtitle of the book is: moments in my writing life after which everything was different, a callback to his workshop. His influence on me has been very deep, and it is hard to say what guidelines I tried to follow before his workshop, even. I loved reading your words about him in the book. I know you’ve discussed his workshop a lot, mostly I’m curious to know what your ideas about writing were before Tom—before you were changed? Chuck Palahniuk: Like so many would-be writers, prior to Tom I was a Lousy Stephen King Copy. Or I was a Pathetic F. Scott Fitzgerald Copy. Meaning I'd read and try to emulate the style of successful writers. Among the first things Tom told me was, "The world already has a Stephen King." And then he showed me empirical ways to unpack and reverse engineer storytelling, and in doing so create my own style and voice. Instead of mimicking the superficial aspects of a famous writer, under Tom's direction I could begin to build the deep framework needed for truly unique stories. Presuming there is no workshop to give feedback, how do you think a writer can learn to trust their intuition? Minus any workshop, go to parties and tell your stories. Test to see whether people engage with them and give an emotional response. Also test to see if strangers approach you with similar stories from their lives, ones you might use to expand your original story. Parties are the best. A distant second-place option would be "open mic" public readings. Such readings allow you to hear where a story earns an emotional response, but most of your audience is too competitive and distracted (drunk) to offer anything beyond their laughter or gasps or groans. This sort of testing will help build your story-telling instincts. On the note of workshops, I’ve always felt that art is never a solitary act. I’d love to discuss with you the effects collaboration can have on a writer’s work—from trusting their peers in workshop to simply feeling inspired by another writer. Who inspires you to be a better writer? Go to where the rawest stories occur. In Alcoholics Anonymous I'm always blown away by the most unlikely people inventing a phrase or sharing an anecdote so tragic that it makes the listeners laugh. My background is in journalism so my impulse is always to preserve, archive, curate these incredible moments. Good, real people telling true stories inspire me to become a better writer in order to better honor such stories. You said once your formative years were the punk years. What makes something punk versus not punk? Is there contemporary fiction you’d consider punk these days? My reference was to an observation made by Billy Idol. He said that all punk songs started abruptly, ran three minutes and fell off a cliff at the end. Hearing that I realized that my best short stories began at full throttle, went only a few pages, and ended—blam. With that insight I could start to vary my pace and length in fiction. But in my reading I still prefer work that drops a reader instantly into a reality and resolves circumstances in twelve pages rather than twenty or forty. Are there any short stories or authors you recommend that drop the reader into reality like that? For instant immersion, I look for short stories. Mark Richard's The Ice at the Bottom of the World, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Honored Guest by Joy Williams, The Informers by Bret Ellis, Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun, and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson.
The Year in Pivoting to Video

There’s only ever so much you can control at any job. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. For better but mostly for worse, I have always thought of the jobs I’ve had as fundamentally someone else’s business. My work life, since the beginning, has been a matter of digging myself out from under things dropped onto me by managers for reasons I only sort of understood or cared about. Other tasks seemed to have just materialized on their own somewhere between the ionosphere and the drop-ceiling, and those landed just as heavily. I sense that most jobs are at least a little bit like this. In the early days, I did not bring my work home, in the literal or the emotional sense, because it was the sort of thing that could only really be done, in the literal and the emotional sense, in the fluorescent mehscape of an office. I did not ask questions about why I was doing any of it, because the work itself—forcing search keywords into descriptions of luxury condominium buildings like butter into a foie gras goose, or taking information that was trapped in one digital field and re-typing it into another more useful one, or standing over a thrumming scanner in clothes I couldn’t remember buying—was so transparently inessential as to foreclose even the possibility of an interesting answer. It was something I did for money, and while I did it grudgingly it’s worth noting that I was then doing everything else in my life just as grudgingly. I applied myself more assiduously to drinking in bars with my friends and writing short stories in which I visited wry but richly deserved punishments on people very much like me, but I treated all of it as an imposition that I would just have to endure on my way to wherever I was going. I walked from one waiting room into another into another, for years. The first two-thirds of my working life were a bleary hungover skein of unrewarding and luridly meaningless jobs, some of them officially temporary but all of them unofficially so. I was later pulled up into some rewarding but extremely precarious staff editorial gigs, which was much better. For the first time, I cared about the work I did and the people I worked with, but I was invariably pivoted or pushed out of those jobs after a period that did not ever exceed two years, into adrenalized and harrowing jags of freelance freefall. I did not always or even often understand why those jobs kept being eliminated, but I knew just enough to understand that 1) there was probably a reason of some kind, and 2) I would probably disagree with it even beyond the consequences that notional reason visited upon me, but 3) none of it was strictly my fault, or even probably the fault of the superiors who had been tasked with giving me the bad news. There were systemic forces at work, broader strategies and gambits, industry trends to be hedged against or surfed upon. The resulting consequences—the strange new work initiatives or the laying out of new and very different priorities or whatever—landed just as heavily on me as all the older and more obviously preposterous stuff used to. Strange new duties arrived like weather; changes just sort of happened, and kept happening. We organized the newsroom at one of my old workplaces, and what was initially thrilling and even moving about that work—all these talented and confident and ground-down people crowding into a conference room, each revealing with some shame and surprise that the weather had in fact been very bad of late above their cubicles, too, brutally bad for years in some cases—became something stranger once we finally got management to meet with us. We had long debated amongst ourselves, first in bars and then as a bargaining unit, whether the people above us were feckless or actively venal, merely kind of dumb or actually casually cruel. It quickly emerged that they didn’t really have anything in mind at all, at least where we were concerned. That company had always prioritized video, and had often done it well in its way, which amounted to sending young dudes to Liberia or Kashmir or East St. Louis to talk with the locals and sometimes shoot a gun. The type of video that we were told one day that we were going to be doing was much different. Our videos would fulfill a provision in a deal that the company had signed with a cellular phone company’s startup streaming service; that service needed videos, which maybe could only be viewed by that company’s subscribers and quite possibly would be viewed by no one at all, and we would make those. And so, every couple of weeks, we would write short scripts and go sit in a part of the company’s new showcase office space that afforded sufficient room and light and views of other, cooler employees doing things in the background. There we would talk into the camera about a story we’d written, or a thing that was happening; the videos were edited down to 90 seconds. It’s hard to know what happened from there, and the streaming service no longer exists; to my knowledge, these videos are nowhere to be found online. Doing the videos seemed, then as now, more or less the same as not doing them. Again, it was my job but not really my business. *** It is still unclear just how much people have ever wanted to watch video online, although it is well known by now that the viewership numbers that Facebook presented to advertisers back in 2015 were inflated by something like 80 percent. The delirious rhetoric that accompanied that push—“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook...is video”—makes that figure seem modest. In 2018, some advertisers filed a lawsuit against Facebook alleging that it knew its video figures were wrong at the time, and that the figures were inflated by more like 150 to 900 percent; Facebook has copped to making a mistake, but denied that it did so with an eye on deceiving advertisers. At any rate, it is also well known that this overinflation—feel free to swap in “brazen lie” here, if you want—had a number of unpleasant and unfair consequences for people working in online media. Resources were reallocated to video stuff that no one really wanted, and people lost their jobs as a result. Multiple websites pivoted themselves more or less out of existence, seemingly due in large part to peer pressure; sites could look at their own traffic and see that people did not really watch very much video, but just assumed that Facebook knew something they didn’t. In 2017, Fox Sports eliminated the written word from its website entirely, replacing columnists and features and game stories with videos of ovoid men heatedly pretending to be upset about college football. Traffic to the website declined by 88 percent in the months after the change. When I was laid off from my previous job, in July of that year, the company explained it as the result of a decision to “put more resources into video production.” They laid off everyone on our site’s video team, too, but again I assume they had their reasons, or didn’t. My next workplace understood video not as the secret future of the internet, but as a useful if modest part of an uneasy present. The sites that comprised the larger company were popular and profitable and powerfully in flux, as they had been ever since an aggrieved tech billionaire, using a honeybaked WWE antique as a cutout, successfully sued them into bankruptcy. The coterie of venture capitalists that had bought the sites at a discount briefly attempted an ambitious pump-and-dump asset-flip, then punted and brought in some consultants to justify and oversee layoffs and buyouts in advance of a different and more desperate kind of sale. Everything at the place atrophied as ownership looked for and found ways not to spend money on workers and work it no longer even pretended to care about. The satellite office where we shot our videos emptied first of people, then fixtures and furnishings. On the last day there, before management let the lease run out, I booted a wildly oversized tennis ball, one of the inexplicable promotional doodads that had been left behind, and knew that, wherever it landed, it could not hit anything that could break or wasn’t already broken. Strangely, for all the ambient hauntedness of that moment, this was also one of the happiest and most productive times I’ve had at any job. Ownership didn’t just not-care about what we were doing, but was actively and obviously not paying attention to any of it; the plugger sent up from Miami to oversee the sites before the sale seemed not to have even heard of them before. But as long as we stayed within the budgets agreed-upon back when everyone was still pretending to care, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted. The lack of institutional support necessarily limited the scope, but the totality of that neglect allowed us to try things, and keep working on them until they got good. Within these limitations and in that vacuum, the production staff created a series of small and silly video series built around various people sitting together and doing various stupid things—participating in oblique open-ended competitions, parsing and rating old NBA jerseys purchased at thrift stores, unwisely attempting to eat 50 scrambled eggs. The tone of the videos was convivial and welcoming and, I thought, rather relaxing to watch; an online friend remarked that they served a sort of ASMR function for him. A tossed-off blog post that had grudgingly become a self-satirizing feature on Facebook Live—everyone was still sucking up to Facebook, then—was reimagined as a recurring bit in which I and some willing co-workers opened old packs of trading cards and did our best to remember the players whose cards we found. A reader sent a big printer box full of loose baseball cards from the 1980’s and ’90’s to the office without a return address, and we opened it and talked about those cards on camera. It was all just about as goofy as it sounds, but the videos built an audience over time, despite or because of how low-key and similar they were. My wife’s aunts passed around a video of me explaining how various plaid shirts made their way into my closet; online friends memed it as kindly as possible. The producers were the reason that any of this worked, but I felt a part of the process in a way that I hadn’t ever been before. I cared about the videos being good, and the people making them cared about them being good, and other people—not the people paying for them, of course, but other people—cared about them, too. I was proud of that. The sale, when it finally came, put our network of sites in the hands of a private equity concern; an irascible veteran digital media executive, whose personal fortune had been built running grim and nondescript content mills years earlier, put up some of his own money in that deal and installed himself as CEO. He arrived with a reputation for picking fights and cutting corners, and swiftly got to work doing both. People began to leave and weren’t replaced and the CEO busied himself hiring men he had worked with a decade earlier. None of those guys were what you might call big readers, either, but this time that didn’t protect us. They jammed the sites with advertisements until the pages stuttered and stalled and refused to load; readers complained, those complaints were forwarded upstairs, and the pages grew only more choked. Word would periodically come down that the CEO was furious about, say, a video in which my co-workers competed to identify different brands of yogurt in a blind taste test. It was never clear why, and he’d shortly get enraged about something else, but none of it inspired much confidence. “They’re playing house,” a longtime executive at the company told me of the new CEO and his crew one night at a bar, shortly before he left the company. I learned about the first big advertising deal that new team landed the same way everyone else did, which was that I suddenly heard my own voice coming from my computer’s speakers every time I loaded a page on the website. The deal, we were later told, could deliver up to $1 million in revenue provided we were able to deliver something like 15 times the video exposures we currently did across the network. Because we did not have anything like the staff or infrastructure to make that many more videos, it was decided that the ones we had would play automatically in a small window at upper left on every page; immediately following an advertisement for the aforementioned insurance company, a second video would also begin playing, with sound, in the middle of every page. [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/david_j_roth/status/1187045902961258501[/tweet_embed] So I found myself on every page of the site, muttering or chuckling or just sitting in some strange stooped way in one or more of our videos. What was for people visiting the site just the latest experiential offense among many was, for me, both an unsettling manifestation of the self-consciousness I felt about my personal pivot to video and something stranger. Much of my job, there and everywhere else I have worked, has amounted to wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash that I might show to other people on the off chance that it might amuse or disgust them; I did not always enjoy the smell, but I’d worked enough other jobs to know that there were worse places to spend your day. It was jarring, as I became the ubiquitous face of the spammily cretinous new regime, to find that I was myself now part of that chaos—it was my face and voice, decontextualized and unbidden, pouring out of that pipe. I couldn’t stop it, but it doesn’t stop. So I chased myself around the page, suddenly much more noise than signal. There’s only ever so much you can control at any job, of course. You make the things you make as good as you can, at which point they are not really yours anymore, or anyway not yours to control. In time, I and everyone I worked with left that last job; the part that was ours was just shrinking too fast. And yet I still go back to the garbage lagoon, because it still feels like my job and because I don’t know where else to go. So I bring you this. Is this anything? [[{"fid":"6706301","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"}}]]
