The afternoon is settling in fast, that nice, milkweed light you get in early winter pooling into my bedroom, the windows muffling the whipping noise of the cars and occasional truck as they exit and enter downtown. In Brooklyn, I always wrote (and, during quarantine, worked) in my bedroom, but in the suburbs, I have the luxury of following the wellness experts’ advice to separate church and state, etc. And as such am only right now realizing that this bedroom has maybe the best natural light in the house, at least in the afternoon.
Thanks to Lydia Davis, I am thinking about written forms. Davis, who’s written short stories and very short stories and prose poems and a novel and translated more than a handful of the western fiction cannon, including Swann’s Way and Madame Bovary, knows her fair share of forms, and makes convincing arguments for considering them as integral, narratively speaking, as plot, perspective, and style. Indeed many forms dictate or at the very least constrain the latter two, as in the Q&A form of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Georges Perec’s e-less La Disparition, Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, in which every word starts with the letter A. I knew that there were many, many poetic forms (though I know almost nothing of the forms themselves) but I tended to see prose fiction mainly by its length: short, novella, novel. As Davis explains, these are families with many different (and overlapping) species, and each has a purpose, a usage that the others might lack. Take La Disparition, for example. A book of poems without any e’s might seem a conceit, but its author, with four e’s in his name, endured a hideous childhood that culminated in a concentration camp. Pieces of himself were forcibly removed; a swath of humanity was expunged. The e’s are missing — but we still see them.
Of course, constraints are also useful to the stuck writer, or at least to this one. Fewer options = less choice paralysis. I haven’t written based on a constraint in a few years, apart from the very real constraint of two existing pieces of writing I am continuously revising. I haven’t written based on a form constraint since the new journalism class I took my senior year of college, where we did a whole lot of it (and I enjoyed it immensely). Form constraint as rut-buster is different from a deliberate alchemy of form and narrative, but the former might help me get to the latter, one of these years.
One of the forms Davis herself uses is found writing, which is what it sounds like: grafts from original text that are rearranged, or lightly edited, to produce something more cohesive. Davis does this with some of the anecdotes that Flaubert includes in his letters to the poet Louise Colet, his lover during most of the years he spent writing Madame Bovary. In the letters themselves, the anecdotes, Davis notes, can feel jarring. But removed from their epistolary context, they bloom into charming, occasionally surrealist tales, like “The Cook’s Lesson”:
Today I have learned a great lesson; our cook was my teacher. She is twenty-five years old and she’s French. I discovered, when I asked her, that she did not know that Louis-Phillipe is no longer king of France and we now have a republic. And yet it has been five years since he left the throne. She said the fact that he is no longer king simply does not interest her in the least — those were her words.
And I think of myself as an intelligent man! But compared to her I’m an imbecile.
A new year seems as good and tired, necessary and trite as any constraint.
Lydia writes that order matters down to the couplet. Your reader should not anticipate the end clause. As in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold.
The narrator’s recanting perceptible only in the unexpected ordering (okay okay — there are a few!).
A wonderful reorder.
If I could, I would reorder the events on Tuesday and Wednesday. Wipe out darkness with light; a savage insurrection with twin democratic wins.
It is hard to look at the terror that raged, largely unfettered, in the capitol. It is hard because it was so unfettered — like, how the fuck did these assholes get IN what is supposed to be one of the most secure complexes in the country? (Well, we know how.) It is hard because of what I witnessed and so many experienced during this summer’s peaceful protests: people being tackled and gassed and sprayed with rubber bullets for walking, kneeling, physically occupying spaces they had every right to be in. It is hard because well into the evening, the reporters on NPR kept referring to “protesters,” or, daringly, “a mob…a riot,” when what they are, by any standard definition, is terrorists. It is hard because I keep thinking of the Women’s March on Washington, and what a positive event it was — 1 million women and their families and not a single altercation. And yes, a part of me (a silly part) wants to get in the faces of these terrorists and … wither them, somehow. Because, in addition to being terrorists, they are also pathetic. Cretins with no ability to think critically about the information they’re receiving.
