A Handful of Words

Excerpt from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer:

"Want" was a word I lost early on, which is not to say I stopped wanting things—I wanted things more—I just stopped being able to express the want, so I said "desire," "I desire two rolls," I would tell the baker, but that wasn't quite right, the meaning of my thoughts started to float away from me, like leaves that fall from a tree into a river, I was the tree, the world was the river. I lost "come" one afternoon with the dogs in the park, I lost "fine" as the barber turned me toward the mirror, I lost "shame"—the verb and the noun at the same moment; it was a shame. I lost "carry," I lost the things I carried—"daybook," "pencil," "pocket change," "wallet"—I even lost "loss."

After a time, I had only a handful of words left, if someone did something nice for me, I would tell him, "The thing that comes before 'you're welcome,'" if I was hungry, I'd point at my stomach and say, "I am the opposite of full," I'd lost "yes," but I still had "no," so if someone asked me, "Are you Thomas?" I would answer, "Not no," but then I lost "no," I went to a tattoo parlor and had YES written onto the palm of my left hand, and NO onto my right palm, what can I say, it hasn’t made my life wonderful, it's made life possible, when I rub my hands against each other in the middle of winter I am warming myself with the friction of YES and NO, when I clap my hands I am showing my appreciation through the uniting and parting of YES and NO, I signify “book” by peeling open my hands, every book, for me, is the balance of YES and NO, even this one, my last one, especially this one. Does it break my heart, of course, every moment of every day, into more pieces than my heart was made of, I never thought of myself as qui et, much less silent, I never thought about things at all, everything changed, the distance that wedged itself between me and my happiness wasn’t the world, it wasn’t the bombs and burning buildings, it was me, my thinking, the cancer of never letting go, is ignorance bliss, I don’t know, but it’s so painful to think, and tell me, what did thinking ever do for me, to what great place did thinking ever bring me? I think and think and think, I’ve thought myself out of happiness one million times, but never once into it.

In the Absence of that Conversation

Jonathan Lethem, discussing his most recent novel, Chronic City, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (January 28, 2010):

“I was very interested in thinking about the condition of an actor, someone who’s learned to operate within scripts that are handed to them — whether the scripts are worth anything or not. It seemed to me that, in a way, stood for the problem of a lot of us as we get through our days. The scripts right now aren’t very good, but we don’t know how to step outside them very readily or at all.”

*     *     *

Chronic City“A writer, a social satirist, looking for ways to exemplify the hypocrisies of contemporary economic disparities — the unacknowledged class system — it’s almost impossible not to find easy targets. It’s so near at hand that you only have to turn your hand and it falls into your grasp. And so I couldn’t be terribly interested with looking for those kinds of symbols. Instead I wanted to talk about what happens when you and I and everyone we know lives with them right in front of our face — two inches from our face — and yet they’re not spoken of. It’s the denial. It’s the fact that symbols of this kind of reality proliferate wildly in books and in life.

Every day you open the newspaper and you find another allegory that would’ve made Karl Marx’s jaw drop — or Roland Barthes’s jaw drop. And yet we all go on reading that newspaper. We all go on moving through our days and this is the subject of the book: what we do instead, what we think about, and how we behave in the absence of that conversation. When everything is as exaggerated and hysterically out of whack and yet somehow the machine tumbles forward day-to-day. We wake up and take our positions inside it. Well, that’s an interesting subject and an elusive one. The social satire is not elusive at all.

All you have to do is take it to the ultimate degree and then you’ve got John Carpenter’s They Live or Idiocracy. Then you’ve said it as stridently as you possibly can. You’ve made the cartoon of reality into a cartoon and then it can be shrugged off again. I was trying not to shrug it off. I was trying to inhabit it with these characters. It’s the fact that we all live in a situation that is patently absurd in many ways and yet we we have no opportunity to take it lightly. We’re living real lives. It’s tragic…I don’t mean to fall into the trap of saying there can be a non-ideological space, but you do the best you can. You meet what’s before you. You try to solve the cartoon conundrums that come your way with as much real sincerity as you can bring to them. ”  

How to Listen

Excerpt from Anne Tyler’s new novel, Noah’s Compass:

At St. Dyfrig once, invited to view a poem on the English department’s computer, he had clicked on How to listen and been disappointed to find mere technical instructions for playing the audio version. What he had been hoping for was advice on how to listen to poetry—and, by extension, how to listen, really listen, to what was being said all around him. It seemed he lacked some basic skill for that.

To Make People Love Life

Ilya Repin. Leo Tolstoy in His Study. 1891. Oil on canvas. The State Literature Museum, Moscow, Russia.“The aims of art are incommensurate (as the mathematicians say) with social aims. The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably, but to make people love life in all its countless inexhaustible manifestations. If I were to be told that I could write a novel  whereby I might Dustin Hoffman reads War and Peace on New York's WBAI radio during the winter of 1970.irrefutably establish what seemed to me the correct point of view on all social problems, I would not even devote two hours to such a novel; but if I were to be told that what I should write would be read in about twenty years time by those who are now children, and that they would laugh and cry over it and love life, I would devote all my life and all my energies to it.”