The Year in Breathing

Cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. But cool, I learned, may have been killing me.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Life lately has been very embarrassing for me, a formerly cool person. For starters, consider the Crocs, a pair of tie-dyed clown shoes I’ve worn near-daily since summer. It’s not that I was ever cool like I could pull off a pair of denim panties or whatever. But I was cool like I could look comfortable even when I wasn’t. Cool like when someone told me a while ago that I was hard to read, I felt warm with pride. For reasons equally personal, cultural, and political, cool always seemed like a place of safety, a protective modality, a way to move through the world while needing nothing. Cool was permission to slink. Cool was not flopping around in a pair of plastic shoes just because they felt good on my feet. But cool, I learned last year, may have been killing me. I fainted on the A train on my way to work one morning. Some days, blood leaked from my nose spontaneously. My memory, known among friends for being obnoxiously sharp, started to flag. I felt deep pain most of the time. My orbital bone throbbed with migraine several days out of the week. It finally got bad enough that I took myself to get a check-up, a completely mundane exercise for which I had secretly believed myself too cool. Within weeks, seven different specialists had investigated my body. I was severely anemic. My septum was deviated. Polyps lined my nasal passages. My heartbeat was faint. There was a 2 mm growth at the base of my skull. But the real problem, the doctors determined, was unmanaged stress. It made my jaw tense and my neck stiff. It made my brain fog up. It made simple tasks feel like missions. A neurologist prescribed a triptan, half a dozen supplements, and deep breathing. I laughed. Telling a patient to breathe is to a doctor what thoughts and prayers are to a politician. But then this spring, I found myself in a belly flop of a depression. A few months earlier, I had quit a job around which I’d organized my personal and professional identities. A relationship I’d emptied myself into had begun to show cracks. I was unmoored and pathetic. Bored, I would pad through Instagram’s recommended page. The algorithm, which typically served me an equal mix of Kardashian children and satisfying slime videos, had read the room. Mindfulness memes colonized the app: 10 ways to maintain your boundaries. How to sit with discomfort. Affirmations for anxiety. Good reasons to put down your phone. (Irony is lost on the algorithm.) I felt moved, and strangely inspired. I didn’t recognize the instinct in myself but I craved more of the warmth and clarity and comfort that came from accounts with names like @notesfromyourtherapist. Around the same time, I went to a lecture given by a friend about yoga. It was specific to her experiences and family history, but I wanted everything she described her practice to be: grounding, challenging, expansive. The next morning, I borrowed my mom’s mat and went to my first yoga class in years. And then I went a couple more times that week. I wasn’t very good. But miraculously, I didn’t care. I didn’t feel self-conscious needing to reach for a block; I didn’t feel competitive when I had to reset in a child’s pose before anyone else. Depression had humbled me. Nearly all the instructors talked in riddles about breathing, and I thought of my doctor’s directive. Is a hot fire going up and a cool water going down what she had in mind when she had encouraged me to breathe? I became more aware of the tightness in my chest, the rigid shrug that turned my shoulders into little mountain peaks, the empty pocket formed by my tongue pressing into the roof of mouth. I had subconsciously trained myself to hold my breath. It’s possible that my brain and my body have gone years without receiving the oxygen they deserved. I had been too cool for the most elementary of human functions. I spent the fall breathing, and deeply. In for four, hold for four, out for four. In for four, hold for seven, out for eight. In through the right, hold at the top, out through the left; reverse. In through the nose, out through the mouth, 30 times quickly; in again and hold for 10. Hand on belly, hand on chest, in until you’re saturated, out until you’re empty. Soon, everything looked different. My hips were in communion. My toes unclenched. I stopped shaving my head. I no longer needed the friction, the erasing my barber could do with a set of clippers. I wanted the softness of my curls to return, even when they made me look like Justin Timberlake. I started flashing deep smiles at strangers, letting them talk to me even when I had somewhere to be. I understood what people had meant all these years when they said it’s the small things. Every breath was a victory. I became the most embarrassing version of myself possible, a walking cliché. I also leaned into my worst nightmare: a pair of Uggs for when the weather rules out Crocs. I feel humiliated sometimes. But more so, I feel good.
The Year in Making Clothes

Threading a needle is a momentary sideline from a feeling that might otherwise darken me completely. That can be enough, and as a new decade approaches, I find peace in enough.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “Sylvia Plath loved to sew,” began my therapist’s email, some weeks after I attended our appointment wearing a freshly completed Wiksten Haori. She was referring to a New Yorker story by Dan Chiasson about Plath’s last letters, published in a new volume that includes correspondence either suppressed or ignored in previous edits of Plath’s work. I skimmed the article, which was full of the misdeeds and mysteries related to Plath’s short life; the posthumous tailoring of her output to protect the reputations of her surviving family, most notably, her husband Ted Hughes. But I read with deep interest of Plath’s “new & exciting” sewing hobby, which I too had fallen hard for. “Plath had none of the leisure for contemplation that we associate with male writers,” writes Chiasson. “Her muses were economy, thrift, and the clock.” One day, “cowlike and cabbagey” after Frieda’s birth, Plath went downtown and “bought three 2-yard lengths of material” and a Simplicity sewing pattern. It’s, well, funny to receive an email from a steward of one’s mental health pointing out the hobby of a poet associated quite closely with her suicide. But it articulates something about Plath that I’ve long struggled to reconcile in my own understanding of depression—namely the ease with which a chronic condition can feel like the thing one is, rather than a quality through which, at a given time, one might pass. As a person prone to variable periods of anxiety and depression, it reminded me that Plath had access to joy and optimism, perhaps even deepened by her knowledge of despair. Plath, despite the mental distress she presented so brutally in The Bell Jar, still found pleasure in buying fabric and sewing patterns and making dresses for her daughter. Sylvia Plath loved to sew. I also love to sew. Based on little more than a wish to make my own ridiculously wide pants, I learned to sew at age 14 from a jocular nicotine chimney named Don. A towering ginger with red plastic glasses that dangled from a cord around his neck, I attended Don’s teen sewing class every Thursday, where I was often the only student, and usually stayed for the adult class that directly followed. When I try to remember what I learned in that class, I think it was mostly how fun it was to be with Don, who didn’t so much teach sewing as do our sewing for us. He helped me buy my first (and only) sewing machine: an unbreakable Janome RX18S that’s gone hard for twenty years, never more than in 2019. The light bulb hasn’t even burned out. I stopped sewing for a very long time, doing it mostly when pants required shortening. Then, last winter, I found myself in a mentally deranging period of work-related stress. Riven with anxiety, I drifted into the Toronto fabric stores I had first discovered as a Modrobes-horny kid: King Textiles, with its sign-tossing sentry bellowing FaBrIc SaLe! at the corner of Queen and Spadina, as he has since the beginning of time. Affordable Textiles, which it is, and World Sew Centre, where they would check whether a fabric was cotton by setting a scrap of it on fire. Fabric stores are subject to an uncommon entropy. Somehow, twenty years later, they all look, smell, and sound the same. These stores, due to the dampening factor of all the fabric bolts, have an uncanny lack of acoustics. Someone talking to you from six feet away will appear to be on mute, lip-synching to nothing. That kind of quiet is healing. My first item of clothing sewn and completed this year was a stretch velvet t-shirt that a friend of mine had requested. It took me a month to make it, a very simple garment, ultimately overworked and clumsily finished. But when it was, I felt the clearest form of happiness I’d experienced in years. As 2019 began, I was full of ideas, revived curiosity, absolutely hectic with interest in YouTube pleating demos and vintage Issey Miyake sewing patterns on Etsy. I hung a pegboard to organize my growing collection of tools; acquired a self-healing cutting mat and a rotary knife and a tailor’s ham and a seam gauge and a point turner and a blind hem foot—accessories that grew from the projects that I was teaching myself to do. I repeated the brand names aloud for their absolute non-descriptness: Dritz. Olfa. Brother. Singer. I bought a heavy Black & Decker iron that has seared the flesh of my inner arms with its point multiple times, causing a minor airshow of little pink triangles that I dab with Lucas’ Papaw Ointment. One piece of advice to any sewer: get a good steaming iron. The heavier, the better. The passionate assumption of a hobby led, in my case, to spending money on things that I convinced myself I needed. As spring approached, I worried that my desire to sew and sew and sew was producing waste I could not defend, even with my happiness. So I took a break from the peaceful glut of the Queen West fabric stores and began thrifting old quilts and bed linens; learned to dye them with synthetic and eventually natural pigments—indigo, osage, madder, goldenrod. Adding iron to most, if not all natural dyes will darken the shade, a process known as saddening. As stories like Natalie Kitroeff's investigation into Fashion Nova's laissez-faire exploitation of their workers, or Uniqlo's refusal to pay $5.5 million in wages to workers after the sudden closure of an Indonesian factory emerge, the ethics of fast fashion continue to shape how we evaluate the clothes we choose to wear. I can’t say that I started my obsession with sewing this way, but seeing how long it takes me to make a pair of shorts produces a visceral understanding of just how undercompensated most overseas—and in the case of Fashion Nova, domestic—garment workers are. Very often as I am writing something, I will rise from my keyboard, moving to the corner in the back of my apartment where my sewing machine, my new overlock machine, my shears and bobbins and French curves are all in a state of readiness. Within minutes my iron is hissing and I am cutting out a shirt or a dress. Sewing is slow but steady. Its products grow from the fibrously small into something that you can button up or down. I will just as quickly rise from my sewing machine and walk back to my computer to type something that entered my brain while hemming a sleeve. It becomes appealing to look at a Word doc as something tactile and slow growing. Distracted by the certainty of a garment, my mind is free to write without the smothering observations of ego. And so I type it quickly, before I can decide that it sucks. I feel most at peace while traveling between one machine and the other, because I know I will have something exact to do when I arrive at either. In university, I did an interview with the playwright and mathematician John Mighton. In that conversation, he told me that he taught himself to write by taking apart the poems of Sylvia Plath. I have nothing new to add about Plath, the writer. I admire Ariel and The Bell Jar and thinking too much about her life as I mostly know it makes me sad. But thinking about Sylvia Plath, the seamstress, makes me happy—because I know how happy sewing makes me. Something soft to lay her hands on. That Mighton found her poems to be worthy garments to learn from is apt, although any and all writers can be treated the same. Isn’t that how we all teach ourselves to write? Take it apart; see how to hide or show the seams as the one you love did. In the past year, my sewing has improved vastly, to the point that I now know how much of an amateur I still am. I have made jackets and coats and skirts and pants and curtains and dresses and a baby-sized version of Bjork’s swan dress. I’ve gotten faster and better, and then smug, and made mistakes that require hours of fixing that sometimes can’t be fixed. If my mood is low, the task of threading a needle is a momentary sideline from a feeling that might otherwise darken me completely, iron in the dye bath. Sometimes that is enough, and mostly, as this new decade approaches, I find peace in enough. As described in her letters, Plath’s goal was to publish enough poetry to buy her own sewing machine. “I am awfully proud of making clothes for little Frieda,” she wrote in her letters, which prompted more poetry, writes Chiasson. “She wrote the poems that allowed her to buy the machine, which, in turn, shows up in a poem.” Is this love then, this red materialIssuing from the steel needle that flies so blindingly?It will make little dresses and coats, It will cover a dynasty.
