Tag Archives: new Yorker

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

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Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.

The Reading List

3 May

I have been lax in blogging, so it’s time to get back into the game. What follows is a list of some of the works that have most profoundly affected me over the years. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things that I probably shouldn’t, but here you go: 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Some classics can be dry, certainly, but some immediately reveal why they have endured for centuries, and deserve to endure for many more. Few works are more universally applicable to most any situation, and often in ways that conflict with the popular image of the title character, thanks to Cervantes’ sharp wit. I had the added benefit of taking an entire college course on this one that was taught by a brilliant professor, which probably helped me see a few more things than I would have if I’d picked it up on my own.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. With graduation season upon us, I’ll be writing a longer post about this one in the coming weeks.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read both of these in high school and haven’t really touched them since, so I’m not sure if they’d have the same impact today. The styles are radically different–one is a lyrical and very real story of racial tension and forgiveness in South Africa, while the other is a punchy work with absurd layers of allegory, but both did a lot to expand my consciousness about the world around me.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What is it about Latin American writers and solitude? At any rate, this book is best known for its exploration of the Mexican identity, but I though it was at its more profound in the later chapters, when it opens up in an even deeper meditation on human nature. On the intellectual side of the ledger, this was my most rewarding discovery during the semester I spent in Mexico City as an undergraduate.

The Bill James 1984 Baseball Abstract. Yes, seriously. As it is, Bill James is (with apologies to Roger Angell) the most insightful baseball writer out there, and there are plenty of bits of brilliance about the game. But this is more than a baseball book; it is a book about how to think about things on different planes, and for a young sports fan, it presented its ideas in a way that was clear and easy to apply to a real-world scenario. I revisit parts of it time and time again.

Honorable mentions: Freedom and “Farther Away” (a New Yorker essay) by Jonathan Franzen; Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; the New Yorker‘s collection of reflection essays on 9/11 (most notably, Roger Angell’s); “Leaving Washington” by Patrick Deneen; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’m curious to see the new movie version); The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt; and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I’ll also throw in the “Harry Potter” series; I know it’s not great literature, but I did grow up with the books and draw certain insights out of them, so they deserve to be acknowledged.

I grew up generally indifferent as to whether books were considered classics or not, but I’ve been finding those so-called canonical works more and more relevant of late. For example, I read The Odyssey when I was fairly young, and though I enjoyed it, only in the past few years have I come to appreciate how far it reaches. I read War and Peace when I was way too young to get most of it–it was more so I could be That Kid who read War and Peace in 6th grade–and have not gone back to it yet, but from what I gather in reading about it since, I’m guessing I would really like it. Some day. It’s a similar story with The Bible. I was not raised within the Christian tradition, and I think that let me have some critical distance from it; as a result, I have only ever found it richly layered and compelling, and I think most intelligent readers should be able to appreciate its merits, even if they don’t believe it. Classics often get dismissed these days as stuffy or unrelated to contemporary life, and while many have their limits (what doesn’t?) and certain works are not for the faint of heart, tackling them with the right mindset can be very rewarding. I’d advocate for a healthy balance between past wisdom and present insight, but there’s little point in forcing oneself to read something that one does not want to read, and one never knows where one might stumble across the most relevant works.

That should do for my list, at least until I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “how could I forget Book X?!” Feel free to share your own in the comments.

More than a Return

7 Apr

I’ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker for a few years now. When I first started reading it, I’d go through every issue cover-to-cover; but of late, for whatever reason, I haven’t been going through it with as much zeal as I once did, and I was getting backlogged.

Then they go and drop this thing on me:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/04/08/130408fa_fact_matar

The article is, sadly, behind their paywall, so if you’re not a New Yorker subscriber and don’t know any elaborate ways around the wall, you’re out of luck. But pieces like this are the epitome of what a personal essay should be. It took me a long time to read it, as I was zoning in and out, my mind racing off on tangents spurred by the deep insights and elegant prose.

The author is Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist who has spent most of his life in exile, and he has penned a gorgeous meditation on his messy relationship with his homeland, and the father it took from him. He recalls his father’s words following the family’s flight from Libya and the terrors of the Qaddafi regime:

I demanded to be returned to my country. My mother tried to console me. “Leave him be,” Father told her. “He’ll get used to it.” It was the cruellest thing he had ever said. Cruel and nearly true. Even then I knew, more from the voice than from the words, and also from the way he stood, not facing me, that he, too, was mourning the loss. There is a moment when you realize that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar emotion.

That emotion later drove Matar’s father to return to his country and lead a rebellion against Qaddafi. He was imprisoned, and his family did not hear from him after 1996. He was missing, and presumed dead. But when Qaddafi fell in 2011, Matar and his brother are inevitably drawn back in search of closure. On his return trip to Libya after 33 years in Europe and the U.S., he writes:

This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was when my family left. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad: artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow.

What can you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?

But still, Matar must return. He must know. “I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes. “Whenever I hear of someone in Iraq, in Argentina, or now in Libya finding the bones of his disappeared scattered in a mass grave, I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

What does Matar find when he goes home? Many things, all of them difficult to understand, and few offering anything in the way of closure. But, in the end, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

Read the whole piece, if you can. Matar’s novels are definitely going on my reading list.