~ Leo Tolstoy, from Tolstoy’s Letters, selected and translated by R.F. Christian

How Wrong We Can Be

Follow Me “The wonderful thing about the novel form is that it can accommodate lots of different kinds of stories. Just between the covers of a book you can gather them. I worry about the ease of fundamentalism in all its forms. The ease with which it enters our lives and we become certain about these stories. A novel does seem to be a place where we can let those fundamental stories unravel a little bit, because they're put into some sort of tapestry where they're participating with other stories or competing with other stories or different versions...and maybe not offer absolute answers. For me as a writer, I'm passionate about fiction's ability to render uncertainty...The novel is a great place to consider how wrong we can be about we can make mistakes. Those are good stories to tell, aren't they? When the stories are mistakes.”

~ Joanna Scott, in conversation with Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm (4/23/09) about her new novel, Follow Me.

The Accumulated Thousands of Impressions

Jayne Anne Phillips, from an interview by Paul Vidich, Narrative (Winter 2009):

Lark & Termite I actually started Lark and Termite before I started MotherKind. Knopf decided they wanted MotherKind first, and I felt that I needed to write it first. I went back to working on Lark and Termite after MotherKind was published, having cleared the way for a very different, though I think related, book.

I work on my books for a very long time, in the sense that I have them in mind. In Shelter, for instance, I wrote the short italicized paragraph in the beginning of the book—which begins, “Concede the heat of noon in summer camps”—in graduate school. I kept it for many years, as a beginning, or prose poem, with the sense that there was a novel inside it. There was, but the passage of time, the layering of what Porter calls “the accumulated thousands of impressions,” seems to be an element for me, an unconscious working-out of material.

I’ve been thinking about the next book I’m going to do for twenty years, and I have research material going back that far, though I had no conscious intention to write a novel imagined around those stories and images. The process of writing is continual. Whether or not I’m working on the book, the book is working on me.

What is it about?

lodgemccabe512 “A novel is a long answer to the question ‘What is it about?’ I think it should be possible to give a short answer - in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described. Each of my novels corresponds to a particular phase or aspect of my own life: for example, going to the University of California at the height of the Student Revolution, being an English Catholic at a period of great change in the Church, getting on to the international academic conference circuit; but this does not mean they are autobiographical in any simple, straightforward sense. I begin with a hunch that what I have experienced or observed has some representative (i.e., more than merely private) significance that could be brought out by means of a fictional story. To begin the novel I need to discover the structural idea that will generate the story: two professors passing each other over the North Pole on their way to exchange jobs, for example, or a parallel between the antics of globetrotting academics and the adventures of the knights of chivalric romance. I seem to have a fondness for binary structures, which predates my interest, as a literary critic, in structuralism. I use comedy to explore serious subjects, and find Mikhail Bakhtin 's idea that the novel is an inherently carnivalesque form, subverting monologic ideologies by laughter and a polyphony of discourses, immensely appealing. I am fascinated by the power of narrative, when skillfully managed, to keep the reader turning the pages, but I also aim to write novels that will stand up to being read more than once.”

~ David Lodge

Art Garfunkel's Library

"Art Garfunkel ...a chronological index of the thousand and twenty-three books that he has read since June, 1968. He has been recording their particulars neatly on sheets of loose-leaf paper—forty or so titles to a page—for nearly forty years. About a decade ago, he posted the list on his web site (which he pays a fan in Levittown to maintain). It begins with Rousseau’s “Confessions” and ends with Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which he finished before Christmas. In between, the list ticks off, at a rate of 2.16 books a month, a dazzling syllabus that’s a testament to steroidal self-improvement, as well as to the magical time-furnishing powers of royalty checks. Foucault, Balzac, Chesterton, Heidegger, Spinoza, Hazlitt, Milton, Proust: he has slayed them all, and let us know."

From "The King of Reading," by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker (Jan. 28, 2008)

[Thanks Carolyn!]


Is it possible he's traveled three thousand miles to the Movie Capital zerovilleof the World only to find people who don't know the difference between Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who don't know the difference between Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood? A few blocks north of Philippe's, the city starts to run out and Vikar turns back. He asks a girl with straight blond hair in a diaphanous granny dress where Hollywood is. Soon he notices that all the girls in Los Angeles have straight blond hair and diaphanous granny dresses.

~ From Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Yesterday is all that does count

Call it, Friend-OFrom No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy:

He looked at her. After a while he said: It's not about knowin where you are. It's about thinkin you got there without takin anything with you. Your notions about startin over. Or anybody's. You dont start over. That's what it's about. Ever step you take is forever. You cant make it go away. None of it. You understand what I'm saying?