The Year in Naps

The days go so fast, you have to steal the nights, and when all the nights slip away, that’s it. I’m not ready.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I’ll only be alive a short time, feels like I ought to hit it hard. That being said, this year I took a lot of naps. My day job was at a petrochemical plant, welding, heavy rigging, and repairing machinery. I got up before dawn, drove in, labored away in work boots, hardhat, and coveralls. On my lunch break, I ate quickly, and then spent the rest of the time writing stories on my cellphone. Each night, I sat down, like this, and wrote some more. I like working with my hands. But the labor is hard on my body. I’m always climbing up and down ladders and stairs, hundreds of feet in the air, or crawling through the oil and filth. When I’d get back to my apartment in the city at four thirty, I was always too tired to concentrate on sentences and squiggly marks and make believe right away, so I went to the couch and laid down for a while, took one of my famous catnaps. It was loud outside. The school crossing guard was always outside my window, blowing her whistle. There were police sirens, stereos, screams of all varieties. I’d leave my deaf ear up, place my good ear on the pillow. And while I slept the world ended. The rivers dried up, the bullets rang out and ricocheted, the bombs went off and triggered other bombs all down the line, churches burned to ash and that was that, the Black Rhinoceros disappeared forever. Whenever I opened my eyes I was always surprised to part the venetian blinds and find John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Jersey City still there, same as I’d left them, but now in darkness. I’d move to my bamboo desk, refreshed, work on my writing until Rae came home. This year, my coworker Pat had a routine like mine. After eight years of gathering the parts, he was ready to rebuild a hot rod in his garage. 1928 Ford Model A. At night he’d read his daughter a bedtime story, close his eyes next to her, sleep. Two hours later, he’d get up, go out in his detached garage, get to work. Sparks flew, arc light flashed, smoke rolled. His neighbors might not like him. But I do. Why not build a hot rod in your garage? Why not write a novel? You’re a lot of things. You’re not your day job. The stars rise and fall, the constellations shift, week by week, season by season. We do what we can, while we still can. The moon fell. The sun began to rise. I dragged myself out of bed, kissed Rae goodbye, walked out the door. Over the barbed wire gates of the refinery, I saw for the first time that it would be a beautiful day. No rain clouds in sight. I punched in, smiling. Dawn was nice and ripe. “I’m tired as shit, man,” Pat said as we walked to the machine shop. “Up late.” “Same here. How’s the car coming along?” He pulled out his phone, showed me a picture. There were wheels on the Model A now. “That looks so good, man.” We opened the door. It was 6:58 a.m. In two minutes a hundred of us would salute the flag, recite the pledge of allegiance. In three minutes, the safety guy would lead us in our morning stretches: bend over touch your toes, arm circles forward, neck rolls all around. I took out my own phone and called Rae: “Time to get up and go to work.” She sounded groggy, could barely talk. She yawned, stretched. Her day began. On her way home from work, she’d call me and wake me up on our couch while she treaded to the train. I would sound groggy. I would barely be able to talk. I would stretch, yawn, my night would begin. This year, like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, I had two lives. I worked construction, and I made up stories. I stole whatever minutes I could from lunch breaks and made art one day at a time. I stole minutes from the evenings too, but first, like I said, I took another nap. Another nap. Another nap. Another nap. I’m always paranoid that I’m running out of time. It feels like time speeds up when you get older. When you’re twenty-five a year is reduced to only ten months. When you turn forty, that year is only nine months. By the time you retire, if you do, a year is only three months or so. The day before you die, a year happens every fifteen minutes. I checked the calendar and January was already over, the buzzer went off and it was time to go downstairs and get the laundry, and do the dishes, and get a haircut and get my suit cleaned so I could go to someone’s funeral. * The alarm clock went off. I looked out the window. A foot of snow had dumped down on the cars on my block. I dressed for the weather and went out searching and couldn’t remember where I’d parked. Which block. The cars all looked the same. White. Buried. With my hand, I cleared snow off a hood, saw red paint. I was looking for black. I tried another. And another. I was an hour late for work by the time I got there. But a lot of the other guys hadn’t made it in, so they canceled the job for the day. I just had to sit there till 9 a.m., but then I was free, without pay, but free. I could’ve kicked and screamed and thrashed around and made a million snow angels. There is nothing I like more than unexpected time to write. Nothing is more glorious. Mid-afternoon, home, and warm, and just as I was getting somewhere in the book, my boss called. I was being sent to night shift, for twelve weeks. I lived on the first floor of my apartment building, I might have jumped out the window if I were any higher. The third week in February the general foreman had to take off, so my foreman moved up, became the general. I put my welding hood away, stuck my gloves in my pocket, picked up a clipboard and became the foreman, temporarily, of a five-person crew of welders, high up, repairing ductwork and tubes inside a massive furnace. I didn’t want to be the boss. But I had to be. I got the permit, filled out the paperwork, did my best to sound convincing. Second night of that detail, the drug dogs were out at the gates, so half the crew turned their pickup trucks around and went home, rather than risk getting searched. You never can tell when one of those pooches might freak out because you spilled beer on your pants at the bar the night before, or whatever your problem was. My problem was, halfway through the shift, I did a head count and found one of the workers missing. I checked the paperwork. At the start of each shift we had to fill out a JSA, a job safety analysis sheet, which broke down the job step-by-step, identifying a hazard for each step, and then offering a way to mitigate the hazard. Task Hazard Mitigation Weld Fire, Explosion Firehose Grind Sparks Containment Climb Ladders Slips, Falls Safety Harness Write Novel Ennui See Friends Edit Novel Existential Crisis Get Laid I checked the list of signatures at the bottom of the worksheet. Seven signatures, six guys working. One missing, for sure. I panicked. It was the middle of the night and the guy could’ve fallen down to the ground far below. My fear wasn’t uncalled for. As job site legend goes, years before, a guy on night shift had fallen to his death from a nearby tower. When day shift came in they found him broken on the ground. He hadn’t died on impact. He’d crawled out to the road, left a trail of blood. The tower had scratch marks where his nails had dug in as he tried to stop his fall. (Another job site legend I hear every year, and heard again just the other day, was the paper mill incident. In the ’90s before the mill closed, there was a small crew that maintained it. One of the guys was going through a nasty divorce. His coworkers saw him living in his car in the lot. One of them suggested a fully furnished trailer park, cheap, ten minutes down the road. It was believed that the divorced man had moved there. He was no longer found sleeping in the lot. On Thanksgiving, the boss of the paper mill received a phone call from security. There’d been a fatality. A body had been spotted on camera, up on the roof of the mill. The boss pushed the turkey and potatoes to the side and rushed to the mill, went to the roof with the guard and they saw what they thought was a corpse, flat on its back. It was hot up there, and loud. The whole structure shook violently. You had to wear earmuffs. They walked to the corpse and it was the divorced man. But he wasn’t dead, either. He was dead drunk, unconscious. Newspapers, cans of soup, a sleeping bag, bottles of booze all around him. He’d been camping up there. They shook him awake. They screamed, and he screamed. It was Thanksgiving. Most everybody was thankful.) I went welder to welder, had them point to their names on the JSA. A lot of them were travelers from other parts of the country. The missing man was from Arkansas or Alabama. Nobody quite remembered. Even his name on the list was odd, he went by a nickname. A lot of them do. I’ve worked with countless Cowboys, and Spikes, and Rambos, or whatever. Nobody with the name John was ever called John on the job site. I hustled down the stairs, searched the base of the structure with a flashlight. He wasn’t down there and I breathed relief. I went inside the furnace and checked all the scaffolding but didn’t find him. I found him on a higher catwalk, tucked under a section of ductwork we weren’t repairing. I saw his boots sticking out like the Wicked Witch of the East. I knelt down and saw he was breathing. Sleeping. Rip Van Winkle. I called his name and he sat up quick and hit his head, and then, rubbing his head, he realized he was in New Jersey, and he begged me not to fire him and I laughed and I said it was fine and I laughed again and then he laughed, and who the fuck was I to fire anybody? It was just so nice he was alive. And I felt so nice that I was alive. If he hadn’t been alive, I would’ve