And the day started so joyous. The prospect of a working senate. The triumph of Stacey Abrams’ decade-plus ground game. Warnock replacing Loeffler — can you imagine a better tradeup?
Listen, there’s still joy. Terrorists can’t remove it — they can only distract from it. But what they’ve made abundantly clear is that filter bubbles must be abolished, one way or another. Easy to say, but nearly impossible, in this day, to do. Twitter has just now banned the President permanently; Facebook will keep him off until after the inauguration. These are necessary actions, but they won’t fix the disinformation that keeps heightening, as it spreads, one-upping itself in paranoia and toxicity. Up to 80% of republicans think the election was stolen. That’s like, 60 million people. How do you solve for a thing like that?
I can think, petulantly, that I don’t care to solve it. I can think “fuck those people,” I can think “I don’t want to understand them,” I can refuse to buy or watch Hillbilly Elegy all I want — but at the end of the day, 60 million is too many people to ignore. How do you solve for it? How do you not?
Leave the World Behind offers an answer to what happens if you don’t.
It was one of the more surprising books I’ve ever read. It helped that I went in blind, propelled by an excerpt in a New Yorker roundup of the year’s best jokes. The excerpt had me thinking this would be a Hamptons satire; a guilty pleasure genre that seemed, in the waning days of the decade, especially appealing. The joke was, largely, on me. Leave the World Behind is a commentary on both the blind reliance on technology and defacto segregation that shape the contemporary inner- and outer-ring bourgeoisie, and on what happens when both are removed, all at once. The removal is caused by a cataclysmic global event, the details of which are meted out occasionally to us, the readers, but largely withheld from the central characters.
What first half of Leave the World Behind reminded me of most was Get Out, Jordan Peele’s deeply unnerving, all-too-plausible horror take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. A family on vacation at “the end of the world” are interrupted, late at night, by the owners of the home they are renting. The owners, who are fleeing a blackout in Manhattan, are Black. The vacationers are white. The white parents do not trust the Black owners — in the beginning, the wife, Ruth, doesn’t even want to let them in. The Black owners are resigned to the distrust; they only want to get back in their home, even if it means sleeping in the basement. Overnight, everyone loses cell service, internet, cable. No one knows what’s happened. A hurricane was due to hit the mid-Atlanic, but out at the end of the world, the sun is shining. The white father assumes it’s just an overheated grid. The Black man, GH, suspects Iran. The white daughter, Rose, goes out into the backyard and sees hundreds of deer. There is a sudden noise, incomprehensibly loud. The white son, Archie, correctly identifies it, but is dismissed. Rose, alone, knows what it means, but she is not asked, and does not tell. Unexpectedly, as the horror outside the house increases, tensions within it subside. The families, perhaps sensing what has happened even as they refuse to openly acknowledge it, begin to knit together.
Which is not to say Leave the World Behind has a happy ending. It has, in the bleakest of circumstances imaginable, an ending that provides a sliver of hope.
The Thursday before Christmas break, it snowed. Great gobbits of dry, powdery snow that piled up and up and refused to buckle under the pressure of my mittened hands. A two-foot snowwoman took ages and kept popping out her carrot nose and brussel sprout eyes. We’d borrowed a sled from my mother, neon orange in the classic sled shape, and we thundered it down the banks the plowman created. The next day, we marched to the elementary school and whipped down the bottom sixth of the hill that broke the leg of a classmate, one of the triplets who grew up in the beautiful ochre colonial across the street from the house we live in now.
The sled rewards lightness; Perry went far further on his own than with either parent aboard. On his final ride, I watched with ebbing fear and building awe as the sled kept going and going, until Perry was just a tiny blue speck in a vast white field. It took minutes to reach him; I expected tears. Instead he was thrilled, proud. He insisted on walking back by himself. . Little Rose in the dwindling deciduous forest at the end of the world knew what the sonic boom foretold and did not fear. Perry would not know, I think — not yet — what the sound meant, but neither would he care. A thin piece of orange plastic, a gentle slope, a coverlet of snow still pliable enough to be scooped into his mouth and he did leave the world behind. Even I did, for a little while.