The novelist

* The critics thought and wrote about him even through the years he wasn’t publishing his work. There was a fascination with him, an infatuation among his contemporaries. It wasn’t just the work they were interested in. They wanted to know about him, what he was thinking, what he was doing, what he was working on. He released nothing, but no one knew he was writing like always, tucked in his basement office as the seasons changed. Not even his editor knew. The dog lay there, her warmth curled around his feet as he sat writing away the time. His body did not change but the mind whirred, carving passages into realms present and distant. He disappeared from public following his wife’s death, gracious for the consolations but evasive, in retreat.

* He wrote his first story at age nine. The process electrified and elevated him, separated and dissociated him from himself. His identity shattered into pieces—a rivulet bubbled up, flowed, accelerated, eroded importance in everything else. 

* When she presented the novelist with a local award, the mayor smiled for the cameras and shook the novelist’s hand without having read his work. She did not say from her prepared statement that the novelist had meandered into middle age healthy and productive, his name gathering readership worldwide. A drug habit sustained him when his work and marriage weren’t enough.

* He was born into a segmented world: subdivisions, suburbs, siblings. His parents had their lives and he had his. They left the novelist home with the other children to watch television but he read prodigiously and one day discovered his true self in the words he composed.

* His death occurred swiftly and without warning. Early on a Sunday with daylight breaking at his window, he lay listening to birdsong and thinking about his latest work, almost completed. His heart beat three times in rapid succession and then burst, a cataclysm in his chest. The thoughts about his unfinished work were his last in this world. 

* Night provided his greatest inspiration. He climbed from his office to the backyard for stillness and quiet and to admire the sky. His wife often joined those midnight excursions when healthy. They held hands with the Earth churning beneath them, eyes fixed starward.

* He never had children of his own. He loved kids and made them laugh but secretly was terrified of them stealing time and focus from his work. His wife had interest in motherhood early in their marriage but the interest tapered with age. Before her death she regretted to the novelist that she’d never be a grandmother.

* All dreams point downward, he once wrote. They keep our bodies moored to the Earth. We would levitate and float away if we lay there dreaming our dreams up into the air.

* Public readings were a necessary evil, though he did enjoy traveling the world to greet his readers. They were passionate and dedicated. The majority of of them resided in his home country of the United States but his work was admired the world over, translated into 20 languages. His first trip to China felt to him like a journey on another planet and inspired his novel Red Sea Sleeping, a tale of conspiracy and psychosis written in the novelist’s signature style and use of language but set in Beijing.

* The first novel he wrote (An Unstable Game) became the third he published. His publisher asked him to revisit that first manuscript and add more to the story, clarify items and explain some of the novel’s mystery. The writer nearly re-wrote the entire manuscript in two months and returned it to the publisher, who, upon reading the new work, shivered and emailed the author immediately.

* Marriage isn’t for everyone but the novelist truly loved and admired his wife. They met in college, when the novelist was 30 and she 24. She played cello and sewed her own clothes. Her widowed mother invited him for Christmas and he accepted, telling jokes all weekend to counter the woman’s devastating sadness. The old lady’s misery extended to everyone in her presence, including her daughter. The malaise evaporated once back at college, and the novelist’s future wife returned to her customary easiness. The novelist proposed marriage as spring blossomed on campus and his time there ended. He wrote two unpublished novels while at school. His editor discovered the manuscripts on the novelist’s hard drive and published them to wide acclaim two years after the writer’s death.

* Cold Moon Below, the novelist’s fourth published work, won him the National Book Award and carried him to the highest levels of American literary prestige. The night he received the congratulatory call, he repeated to himself that he would only ever be as good as the last thing he wrote. He spent the remainder of the weekend in his basement, writing without sleep. He emerged from that chrysalis having finished a rough draft of The Magnificent Gaucho, which would later be published on three continents and catapult the novelist into international discussions. 

* His editor worked alongside attorneys and against the wishes of publishers and others vying for the writer’s library and estate of papers. The editor fiercely protected the novelist’s works and honored his own arbitrary estimation as to what the novelist may have wanted. He quickly became overwhelmed with mounds of rewardless work and grew disgruntled with the late novelist for not properly securing his estate during his lifetime.

* Our time here, the novelist once wrote, referring to our time on Earth, is limited only by our flesh and bone, our blood. What we create between the bookends of birth and death immortalizes us. 