had to deal with the paramedics, the plant manager, but worse than all that, I would’ve had to talk to the man’s wife, girlfriend, significant other, kids, or his mother, maybe I’d have had to explain it to his dog, “Your master is never coming home. Throw your own stick. Fetch your own stick, too.” Instead, he got to his feet, walked down the stairs, went back to work. Someone did get injured on that night shift. Towards the end, we were sending the crane hook down between the high steel and the signal man with the radio was talking to the crane operator and I said, “Oh my god look at that beautiful moon.” It was at its apex, fat and strawberry in the dark sky. The signal man looked up at the moon, and somehow threw his back out, fell to his knees in pain. I took the radio and finished the crane pick. Men driven to their knees by the full moon, this is one of the things I know most about. * Sometime in March, I opened my eyes on the couch and I didn’t know what day it was. My living room was dark. I thought I was late for work. I jumped up, grabbed my keys, put my shoes on, rushed to my car, found it, started it up. Saw it was six o’clock. I’d be late to day shift, I thought. But then I realized it was 6 p.m. and I’d already worked my shift. I shut the car off, walked down Duncan Avenue into my apartment building. Showered. Got dressed. Sat at my bamboo desk, wrote a story, best I could, until Rae came home. We made tacos. I like to write because when I’m doing it, it’s just me, out there alone. I don’t have a boss when I’m writing. And I don’t have to worry about being anybody’s boss. I can handle being responsible for fictional characters. I can handle being responsible for this essay. Not much else. I don’t want to bring flowers to yet another funeral. I don’t want to Google Map Antarctica and find it gone. I don’t like reality as much as dream, as much as hallucination. In April, I got high as a kite and everything looked like a cartoon for five hours, I wasn’t even responsible for my own body. When the sun came up, I closed my eyes and fell into a sleep, deep and free. And my bank account sank to the center of the earth and burnt up in the lava for eight glorious hours. Maybe I like writing so much because it’s the worst way to go into business for myself. The most worthless. The most fun. Speaking of bosses, when I was eighteen, and all the cherry blossoms were fat and happy, I had a job with a shovel. I dug ditches, holes in the ground for minimum wage. Moved block. Planted trees. Got a suntan, got clean in the rain. I’ve always worked outside. When I die I don’t even want a grave. Just leave me on the grass. I’m a claustrophobic man, on paper. I don’t want an office job, or a coffin. No cubicle. No pine box. My shovel boss then was a bearded, potbellied man, always exhausted and worried. Probably some cocaine problem. He couldn’t keep up with the bookkeeping, and estimates, plus he tried to work with us, too. Our paychecks were often days late, sometimes a week. I didn’t like that guy. Neither did my shovel-wielding coworker. But once, I took the work truck to get me and my coworker donuts and coffee and I found the boss at some random convenience store nearby, passed out, head on the steering wheel. I stood outside the truck and looked in at the boss. First, I thought I would pound on the window and scare the shit out of him. But the more I looked at him, the more he just looked so pathetic. Strung out, but childlike, too. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. I went inside the store and got the donuts and the coffee and left him alone, went back to the job. Let him sleep. A few days later, lunchtime at some rich person’s house, the boss put his shovel down and lay in the shade. Me and my coworker ate our lunch, watched him sleep. When our lunch was up, instead of going back to work, we shrugged and picked our own spots of shade, laid down too, bored as shit, pretended to sleep for hours. The minutes slipped off. I stared up at the blue sky. There were no clouds. But then I saw some drift in as if I’d willed them. I liked that feeling. Soon I heard the boss snoring. There’s nothing funnier than hearing your boss snore. At 2 p.m., he cursed me and my coworker. We sat up, rubbed our eyes. “Oh no! We all dozed off.” When I lost that job, I found another. It’ll always be that way. This year, beginning of summer, I lost my construction job. It happens. I’m gonna lose a lot of jobs. So I was home, with more time to write. I liked it. I had this yellow rolling cart that I would drag over to the couch, and I would work on my story for the morning, and at 9 a.m. I would pretend I still had a job, and I would take a coffee break like I was still on a construction site, and then I would write until noon, when I’d take lunch. It was nice. I liked not having a job. Out of habit, in the late afternoon, I would try to take a nap on the couch but it hardly ever worked, because I was so rested. Some people say writing is exhausting. Maybe. But writing alone never drove me to an afternoon nap, I’ll say that. And sometimes in the evening I found I had so much energy I couldn’t sleep. I bought a portable book light and clipped it to Mrs. Dalloway, and then Madame Bovary, and then Giovanni’s Room. Sometime after midnight, even Rae would begin to snore. Pat sent me a new picture of his hot rod. He’d rebuilt the chassis, set the ride height. It looked good. He was just about to drop the motor back in, the transmission after that. I asked him what he was gonna do with the car when it was done. He said, “Drive to work on a nice day.” What am I going do with my novel when it’s done? Nothing. Drive it nowhere. Let a friend read it on a nice day. In July I put up a post on Twitter saying I had a lot of free time if anybody wanted me to edit some of their stories. I got a few hits, but I also got an email from a producer putting together a podcast about sleep. They’d read some of my writing about working night shift at the plant. I was invited to write a small script about my experiences. When I sent it to the producer, it was rejected because I had told that gruesome story about the guy falling and the scratch marks on the tower. The podcast wanted less gore, less blood, less guts. They didn’t want to hear about sleepy men falling to their deaths, fireball explosions lighting up the night, I made my edits, resubmitted. But I did get to tell the story about when I was driving home from my night shift and I was stuck in traffic and fell asleep on the George Washington Bridge, and was woken up by a cop at my window, who pulled me out of the car and made me take a sobriety test just as the sun was beginning to come up over the New York City skyline. The first week of August, the producer had me travel to a studio in the city where I heard him in my headphones and I talked into the mic about nighttime in industrial hellholes, the need for sleep masks, and earplugs to combat city sirens, and firetrucks, and the light streaming into the window, and the crossing guard and her whistle. I even mentioned the man driven to his knees by the moon, but I don’t know if it made it in the podcast. I can’t listen to myself talk. At the end of August, my friend Joey began updating his Twitter feed, upon waking, “8/23/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/24/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/25/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/26/19: woke up, not dead.” And so on. In October, I got my job back. I punched in for work and learned that someone we had worked with for five years had died in bed of a heart attack. At coffee break we all sat together in our trailer and discussed. Someone said the man had said his chest hurt on Friday, his arm was numb. They told the man with the pain to go to the hospital, leave work now, but the man shook his head and lit a Marlboro instead. We wanted to know if he had woken up, or if he really did die in his sleep. If it was even possible to actually die in your sleep, painlessly. Or if there was pain, it was just pain felt in a dream, and you don’t even know it’s happening, or believe it. That’s what we all want: our pain just to be in a dream. It didn’t seem possible. Had his wife been beside him in the bed, had she slept through it too, had she rolled over and found him in the morning, cold and lifeless? Heart attack. Keyword: attack. Thrash around, gasp, fight. No one could sleep through an attack. If so, maybe get a better word for what it really was. “10/22/19: woke up, not dead.” “10/23/19: woke up, not dead.” “10/24/19: woke up, not dead.” And so on. One morning, people stood out at the gate with buckets, and a photo of the man who’d died in bed was taped on the buckets. We slipped green bills inside the buckets. I opened my eyes on the couch, and we’d come to the end of the year. I looked out the window and I saw 2020 get off the bus, begin to walk slowly down the sidewalk. I closed the blinds. I sat down at my typewriter. The intercom buzzed. 2020 was outside the building, wanted in. I shut off all the lights. I could hear 2020 outside calling my name. Screaming my name. I attached the portable book light to this sheet of paper, typed faster. The days go so fast, you have to steal the nights, and when all the nights slip away, that’s it. I’m not ready. All year, time was running out, and I didn’t have much of it. I closed my eyes and slept a catnap, and when I woke up, I did the best I could towards midnight. When the blue sky had not a cloud, I imagined them. They came drifting in, shaped as what I wanted. Maybe nothing much mattered to me when I was 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, well we’ll see about next year, but I think I already know.