I think so.

I know you dont but let me try it one more time. You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's laying there?


I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they'd been filled out and sent in from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time ever when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just sort of smile and tell me I'm gettin old. That it's one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is that anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a lot bigger of a problem than what I've got. Forty years is not a long time neither. Maybe the next forty of it will bring some of em out from the ether. If it aint too late.

Consciousness Writes Reality

From As She Climbed Across the Table, a clever satire by Jonathan Lethem about a campus love triangle between a physicist, her social anthropologist boyfriend, and a black hole created in the physics lab:

“Everything is only potential until consciousness wakes up and says, let me have a look. Take for example the big bang. We explore the history of the creation of our universe, so the big bang becomes real. But only because we investigate. Another example: There are subatomic particles as far as we are willing to look. We create them. Consciousness writes reality, in any direction it looks—past, future, big, small. Wherever we look we find reality forming in response…I think there is a principle of conservation of reality. Reality is unwilling to fully exist without an observer. It can’t be bothered. Why should it?”

Like Now

From The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick:

"It's so beautiful," said Isabelle. "It looks like the whole city is made out of stars."

"Sometimes I come up here at night, even when I'm not fixing the clocks, just to look at the city. I like to imagine that the world is one big machine. You know, machines never have any extra parts. They have the exact number and type of parts they need. So I figure if the entire world is a big machine, I have to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too."

'A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) by French filmmaker and special-effects pioneer George Melies in 1902 inspired author Brian Selznick. For instance, a scene in which the Man in the Moon is hit in the eye by a giant space bullet is echoed in Selznick's book.' - NPRThey watched the stars, and they saw the moon hanging high above them. The city sparkled below, and the only sound was the steady rhythmic pulse of the clock's machinery. Hugo remembered another movie he and his father had seen a few years earlier, where time stops in all of Paris, and everyone is frozen in their tracks. But the night watchman of the Eiffel Tower, and some passengers who land in an airplane, are mysteriously able to move around the silent city. What would that be like? Even if all the clocks in the station break down, thought Hugo, time won't stop. Not even if you really want it to.

Like now.

How It Is with Want

"However he had managed it, the crisis was over. Our larder was full again, and we no longer stood up from meals craving more, no longer moaned about our gurgling bellies. You'd think this turnaround would have earned our undying gratitude, but the fact was that we quickly learned to take it for granted. Within ten days, it seemed perfectly normal that we should be eating well, and by the end of the month it was hard to remember the days when we hadn't. That's how it is with want. As long as you lack something, you yearn for it without cease. If only I could have that one thing, you tell yourself, all my problems would be solved. But once you get it, once the object of your desires is thrust into your hands, it begins to lose its charm. Other wants assert themselves, other desires make themselves felt, and bit by bit you discover that you're right back where you started."

- Paul Auster, Mr. Vertigo

Oblivious to the Present

"Children are often envied for their supposed imaginations, but the truth is that adults imagine things far more often than children do. Most adults...wander the world deliberately blind, living only inside their heads, in their fantasies, in their memories and worries, oblivious to the present, only aware of the past or future...Imagination can be a beautiful thing, but it's also a trap. The wisest people are those who use their imaginations when they are children, and then learn to see the actual as adults."

Over Vitebsk, Marc Chagall, 1915, oil on canvas.

"It is a great injustice that those who die are often people we know, while those who are born are people we don't know at all. We name children after the dead in the dim hope that they will resemble them, pretending to blunt the loss of the person we knew while struggling to make the person we don't know into less of a stranger. It's compelling, this idea that the new person is so tightly bound to the old, but most of us are afraid to believe it. But what if we are right? Not that the new person is the reincarnation of the old, but rather, more subtly, that they know each other, that the already-weres and the not-yets of our world, the mortals and the natals, are bound together somewhere just past where we can see, in a knot of eternal life."

- Dara Horn, The World to Come

See also: Dara Horn on KCRW's Bookworm, April 20, 2006

How You See It

"The people there were gods and midgets and knew themselves mortal and so the midgets walked tall so as not to embarrass the gods and the gods crouched so as to make the small ones feel at home. And, after all, isn't that what life is all about, the ability to go around back and come up inside other people's heads to look out at the damned fool miracle and say: oh, so that's how you see it!? Well, now, I must remember that."

- Ray Bradbury, from the introduction to Dandelion Wine

Automatic Shutoff Valve

"Men got a kind of automatic shutoff valve in their head? Like, you're talkin' to one and just gettin' to the part where you're gonna say what you really been wantin' to say, and then you say it and you look at him and he ain't even heard it. Not like it's too complicated or something', just he ain't about to really listen. One might lie sometime and tell ya he knows just what you mean, but I ain't buyin'. 'Cause later you say somethin' else he woulda got if he'd understood you in the first place, only he don't, and you know you been talkin' for no good reason. It's frustratin'."

Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart: The story of Sailor and Lula