* The editor secured the novelist’s library of work at a nearby university, thereby absolving himself of most of his responsibilities. He shrugged away the burden with relief but also regret, for it was his last lifeline to the dead writer, whom the editor admired, loved like a brother. He cried in his car in the university parking lot, having never truly mourned the novelist’s untimely death. The vast majority of deaths are untimely, he thought, and he started his vehicle and drove into another sunlit afternoon.

The Great Wall, by Eliot Weinberger

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments. 

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.

the poet, pt. I

The poet is born in a house on a mountain. His father built the house just as his father built his house on the mountain, and his father built his, and so on. The poet’s young parents have two concerns: their community of like-minded people on the mountain and their only child, the poet. Neither parent knows their child is a poet.

The boy’s father is paid meagerly to dig graves for those who have died on the mountain. The mother looks after the house and watches over her son, the poet, though he doesn’t yet know he is a poet.

The poet lives on the mountain all his life but decides for his 18th year to live completely at sea, with just a few scattered days ashore for essentials. He vows this as a personal challenge despite his mother’s horror. She watches and waves from the dock as the small watercraft disappears from her.

Several times during the journey he considers abandoning it, returning to the mountain to forget the whole thing. Nausea, illness, cold, boredom—until he discovers he’s a poet.

He returns home forever changed. He carries a notebook and no longer wants to live on the mountain. He yearns to be close to the water. His mother watches and waves as her only child disappears from her again toward something unknown to her.

Apartments are expensive near the water. The poet quickly finds work but hates it, changes jobs, adds another. Soon another. It’s worth all the work to live here, he writes. He often falls asleep writing.

He refines the poems he’s written and sends them to an editor, who tells him to send them to an agent. Quickly and to the poet’s surprise a large collection is published (titled Announcement). It receives excellent reviews and three award nominations. The poet is suddenly attractive. He retreats to the water in a rented dinghy to disappear from himself, from the world. He writes his best work the further he travels from shore. 

He works three jobs and scribbles in his notebook. The poems are as scattered as the poet himself, who is compelled, after an indiscriminate period of time, to take the poems in the notebook and unify them, liquefy them, position and reposition them into a complete manuscript that will ultimately be published into a collection (titled Ascension), earning him accolades and the much-coveted assurance that his craft can now financially support him. The poet publishes two more collections in the next 18 months (Atlantis, Carnival), vaulting him to literary fame and prestige. On a private jet one afternoon from Europe to Manhattan he meets a famous Canadian actress and the two connect immediately. She’s read his poems, she says. I’ve seen your movies, he tell her. 

They marry within the year, an extravagant event in the Maldives in which global celebrities mingle with intellectuals and politicians. Everyone wants something from the poet. 

His sudden rise to fame leads him inland to readings and signings and speaking engagements across the globe but he yearns to be close to the water, on the water. He sells his beach house for a houseboat, a vessel for he and his wife to live on.

She is gone after just six months at sea, having disembarked in haste at San Francisco and looking like a madwoman in her tattered dress and swollen luggage. The poet tends to the boat by moonlight, he prepares food beneath the relentless sun, he fills notebooks with ease—flooded with inspiration. He regrets the wife’s departure, their sudden inexplicable violence toward one another. She’s gone and he’s never felt more alive. He returns ashore once again a man forever changed.

The next day his doctor finds a troubling mass on the poet’s neck during a routine appointment. More tests reveal a cancerous growth. The poet is told he has one year to live, his final year on Earth, in which he will visit the mountain of his youth one final time to say goodbye before living the remainder of his days and nights writing poems on an ocean of oblivion.

The Horse and Rider, Louise Glück

Once there was a horse, and on the horse there was a rider. How handsome they looked in the autumn sunlight, approaching a strange city! People thronged the streets or called from the high windows. Old women sat among flowerpots. But when you looked about for another horse or another rider, you looked in vain. My friend, said the animal, why not abandon me? Alone, you can find your way here. But to abandon you, said the other, would be to leave a part of myself behind, and how can I do that when I do not know which part you are?

 Glück, Louise. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2014: 59.

Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.

your books

The books you sent

lie on the shelf

I don’t read them

Austen and Maugham

books on old films

Nazi biographies

furry with dust

purposefully neglected

lies, all of it

histories of French kings

by church-going luminaries

not to be gifted or donated

sentenced to a life unread

books about

dandies and rich bitches

dogs in human form

Agatha Christie

biographies of propagandists

revered by some but

not me

books not worth the flame

not worth time

lying books to lie decoratively

(like all lies)

as long as I control

James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.