The Year in Mysterious West Virginia

These people, these murder victims—the only thing separating their fate and mine is a thin hair of the intangible.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “I’ve got something new for us to watch,” my husband Scott told me. The algorithm knew he lived in West Virginia, but not I, apparently. YouTube had suggested Mysterious WV, a channel about unsolved cases—disappearances and murders, mostly—in our state. It felt thrilling to watch the first few episodes. I’ve been obsessed with true crime shows, and cold cases in particular, for the better part of my life. I love West Virginia, where I’ve lived for the past five years—its weirdness and its wildness. It is a deeply creepy state, that feels unsupervised, bleak, and also beautiful, like the mountains and rivers are thinly masking some shadowy secret. Here was a YouTube show that tied these two interests together in a neat bow. Mysterious WV takes cues from Unsolved Mysteries, the show that terrified me as a child. There is eerie instrumental background music, a grave-sounding voiceover. The production is cheap but not low quality; yes, the episodes sometimes rely on laughably bad stock images, but the stories are extensively researched, by combing through state archives, property histories, geological surveys, police files, and old maps and newspapers. Original interviews are conducted with police, witnesses, and friends and family members of the victims. The creators travel to the sites of the murders, showing current-day footage of the part of the river where the body was found, the gas station where the woman was seen with a strange man in her car, the side of the interstate where the body was dumped. We watched the majority of the episodes over a single weekend, in the back bedroom of my in-laws’ house, after the children and grandparents had gone to sleep. My in-laws live in Rainelle, a small town that is now full of abandoned buildings, old people, and drug addicts. The street they live on, though, is quiet, away from the abandoned buildings, lined with well-maintained houses and neat lawns. Their property ends at a patch of woods, and sometimes you hear things in it at night. Usually, it is deer. During hunting season, it is hunters and their ATVs. That weekend, after watching all these stories about local murders, I became convinced that the noises weren’t deer or hunters, but a killer. I lay in bed, frozen in a fear I had not felt since childhood, convinced that the boogeyman was lurking in the hallway. I reasoned with myself: The house was guarded by an overly-sensitive alarm system. The dog would bark. But the alarm could have been disabled. Maybe the dog was in a deep sleep. The cumulative effect of all the death had clearly gotten to me, aided by the creepy music and the fact that the settings of these murders were so familiar. A girl was found strangled and stuffed in the crawlspace of an apartment building near where Scott had lived in grad school, in a city I would visit in a few weeks to speak to a college writing class. A housewife was shot in her home, just a mile from my own. A body was dumped on the side of the road that I take to get to my favorite bookstore and my psychiatrist. Even the places that weren’t familiar looked familiar; a lot of West Virginia looks the same: green plants, thick trees, muddy rivers. As we watched the episodes, oldest to newest, we saw the progression of the show and the hosts themselves. The earliest episodes are credited to both Carrie Kirk and Sean Patrick McCracken, a married couple living in Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital. They alternated hosting the show, with Kirk appearing much more comfortable in front of the camera. In these early episodes, McCracken is stiff and awkward, doing things like leaning against a tree in a way that is probably meant to look natural but doesn’t. Eventually, he becomes more relaxed. About a year in, Kirk stops appearing in the credits and episodes. There is an eight-month lull in episodes. I grew curious about the lapse, and, after some intense creepy Google searching, discovered that McCracken and Kirk had gotten a divorce. Kirk evidently was the expert when it came to production, and with her absence the show loses the original recreations, which were always shot super close up—a foot tapping the ground, a hand flicking a lighter—and gave the show an abstract, dreamy feeling, fitting because so many of the cases are so old. After the divorce, McCracken started wearing an awesome vintage orange corduroy trench coat in the videos, that he tells me via email was once his grandfather’s. [[{"fid":"6706176","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Sean P. McCracken","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]":"Sean P. McCracken","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Sean P. McCracken","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Later, he started a Patreon page. I immediately signed up, my first Patreon ever. Shortly after, McCracken started to be invited to radio shows, press conferences, and a grave exhumation. He is fascinating to watch, for both his wardrobe choices (a recent episode featured him in a red suit, polka-dot tie, and striped shirt), and his vocabulary and delivery. He talks with a strange inflection, like he’s the lead in some Victorian play—which makes sense, given that a local paper reported he’s involved in community theater. His manner and antiquated word choices don’t seem put on for the show, however. This appears to be the true McCracken, the pipe-smoking amateur detective, the YouTube generation’s heir to Robert Stack. He is incredibly endearing, doing things like posting a four-minute monologue of him sitting in his car, citing The Goonies quote “Always separate the drugs” as an apology for accidentally referring to crystal meth as “hillbilly heroin” in a recent episode. His face is pudgy, he wears glasses and is balding, and there is something baby-like and sweet about him. The nosy part of me wishes I could follow him around for a day, observe his behavior as he does routine things like buying groceries and pumping gas. At the very least, I’d like to have him over for dinner. As I continued to watch the episodes, they started to fall into categories of reasons why they were scary, illustrations of the different ways it is terrifying to be a human in the world. There are the “bad decision” deaths, where a person slipped into addiction or started hanging out with the wrong people and wound up dead. Something about these deaths feels inevitable, cautionary tales like a grown-up version of an afterschool special. But they also feel personally scary; I have made each of these bad decisions. I’ve gotten too deep in drugs and alcohol. I’ve fallen in love and hung out with criminals. After a decade sober, I’ve watched former friends and boyfriends die or get put in jail, and it has often occurred to me how lucky I am to have made it out. It has also often occurred to me that there is no logical reason for this. These people, these murder victims—the only thing separating their fate and mine is a thin hair of the intangible. And then there are the random deaths, the ones where the victim ended up dead not through a life lived on the margins but by simply existing. The one that sticks with me most is the murder of a nun, twenty-six-year-old Roberta Elam. Actually, she was technically a “pre-novitiate candidate,” a nun-in-training. In June 1977, she was living at the motherhouse of the Mount Saint Joseph convent in Wheeling, West Virginia. One morning, June 13, she went for a run, got a snack from the kitchen, and headed to a nearby field to pray. A couple hours later, her body was discovered in that same field, strangled to death, underwear and jeans pushed down. The police pursued several leads, including a serial rapist and murderer in nearby Pennsylvania, but the killer was never found. The strongest lead involved a “shady”-looking man who was seen near the grounds that day, in a Chevy Impala with a couple religious bumper stickers on the back. A police sketch of him was released, one of those haunting ones, with thick eyebrows and a beard, but it never went anywhere. Nobody was even able to determine a motive for the killing—if this was a crime of opportunity or if she was targeted. The fact that she was a nun particularly bothered me, as though this innocent decision, to marry Christ and try to lead a sinless life, ultimately caused her to die. Other senseless deaths: a young couple disappeared after a date at a popular nightclub. A man bludgeoned at his job at a gas station, having arrived earlier than scheduled so the neighborhood children would have a warm place to wait for the bus. A man abducted, just sitting in his home. A woman beaten to death, just sitting in her home. A woman shot, just sitting in her home. The most troubling cases, though, are the John and Jane Does. The recreations of their faces are, of course, terrifying—humanlike but not human, with empty eyes and expressionless mouths. And then there is the reality of their deaths, the cold truth that not only is it possible to get murdered, and not only is it possible to get murdered and for the killer to get away with it, but it is possible for this to happen and for law enforcement to not even be able to identify your body. One case that stands out begins with a body discovered by two children in a cistern in 1981. This was in Lawrence County, Ohio, across the river from Huntington, West Virginia. After the mostly-skeletonized remains were examined by a coroner, it was determined that they’d found a Caucasian female of indeterminate age who’d been strangled to death. She was dressed for winter, with three layers on top, two pairs of socks on her feet, and a third pair on her hands. Found with the body was a three-year-old bus ticket and a key for a locker at the Huntington Greyhound bus station. In the locker, they found a duffle bag that held more clothes, family photos, and a souvenir coin from a Jerry Falwell revival. Eventually, her body and bag were buried in an unmarked grave. She was dubbed the Belle in the Well. [[{"fid":"6706191","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":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"width":"300","style":"float: right; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]]Thirty years later, her body and property were disinterred, because of advances in DNA and facial reconstruction technology. The resulting reconstruction was especially creepy, the dead eyes looking both passive and forlorn. The extracted DNA suggested she was from West Virginia. Years later—this year, in fact—the DNA was traced to her estranged daughter. The Belle’s name was Louise Virginia Peterson, and she’d been around sixty-five at the time of her death. McCracken attended and then uploaded the footage of the press conference where this information was announced. The only locatable photo came from Peterson’s high school yearbook. [[{"fid":"6706196","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":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"width":"300","style":"float: left; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]]The details of her life are sparse. Officials were able to piece together that she’d been married and then divorced, that she’d had three children, and that perhaps she was mentally ill—and that’s about it. The murder is, unsurprisingly, still unsolved. It is terrifying at both a practical and an existential level that a mother of three could disappear and not be missed, that her life could be such a faint series of dots. It is terrifying that the eventual success in this case was simply identifying her body, rather than finding out what happened to her. It is terrifying that what enabled her identification was not recognition from a friend or a family member, but because a distant relative uploaded their DNA profile to GEDmatch (the same database used to identify the Golden State Killer). There are still so many unknowns: we don’t know when she disappeared, where she was going on that bus, why nobody noticed she was gone, and, of course, we don’t know who strangled her or for what reason. The case points to a mostly unspoken fear that nags at me on my most depressed days: What if life really is lonely and senseless? What if some lives do truly matter more than others? A search for a remedy to these bleak questions seems to point to Mysterious WV’s higher purpose: it exists not because of a desire to create profitable content, or achieve local fame, or even to satisfy the itch of curiosity, but to give these lives and deaths some meaning. Each episode ends with a brief summary of a description of the person at the time of their disappearance or death, and information with who to contact if a viewer has any knowledge regarding the case. Maybe somebody will remember something. Maybe somebody will finally report what they saw or heard. After five or thirty or fifty years, these maybes seem unlikely, if not impossible—but there they are, the brazen existence of a slim crack of hope. Photo of Jane Doe bust via the Ohio Attorney General's Office; photo of Louise Virginia Peterson via the Lawrence Country Coroner's Office.
The Year in Canine Curatives

A dog could serve as another guard against the depression that I finally couldn’t ignore. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I fell apart in February. They used to call it a nervous breakdown, but that antiquated term has been replaced by the equally vague but more medically correct “mental health crisis.” It was a long time coming, but that’s as precise as I can be. My depression goes back farther than my memories, long before I had a name for it. It was something I kept to myself, tried to keep inside, but it infiltrated my thoughts and behaviour until its corruption was no longer an obscuring of my true self but simply part of who I was. I wrestled with my mental health privately, never revealing my struggles to anyone or seeking appropriate help. I told myself I was fine, I had the strength to manage alone, and I certainly didn’t need medication. Instead, I self-medicated with booze or drugs or sex to escape myself, which only led to unhealthy dependencies, which worsened the depression, requiring more self-medication.  In February, two weeks before my thirty-fourth birthday, the cycle finally broke. Which is to say, I broke. The particular catalysts involved aren’t as relevant as the intensity of the experience. I’d had bad episodes before, but this was different, and I knew it. Not only could I never hope to keep this hidden, the stakes felt frighteningly high. It seemed a question of survival. In twenty-four hours, I told my family and close friends, started antidepressants, and booked an appointment with a counselor. I quit all intoxicants, and spoke publicly and openly about my mental health for the first time. These were all actions that had long seemed terrifying, but now they came to me with the easy instinctiveness of breathing to stay alive. Unable to eat or sleep much, I lost eight per cent of my body weight the first week. But after a few weeks the antidepressants kicked in and everything changed. I’d always feared they would dull my mind, but instead they brought something like a stable floor for me to stand on. The surety of being emotionally level astounded me. Correcting the chemical imbalance in my brain with a simple pill enabled me to be fully myself, somewhat akin to how recovering from a bad cold restores one’s sense of being fully present.  Except, as my doctor pointed out, the fact that my depression dates to childhood means that I was feeling like myself for the first time in memory. At age thirty-four, I would have to figure out who that man was. Swimming back to shore from deepest waters was a long process, but weekly therapy sessions along with the medication helped me make slow but steady progress. I don’t remember exactly where the idea of getting a dog came from. I think it was my counsellor, or my doctor, or perhaps I who suggested it. I’d wanted a dog all my life, but my mother was too allergic for us to have one, and as a child I swore that I would get my own dog as soon as I moved out on my own. I spent my twenties bouncing around the world for work and travel, and the time never seemed right. But now a dog could serve as another guard against depression: as a freelance journalist, I spend many solitary hours in my apartment each day, often sacrificing my evenings to the fickle gods of work. Both my counsellor and doctor agreed that a companion who would be both a source of and outlet for affection was worth considering. After convincing my landlord to make an exception for the building’s no-pets rule, I began researching rescue dogs online. I found a four-month-old Jack Russell-Chihuahua who was a street dog in Mexico before being rescued and brought to Calgary by a local agency. Our first meeting was the morning after he’d arrived, and within an hour he was heading home with me. I named him Spätzle after the delicious noodles I’d loved since childhood. He was incredibly well-tempered and calm for a puppy, but also goofy, playful, endearing. *** After two months Spätzle began exhibiting some strange symptoms: coughing, throwing up, and trance-like episodes where his lips and jaw muscles seemed to go haywire. The trances increased in frequency and severity, and the vet confirmed they were what they looked like: seizures. He was prescribed anticonvulsants; I filled the prescription two blocks from the vet’s office, and before I could give him his first pill, he had a violent, full-body seizure that lasted several minutes. I rushed him back to the vet, and they gave him a hefty dose of valium to get him through the day. The likely culprit was canine distemper, a highly contagious virus that causes neurological damage and has an 80% mortality rate for puppies; there is no cure. Waiting more than a week for the blood test results while trying not to get further attached to an adorably romping puppy who might be dying was emotionally exhausting. But at least the anticonvulsants quickly reduced the seizures, first in severity then in frequency, until they stopped entirely after a few days. The blood tests came back negative for everything, including distemper. The next diagnostic step would have been taking him to a neurologist and a series of expensive tests. Given that the seizures had been eliminated and Spätzle seemed fine and not in any distress, the vet and I agreed that it was reasonable to take a wait-and-see approach and simply watch for any changes. [[{"fid":"6706106","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"}}]] Spätzle and I fell into a comfortable rhythm. His tiny bladder requires my rising early, which helped me return to my pre-breakdown routine. Our pill bottles stand together on a kitchen shelf, same translucent green, filled by the same pharmacy. With his breakfast comes the first of his three pills each day, hidden among the similarly-sized kibble to subvert his ability to find the medication in whatever food I’ve hidden it and leave it untouched while he devours the rest. As he eats, I take my two pills, both antidepressants, and then we are ready for the day. I’ve never consciously held any stigma against those with mental illness or the medications they require. But such stigmas are prevalent in our society, and, in hindsight, I had no doubt internalized them and applied them to myself. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want antidepressants, but that I didn’t want to need antidepressants. I took pride in finding the strength to slog through dark swamps on my own, a terribly foolish approach that cost me dearly. Feeling the effects of the medication changed my perspective. But sharing that daily ritual with a companion whose need for pharmaceuticals is a matter of life or death helps tether me to that perspective. I see no weakness in either of our conditions, nor in our reliance on little chemical tablets; we’re simply trying to find a way to live. Spätzle was supposed to help me keep my broken self together. He turned out to be broken, too. After spending decades resisting antidepressants and wanting a dog, I now have both. Neither was what I expected, but both helped save my life.
The Year in Martinis

The protests wound their way into the fabric of our days. Political struggle emerged naturally and sustained itself naturally. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I drank martinis during a revolution. I drank martinis stirred by a be-suited barman in a Buenos Aires speakeasy. I drank martinis in France’s Cognac region, the night before I vomited from food poisoning on a train to Paris, and at the oyster bar in my hometown on Long Island. I drank martinis so much I got the outline of one, with an olive, tattooed on my right ring finger knuckle. I drank martinis so much, and so famously, I came to expect them when I sat down at bars, and it felt strange to give my preferred specs: half gin (any), half dry vermouth, olive—as many olives as the bartender would like to spear or plop. I drank martinis so much that a bartender friend once served me a coupe glass filled with clear liquid, before I could ask for one, and when I sipped it, I tasted water as he laughed hysterically to himself. The martini era of my life happened gradually. Quietly at first, they came in to pair with oysters, but quickly became an obsession. As a cocktail writer drinking in as many cities as people will pay for me to visit, I often feel assaulted by flavor, tired of making selections from house cocktail lists that mainly boast twists on the classics. On a gin martini, with an olive, I could sip slowly, feel the burn grow, and then have a snack. Sometimes I would offer no specifications and be given a lemon peel twist, and while the citrus made sense, it would be disappointing to have no gin-soaked gift at the end. A lemon peel isn’t something to gnaw on. I would ask bartenders why they chose their specific number of olives. Often, there would only be one—these were those who were minimally familiar with my tastes and my profession. Sometimes, two, and friends would be scandalized: “Two olives is bad luck!” they’d say. “It needs to be an odd number.” On an Instagram post, Houston bar owner Bobby Huegel explained in a comment that two actually makes sense: One for the beginning, one for the end. But three always feels right: One for the beginning, the middle, the end. The bartender who loves me, though—he gives me five, an overwhelming amount for a shocking and overwhelming love, one that began during that revolution I mentioned, the revolution that found me officially moving away from New York for the first time in my nearly thirty-four years. It started as a month. Just a month. A little break. The decision came almost exactly four years after I went to Puerto Rico as a reporter for the first time; since, I’d been back multiple times a year, formed friendships, become comfortable. My grandmother was born here, but she left in the ’40s for New York City during an exodus. There was nowhere else in the world that it made as much sense for me to go. Where else would I know the streets, feel safe walking alone, be connected enough not to feel lonely? I booked the flights and the apartment; I broke free from relationships, and broke a heart. It all felt predetermined. And my first two weeks in San Juan went as planned: I drank with friends; I ate the food I love most; I went to intense Ashtanga yoga classes almost daily and wrote on my balcony, fulfilling a longtime dream of re-creating a scene from Before Night Falls where the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas types, types, types with the sea in view. Finally, the Caribbean was mine, for longer than a quick trip. Then there was the breaking news: A transcript of chats between government officials, including then-governor Ricky Rosselló, in which misogynist, transphobic, classist, and corrupt behavior was revealed. These officials mocked the 4645 deaths that had occurred after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Protests began, and from my balcony near the sea I heard how they were growing. Flyers were passed to me through Instagram DM, and I wondered whether I should go—whether my presence at the intersection of Calle Fortaleza and Calle de Cristo in Old San Juan would be in solidarity or self-serving. But with the bartender I would come to love, I went into the fray for the first time on Monday, July 15. The atmosphere was festive, jovial, charged. After hours of chanting for Ricky’s resignation, we took off to meet friends at a bar. In the car on our way out of Old San Juan, the news and videos began coming in of tear gas shot into the crowd. That was the first night of tear gas, and despite my mother’s own protest staged in my text messages, I went back the next day. On Wednesday, I saw the first canister shot into the sky. The protests grew. There was a massive general strike the following Monday, and, finally, on a Wednesday night when I’d already had two martinis and watched a queer collective joyfully dance perreo on the steps of the cathedral where they’d taped a trans pride flag, Ricky heeded the call to resign. I stepped into that same corner, filled with Puerto Rican flags of every sort and people chanting, “Ricky Renuncia!,” to find dancing and joy like I’d never seen before. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be moving back home. For those who’ve only briefly visited Puerto Rico, maybe off a plane or maybe off a cruise ship, or maybe for those who only watched David Begnaud on the news during the protests, it may have seemed like life otherwise stopped on the island. But for many, myself included, the protests wove themselves into the fabric of our days. Political struggle emerged naturally and sustained itself naturally, swelling and ebbing depending on the hour and the day. I remember a Tuesday afternoon of drinking Gruner and snacking on a cheese plate in Old San Juan and then walking over into the fray. I remember taking selfies with my pharmacy-bought bandana around my neck, prepared for that tear gas, which I ran from twice as cops blocked off streets in military formation and protesters were carried out, their eyes closed and swollen, faces red, bodies limp. Despite the tone of revelry and togetherness that permeated the days of protest and the continuation of life, once night fell, the air took on a charge because we all knew that soon, there would be a fight. But that didn’t change the resolve: both to fight and to enjoy whenever, whatever possible—corrupt government and colonial status be damned. And so, I choose not just to remember the chanting, the marching, and the horrors of tear gas, but the martinis served in coupes or Nick and Noras or sometimes even plastic cups. They kept me going, providing a trail of gin from my old life to this new one that formed to my own surprise. Martini in hand, I learned how the most powerful political action can weave seamlessly into the everyday.
‘It Shows the Many Different Forms Depression Can Take’: An Interview with Morgan Parker

The author of Who Put This Song On? on emo, mental health, and the Obama years. 

Morgan Parker has published three poetry collections in a row to critical acclaim. Her debut, Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, was selected by Eileen Myles as the winner of the 2013 Gatewood Prize. There are Things More Beautiful Than Beyoncé was named one of Time Magazine's best books of 2017. Magical Negro, published by Tin House earlier this year, has already received accolades from Vogue and the Washington Post. She's achieved the mainstream success so rare for poets, while refusing to gloss over the visceral experience of her verse. And so, while at the top of her literary game, she decided to do something different with her next book and publish a young adult novel. Who Put This Song On? (Delacorte Press) follows a music-obsessed seventeen-year-old girl, also named Morgan Parker, trying to survive a semester of high school in her hyper-white Southern California town after the apex of a depressive episode. Though the novel takes a different form than Parker's previous work, the subject matter it tackles is familiar: the experience of existing as Black and female in white supremacist America, art and pop culture as an interactive experience, humour and trauma as close cousins. Parker spoke to me on the phone from her home in LA, where she's been living after spending a decade in New York; she had a short break in between an extensive book tour. She is easygoing and quick to laugh at herself and at the process of writing this book, while also recognizing the gravity of her subject matter, and taking seriously the feelings of teen girls. Anna Fitzpatrick: I've been aware of your work for years as a poet. Who Put This Song On? is obviously a departure from that. What was it like to transition from one format to a completely different one? Morgan Parker: It was hard. [laughs] It was hard! I never took a fiction class. I had edited fiction books, so that was one thing, but it's very different to write fiction. I had to write a lot of drafts to figure out what the form could do for me, and to figure out how I wanted to use the form, and I guess to give myself permission to put my voice that I had developed in other forms into that rather than feeling like I'm not doing it right when it comes to figuring out plot points or structure or narrative. For me it was more exploring the form generally. You play with the format, with diary entries and notebook entries throughout. Was writing in prose easier in any way? [Pauses] No. [laughs] I mean, I love sentences, but they're so malleable and flexible. The thing about poems is, you can say a lot of things at once. With linear sentence structure you kind of can't do that, or you have to figure out ways to do that that aren't necessarily grammar or language based. That part is hard because I'm used to not being held to sentences. It feels very different to write something very plainly, to write, I don't know, "I want to die," rather than making a poem that essentially leads up to "I want to die." It's scarier, I think, and it was harder for me to develop these characters and to let go from the original story that I was starting from, and let the story that this book wanted to tell come out. It was more fun, often. I got to just make jokes, which was a departure—well, no, not really. But it was a different experience than writing humour into poetry. Being able to write in this voice of the main character was fun, and there was a little bit of levity involved in that, even though it was so vulnerable at the same time. You're writing a character who shares so many biographical similarities to you and is also named Morgan Parker. I didn't do that as a thing. Honestly, originally I was thinking about what to name her, and I feel like I was spending way too much time thinking about it. I really was stuck on that. I figured, maybe that's not the best way for me to spend my time when I have to write this whole book, so let me just put my name in as a placeholder. It just stayed. I wasn't expecting it to be part of the story, to have the character have my name, but it has been kind of a cool thing to talk about, and it is kind of an interesting way to interact with the reader, to take a step away from the fictional part and to speak directly to the reader. There's something, especially for a story like this that's dealing with suicidal ideation, I think it's kind of cool that the big thing about this book is that she survives. And having the character's name be my name, there's a little bit of hopefulness at that. It's not, "Here's this story about these people." It's, here's a real story, and, actually, the character lives on. But that's not stuff I was thinking about before the book was finished. There are two afterwords to your book. One is a practical resource on how to find a therapist, but there's also one where you're addressing the reader directly, and you talk about how today you're thirty and thriving with this writing career. But you also talk about the ways in which your own high school experience was different. What was it like, revisiting high school but being able to control the narrative? It was really emotional. I was doing it at the same time that I was moving across the country and back into my parents' house. I moved in with them before I found an apartment in LA. I was in my childhood bedroom writing the end of the book, having just done my decade in my New York, and returning home where everything's different. I used a lot of the diaries, and I spent a lot of time going back and just like, getting in the spirit of that time. It was really emotionally trying, and I was not kind to myself about it. But it did feel like, if I was going to write this story for young people, I needed it to not be how I remember it or looking back from the perspective of an adult. I really did need to go back to those things that I was writing in real time, and have a really deep understanding of what the feelings were. The actions, the plot points, the little stories that happened to the characters, those are the things that could be fictionalized, but the feelings part couldn't. That was something where I had to go direct to the source. It was really personally challenging coming to terms with who I was then, and forgiving that person and being ashamed of that person and loving that person. I had to go through all these different stages of interacting with that version of me, or that time in my life, and that changed so much throughout the writing of the book. Morgan the character is younger than you, right? She's in high school in 2008. Yeah, I was in college then. Is there a reason why you bumped it up? I really wanted to use the [2008 presidential] election as a catalyst in the book to explore race and politics and religion. I felt that was a really good way to show how this town this town reacts to all of those things. I wanted to play around with that. At the time I made that choice, it was toward the end of the Obama administration. It was kind of interesting in the writing to think about, what was life right before that? It was something that I felt worthy to be explored. It's not that long ago, but it still somehow feels like historical fiction or something. I think especially for kids that were a little bit too young at that time, it could be interesting to really think about how that election went. Like, we know what happens after. It's an interesting thing to look back at. I was in New York when Obama was elected, so I was in the streets at Columbia. Everyone was happy. But it wasn't like that in my hometown. I wanted to be able to show rather than tell what these folks's politics were and what they care about. Using the election allowed for that. I was impressed by how hyper-specific the 2008 pop culture references were. I knew it was close to your own high school period, but certain album releases or TV episodes referenced— Oh dude, I had to research! I had a list of months albums came out, so that I could actually try to be accurate about that. I couldn't just be like, "Oh I remember this album." I was literally like, "OK, what would they be listening to that's new." If they're listening to a new Death Cab album in September, how does that check out? Even just like, the movies that are playing, things like that. When was the Sarah Palin thing on SNL to make sure it's lining up with the school year. It was kind of fun, but it was weirdly a lot to keep track of. I had two calendars at the time, one for the book and one for my life. It really got—for the most part it was like, "OK, homecoming is not for me, that's the other Morgan Parker." But there was one day where it said, "Morgan-therapy," and I was like, "Wait, I don't have therapy on Fridays?" I would get them confused. Holding both of those worlds in my head at the same time was funny. Did you revisit a lot of the music and things from your own high school years when you were working on this? Oh, yeah. When I finished I was like, "Thank goodness I can listen to something else." I made a playlist for the book, but I also have like a way longer one that I would just throw on while I was writing. It was all of the stuff. [laughs] Like, all of the stuff. The corny stuff to the deeply sad to what we would listen to in the car to what I would listen to in my bedroom crying. So, I had this huge running playlist that I would listen to as I was writing, which was intense. I was very much in a particular time and mood. It was really interesting to just sit there for quite a while. [dog yaps in background] Shirley! Come! Sorry. That's my dog. All the musical references had this cinematic sense, the way that in movies and TV shows the composer will give certain characters their own musical cues. You have the specific emo Morgan listens to, and she calls out her best friend for listening to "fake emo." Good Charlotte and stuff. And her therapist likes Bon Jovi, and she gets two different boys making her mixes which are similar but— But not. It's so interesting getting reception about the book because you don't hear enough from young people. You hear a lot from older middle aged white women. They're all just like, "I didn't recognize the references!" or "Who makes mixed CDs in 2008?" All of that stuff is like, Dude, get out of the way. We know. Anyone reading that who has ever felt, not only if you've been into emo music but if you've understood the importance of music as a teenager and the significance of mixed CDs, you're going to be looking at that and saying, "Oh, I can see how they're kind of different, kind of the same," you know? And that is important and notable. That is something that is really steeped in that time and that age. It's been funny, because I'm like, you maybe don't remember, but this was serious. And I'm pretty sure folks can relate to that. I've got mixed CDs from 2008 with TV On The Radio and Sonic Youth and some of the exact track listings that she has. Certain voices really do dominate YA conversations online. But the teens are still out there reading them. It's true. It's true! They're there. They're just not making as much noise. Exactly. Who are you hoping finds this book? Honestly... obviously, I'm putting this out there for some people, and part of that is, I needed this book so desperately. Like I said, it was super hard to write this, and the reason I finished was because I needed to do it for age-fifteen Morgan Parker because I didn't have that. To be able to have the power to make that thing, to correct that lack in my life, is an honour. I don't know. It felt kind of healing in a way. Not just to give it to teens now who are feeling the same way, but also for those of us who didn't have that and still need it in a lot of ways, whether or not we've moved past that time in our lives. We still need that representation and encouragement and validation. So first and foremost, teens that are struggling with mental health, or struggling with feeling isolated. Struggling with racism, with their identity and how they feel about themselves, and all of that. Specifically Black girls. It's so interesting because my books are really hyper-specific, and I want them to find those specific—like, someone in my hometown who is wearing Doc Martens and listens to Sonic Youth and has depression. But there's a kind of wider net that grows from that. Generally, I want it to find those specific folks, but I also want it to find people who feel alone and isolated and confused and not powerful. I also want adults who have been through that and who maybe didn't have the kind of support they needed. And lastly, parents and friends of people who are feeling alone and who are feeling afraid of what is next. Part of writing this book has been sharing something that nobody really knew around me. In the book she writes a piece for the yearbook, and that's what I did. When I published it, it was my senior yearbook, I was like, "I'm moving across the country, who cares." But one thing that I found is that people were so shocked. They were like, "Oh my god, I never would have guessed, you're always laughing, you get straight As." And that was... hurtful, you know? Like, damn, really no one saw this and no one knew how to see it because everyone's just expecting depression to equal crying uncontrollably and that's just the way it looks. Another part of this book is just showing what depression looks like for real, and the many forms that it can take, just so that people are aware and people can pay attention and not be dismissive and be understanding. I think to be able to give credit to those feelings is important to me. One last thing I wanted to ask you was, again, because I knew your work first as a poet, there's this running bit in the book where teenage Morgan just hates poetry. Was that an accurate reflection of your high school self, or— Yup. I honestly did not like poetry. At all. I hated it. And it was because they were giving us poems about cabins and the earth or whatever. To be able to put that in was actually really fun for me. People always laugh if they know. It's also a dig, because I have three poetry books now. I almost did not write poetry because of the educational system. Little things like that were cool to write in because like, "Damn, even she hated it." I didn't get into writing poetry until halfway through college and I wasn't even taking it serious at that time. I'm weirdly kind of new to poetry.
‘Masculinity is in Pieces’: An Interview with Deborah Levy

The author of The Man Who Saw Everything on modernist structure, novelistic characters, and David Lynch. 

Deborah Levy knows what she is doing. The British novelist and playwright's most recent book, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton), was longlisted for the Booker Prize. It's the third novel of hers to be up for the award, after 2012's Swimming Home and 2016's Hot Milk. These books join the some several dozen other novels, short story collections, memoirs, and plays that have shaped her career since the early Eighties, a constellation of work that examines the reaches of what language can do. The Man Who Saw Everything is a tight, dense novel that opens in 1988. Saul Adler, a young, beautiful historian, is preparing a research trip to East Germany. In London, he suffers a minor accident after a car grazes him at the iconic Abbey Road crosswalk. Suffering only a few scratches, he goes over to his girlfriend's house, a photographer named Jennifer Moreau, who sleeps with him and promptly dumps him. These opening few chapters are filled with small, seemingly inconsequential details that Levy riffs on in the first half of the book, only to turn the story on its head midway as she thrusts the narrative nearly thirty years into the future, on the heels of 2016's Brexit vote, to probe what has changed, what has stayed the same, and how we misremember the past. Levy and I meet at a cafe in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood on the first snowy day of the season. She is a confident but soft speaker, and her voice is often drowned out by the sound of the Backstreet Boys and Beyoncé coming from a pop radio station on blast. She is a deliberate writer, able to speak at length about every choice that appears in her novel. Anna Fitzpatrick: How has the tour been going? Deborah Levy: I love touring. For the Americas, I've just come back from Santa Fe, then to New York, now I'm in Toronto. Before that I was doing the British Tour. That was really something. Liverpool, we launched the book there, because there's a Liverpool theme in the book. That's where the Beatles obviously grew up. They got a choir of 35 people to sing "Penny Lane" in German and in English. It's a book with so many cities featured prominently. You have Berlin, the two Berlins, and Cape Cod. I do. I'm a swimmer. So, I like to swim across the ponds in Cape Cod. There's Berlin 1988, London 1988, Berlin further on, and America. You open with a quote from Susan Sontag's On Photography. She says to photograph someone is to violate them. She's writing that in '77, but your book takes place under the surveillance of the GDR in 1988, and then in 2016 with a level of technology that brings another kind of surveillance. How does that quote work in these contexts? So, there's Saul Adler, when the book opens he is twenty-eight. He is a freakishly beautiful man. Described as "more a rockstar than a historian." He's a minor historian, he always says. His girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, is an art student, and the thing is that Saul is such a slippery man. She can't ever really possess him because everyone wants a piece of him, and he's so ambivalent about attachment anyway. The only way that she can really get hold of him is through the lens of her camera. I had written this, and then I read the Sontag quote and I thought, "Oh yeah, maybe I'm doing something right." She's talking about how it's a certain possession. It's usually women who are gazed upon and sexualized and objectified, and I flip and have it happen to Saul, and he reports back through the reader on what that's like. And then to talk about surveillance, we go to communist East Berlin, where there's quite a lot of paranoia about who is looking at who because everyone is spying on everybody else. I'm looking at the way the state looks at us in an authoritarian regime, the way Jennifer Moreau looks at Saul, the way Walter Müller—that's Saul's translater in East Berlin who he sort of falls in love with at some point—Saul says of Walter, "I think he saw everything there was to see in me, everything that was mad and bad and sad." The title should trigger all different kinds of looking, ways we look to each other. Going to the gendered aspect of this, Jennifer Moreau forbids Saul from observing her the way she does him through photography, but she forbids him from even using language to describe her. She does, and she says, "I don't want you to ever describe my beauty or my body, to me or to anyone else." And he says, "Why?" And she says, "You've only got old words to describe me." You'll notice that Jennifer, I never describe Jennifer in the book. You know she's got silver hair by the end, because Saul tells us, and she starts the book twenty-three, she's fifty-one by the time the book ends. We know how she smells. She likes to use ylang-ylang oil. She's the only character I've ever written who I haven't described, and whom, I hope, readers nevertheless get a sense of: her and her interior life and that purpose in life. I'm really interested in this question of how we might describe women's bodies in a way that isn't objectifying. What kind of language, new language, would we use as writers to do that? But Saul keeps his side of the bargain, and I the writer keep it with him, because he's writing in the first person. I mean, did you get a sense of Jennifer Moreau? My idea of what she looked like changed over the course of the book, but I did picture her as a counterpart to Saul's glamorous dandyism. She wears that cap at the beginning, pulled down, and I figured her as someone with a certain chicness. But I didn't have a physical sense of her. You sort of had an art student idea of her. Which I liked. It's tempting, talking to you, I have this urge that I have to fight, to ask you to fill in all the ambiguities of the book, but those ambiguities make the experience of reading the book stronger. As an author writing someone from such an unreliable point of view, do you have a definitive sequence of events that you're writing against? Do you know what Jennifer Moreau looks like? Yes, I do. Because I think if you're going to play around with time zones like I do, it actually has to be a very plotted and mapped out book. It might surprise you, but it's probably my most plotted book. One of the themes in the book is how history is told. If you think about yourself, if you tell your own personal history, and I do, we are likely to tell it in our favour. We're going to leave out quite a lot of stuff we feel we come up bad in. And then there are other people who can fill in that part of our history. That's what happens in my book. Saul gives his version of events, and Jack and other characters step in. Saul describes Jack as a minor character, but he's really not so minor in Saul's life. It was heartbreaking to read the story from Jack's point of view. In some ways Jack is a completely new character for me, because how do you make somebody who's really important in someone else's life embody that importance, given that the main narrator is always pushing him away? Jennifer steps in to fill in some of the missing history, so does the driver who runs him over. Writing in the first person is always a bit claustrophobic. I have to find techniques and strategies to let in other subjectivities. Open the window and let in some fresh air. It's not really that Saul is unreliable. I know what you mean, obviously. That's a phrase that's used a lot, isn't it? But he's a man that's been knocked over by a car. He's coming in and out of consciousness in various ways, no spoilers. He's got time messed up a bit in his mind, but he's not unreliable. What he can't do is, he can't feel things. As the book develops, he begins to feel, which is always painful. It's always painful to begin to feel. There's all this stuff around about how we should feel things all the time, but actually we spend quite a lot of energy in our lives trying not to feel things. It's overwhelming and uncomfortable to feel things. There's this one part of the book where Saul's in the hospital, Jennifer Morreau's at his side. He takes her hand and places her hand under his pajamas, and he's hard, and his heart's going berserk, and he says, "I didn't know how to be the man you wanted me to be. I'm only just starting to feel things. I can't bear it." I don't want any unbelievable moral resolutions to things. I don't want any unbelievable massive changes in the human psyche that I write about. I want small changes. I'm very interested in, what is strength and what is fragility? What's a strong character and what's a weak character. I don't super believe in that way of looking at things because on Monday, we can feel really powerful, and on Tuesday, we can feel fragile. We live, and we live with those contradictions. In the novels I write, I want characters not to be novelistic characters. I want them to also live with those sorts of complexities. What do you view as a novelistic character? That's a very big question. I'm going to answer it another way. In my novels, it's very possible for a character to have two contradictory thoughts at the same time. You tell me anyone you know who doesn't have those sorts of thoughts. I want to scoop all that up psychologically, because it interests me, and have that in my novels. What you won't find in my novels on the whole are grand narrators. Wise and all-seeing. No, I don't want them in my book. There is that common misconception that history is an objective series of facts when so often it's subjective. There's a parallel you draw with photography, where you've taken an image of things as they are, but you see with Jennifer and the way she develops film in a dark room, or the way in which she displays her images, she has another way of seeing. Can you speak to that parallel? She's captured Saul, age twenty-eight, and she calls her exhibition "A Man in Pieces." We learn that sometimes she just photographs parts of him, in fragments. He is a sort of a man in pieces. The book is also looking at masculinity, which is in pieces at this time in our century. Our history is speaking to this. I'm looking at authoritarian regimes and the rise of nationalism. None of those things are connected to any rigid ideas of masculinity. But Saul hasn't constructed himself in a very—he's not the kind of man his father wanted to be. He's bisexual, his father's embarrassed by what he perceives as his son's femininity, so when Saul goes to communist Eastern Europe in 1988, the GDR, he's sort of really experienced an authoritarian regime because his father was so authoritarian, and the GDR is described as the fatherland. I draw parallels between the micro and the macro. It's another way of saying the personal and the political have to find new language for everything. And Jennifer, she says—there's quite a lot about spectres and ghosts, isn't there, in The Man Who Saw Everything?—she says, "There's a spectre lurking in every one of my paragraphs." What she means is, in a work of art, something is always hidden. All art is about what you reveal and what you conceal. Or it's about making something invisible visible, so when somebody looks at a Rothko painting which is an abstract, they can nevertheless find something in it of their mood perhaps. You can place yourself in that abstract image because Rothko has put paint on canvases with huge emotion. The idea that things are hidden in art, or the idea that we have contradictory thoughts, or the idea that sometimes we are delighted by our thoughts and sometimes we are tormented by them, or the idea that we can actually allow ourselves to think of this thought, which might be an uncomfortable thought, without censoring it, that kind of freedom which art offers is a very precious place at this point in our history. The way that it's written, the form in which this book is written, the sort of behaviour in writing values all those things which I've just said. When you say it's precious at this point in our history, do you think it is at this point more than any other point? No, I couldn't possibly ever say that, could I? It seems to me very valuable to be able to think freely. There's quite a lot about Walter Müller in the GDR. Saul says about Walter, "He never speaks his first thought." It's almost like he censors himself and speaks his third thought. It's not so much a case, says Saul about Walter, of him finding a flow of conversation. It's stopping the flow of conversation. There's so much surveillance in the GDR at that time. There were a few books and movies that came to mind reading this, stylistically. Susan Choi's Trust Exercise, which would've come out after you finished writing yours, but it's a book where the midpoint makes you reconsider what you've read so far. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, in that there's so many scattered pieces that when you rewatch or reread, these little details become keynotes. I was wondering what works of art you were looking at when writing this? All of Lynch's films are a big influence on me. The way he structures his films, the way they are so utterly character-led. Lynch spends a lot of time building a character. So does the costume department in his films. Once we can follow the characters, he does all sorts of stuff. Strange ruptures in time, he works with the unconscious and the conscious all happening at the same time. I love his storylines. Other than Mulholland Drive, which of his do you like? I think Blue Velvet is a favourite of mine. I watched a lot of Fassbinder movies. Fear Eats the Soul. I listened to some punk bands from 1988, I listened to the Beatles, I spent a lot time sitting out on the wall near my studio in London on Abbey Road, watching tourists cross that zebra crossing. I thought, "Oh yeah, they're enacting a piece of history in a very playful way." I read the historian Tony Judt's amazing book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a favourite film of mine because that's actually got aerial shots of East Berlin divided by the wall. I taught writing at the Royal College of Art in London the animation department for some years, and I think that I write very visually and think cinematically. You can see that at the top of all my books is sort of a filmic device. If you turn to the book here... [reading] "Abbey Road, London, September 1988." That's something a film would do. I do it in my novel Swimming Home, "A mountain road, south of France, midnight." I do it in my novel Hot Milk. There are a quite a few devices from film that I use in my book. With something so subtly plotted, how much of that revealed itself during edits and rewrites? A lot of rewrites. It really takes me a long time, any novel I'm writing, to create the beginning, like the first twelve pages, because I put a lot of information into the first fifteen pages. That's going to develop and unfold a bit like a photograph later on. But The Man Who Saw Everything didn't take me quite as long as Swimming Home. With Swimming Home, I introduce something like eight characters to readers in the first twelve pages. If one of my writing students talked to me about writing that, I'd say, "Why don't you try three?" But I knew it was very important. I had to do it. This book, I did very long writing sessions on it because I had to know, as you can imagine, what was happening on page seventeen when I was writing page twenty-seven, and on page 193 what was happening on page three, because everything is reflecting and mirroring everything else. There's a Jaguar on Abbey Road, the car, and there's a jaguar, a cat, in East Berlin. They're both important. The cat is inside Luna Müller's head because she's got a phobia about cats. But also the Jaguar is inside Saul's head, because the car mirror exploded and shards of that mirror are inside his too. So they're thought experiments, or extended ideas like that. You will find that there is nothing in my books really that is there as a gimmick. There's a reason for everything to be there. That requires quite a lot of plotting and quite a lot of rewrites. I've read that you're attracted to modernist writers. As a writer with such an apparent style, with what you're doing with form, how do you handle that formal tension against a narrative, and not let one overwhelm the other? It feels like a modernist sensibility. I guess that the modernism that I'm influenced by is a very spare and economic sort of prose. Quite simple. Quite apparently simple, with a real depth underneath it. The writers that I love are Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, the French writer. Her novel The Lover is one of my favourites. I learned so much about writing and how to structure time from Marguerite Duras. Kafka is good. Katherine Mansfield. Virginia Woolf is so beloved to me, because she's so subversive in this delicate way, you know? Actually, I think modernist novels, or the ones that I'm thinking about, do tend to be quite short. I'm thinking about the British-Scottish writer Muriel Spark as well. I love her prose style. But it's not just modernism. I like novels for all sorts of reasons. My favourite British writer is J.G. Ballard, and he's just a novelist of ideas. He writes terrible dialogue. They all sound like 1950s BBC broadcasts, but I've sort of even become fond of that. It's always like a real intellectual rollercoaster of a ride with J.G. Ballard, and an entertainment because in my view novels have to be a work of art, and they have to be an entertainment. You have to put in the hours to reach that sort of desire in one's self to make that kind of thing. What about the novel specifically do you love? Which novel? Just, the novel. Which one do I love? No, the novel as a form. What draws you to it? Oh! Because you can do inner space, and you can do outer space. You can embody ideas, you can unfold arguments via the avatars of characters. You can go to any place and sort of stroll around, and you can take people at the margins of society and walk them right into the centre of your book. You can make them the centre of the world. When I first started writing, my female narrators who I walked into the centres of the fictional worlds that I was creating didn't have those rights in society, but you can give it to them in a book. You can put words into people's mouths. You can have a go at reaching impossible ideas, and see if you can land them. And most of all, the novel is a very good home for the reach of the human mind, and the mind can go anywhere. Does it make you feel powerful? It does make me feel powerful to write. When I started writing, I was a playwright. As a playwright, you're quite literally putting words into characters' mouths, and I learned to edit very quickly as a playwright, because if you write a bad line, that line sort of dies in their mouth, you quickly rewrite it and it begins to work. The pleasure of the novel is really the pleasure and entertainment of ideas and language.