A ritual, since I’ve begun taking these brief trips to New York: on the nights where I have nothing planned, I leave the office and walk to Nolita; I order falafel from Taim; I spend inordinate, wasteful amounts of time at McNally Jackson, the bookstore that opened in the city’s post-9/11, pre-Great Recession speculative heyday, and has been serving as the neighorhood’s Shop around the Corner ever since. I look at the new-fiction display, always, and the new-non fiction display, sometimes; in the fiction stacks, I read every staff recommends inscription I encounter.
McNally Jackson is, in many ways, in most ways, a terrific bookstore. It carries a lot of small presses, chap books, poetry, and translations – and its staff put a lot of effort into surfacing gems from each, giving them prominent real estate in the most-trafficked sections, so that readers who come in for Crying at H Mart are likely to pick up a Japanese translation called, simply, Breasts and Eggs, with an over-easy egg – or is it a cross-section of breast? – on its shell-pink cover.
The thing it is not is sub-catalogued; exempting the topical window display and the small hutch towards the back devoted to writing itself, the stacks are not intent oriented. Or, the organization of the books seems geared towards three intents: that of wanting to buy a specific book, that of wanting to be told which specific books within a broad category – American Fiction, International Fiction, Memoirs – might be worth buying, and that of wanting to be told which specific books within a very few more specific sub categories – writing, New York – might be worth buying.
It occurred to me the last time I was in there that an organization scheme based on experience, or theme, rather than genre, would be, at the very least, an interesting experiment, and if not a revelatory one. I’d gone in wanting to buy another copy of A Life’s Work, this time for a new mother. A Life’s Work is, I suppose, more a memoir of new motherhood – Cusk’s experience, specifically, and how it compared to the few depictions she could find in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature – than it is a collection of essays, in that it is loosely chronological. I looked in memoir and didn’t find it; I looked in essays; I looked, uneasily, in philosophy. I had a surge of joy at the thought that it might be in Self Help, but of course it was not.
Eventually, I was forced to do the thing I hate doing in a busy bookstore, which is to queue at the information desk and ask for help.
The book was in memoir, slightly out of place.
“I haven’t read this one,” said the young man who was helping me; he scanned the jacket quickly before placing it in my hands.
“I thought maybe I’d find it in Self Help,” I said.
He looked at me quizzically and I was tempted to pitch my seminal experience organization scheme – new motherhood, coming out, falling in love (with a man|woman|drug|sensation|alien being|animal), losing a (parent | spouse | …), metamorphosis (successful|ephemeral|disastrous).
“You’re the second person to say that today,” he said.
“First time, it was about The Argonauts.”
“Essays. Maggie Nelson,” he added, at my sheepish silence. “I think, based on that one” (he gestured towards the Cusk), “you might like it.”
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A few months back, I read Nathan Heller’s essay on Joan Didion, written shortly after the publication of what would end up being the author’s final collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. “The Falconer” is intermittently critical of Didion’s approach to writing, though largely admiring of its effects. The crux of Heller’s argument is that Didion is entropic – “For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” and, in combatting this entropy, she invented an entirely new mode of journalistic storytelling.
Didion assembled her collections through collage and flash cuts: her ability to revise and rearrange her own previously published catalogue, and to intersperse them with new fragments – those vervey, lapidary sentences with their unexpected adjectives, their – as Heller puts it “softly anagrammatic games of sound”, enabled nonfiction that was transcendent in form as much as voice.
Atomization, she called this approach.
I do not think there is anything wrong about writing in fragments. I do not have another way to write. There is the question of time – but it is more systemic than time. My mind, as a mother, thinks in fragments; I am very rarely capable of sustained thoughts.
A man goes into the woods
And his wife brings him sandwiches
And his children know he has gone to do something marvelous
Six months later, he emerges, bushy-bearded, brandishing an opus.
Sustained, purity of focus: what is that? My opus is composed of a thousand fragments. I fit the pieces together one way, then another.
On Sunday afternoons, my father would go into his bedroom, slide the door shut, and write until dinner. Four hours every Sunday, plus the half hour train ride home. In this way, he wrote three novels in ten years.
That is: dedication, drive – and the ability to close the door.
The ability to keep a closed door closed.
“Go, go,” my husband will urge, when I ask for time. “Stop [ folding | tidying | taking out the compost | organizing the playroom.”
When, by and by, I cease malingering downstairs; when I get up to my little blue office and battle with the latch of the hobbit door, I look at pictures of the children. I decide I’d better order groceries. I search for “classic children’s costumes,” “toadstool onesie baby,” “rainbow taffeta dress baby.”
It is true that until I had a child, I had focus. It is true that the life stage in which i find myself is inhospitable to the kind of focus I had before – that prelapsarian focus!
But opportunistic focus, focus in rare and roving pockets of time – Jacksonian focus: that feels like both the holy grail, the answer of & & & – and, also, woefully foreign.
Didion, writing sentences like “I am not the society in microcosm. I am a thirty-four-year-old women with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come,” – well, I get it.
There is a rush in eliding whatever conceptual space one might assume exists between the war in Vietnam and the guests of the Royal: here is the cataclysm, and here, those at its farthest remove. Didion herself – as asp – is the elision.
She had been concerned with anomie for years. Slouching towards Bethlem is about the breakdown, as she saw it, of a particular group; by The White Album, she’s got the root cause in her sights: the continuous atomization of society, subdividing and subdividing, resolutely, haplessly, obliviously, uneasily.
Ie, format follows subject. Is that too neat a trick?
Fragmentation is a neurological post-partum shift. A biological evolution. Is that too neat a trick?
“In this light all narrative was sentimental. In this light, all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless,” she writes. Here are two dresses.
- The first, white silk, purchased for a wedding on the day of an assassination, worn in the company of an actress whose name will shortly become a sad shorthand for the era’s anomie-cementing massacre, and her filmmaker husband-to-be, whose ignominy won’t fully come to roost for decades. The filmmaker’s red wine spills onto the white silk.
- The second, also white, smocked, with vinous green embroidery, is worn by the massacre’s lookout turned star witness for the prosecution.
Didion bought both dresses; the circumstances leading to the purchase of the second are – conveniently? Mistakenly? – elided. Sometimes, the stone is whole to begin with, but more compelling in pieces.
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I buy The Argonauts. It is about motherhood; more, it is about love, love during a period of biochemical and physical change: Nelson is pregnant; her partner, Harry, is undergoing gender-confirming surgery; with Harry’s three year-old son, they have formed a household high on a Los Angeles hilltop.
“For Winnicott, feeling real is not reactive to external stimuli, nor is it an identity. It is a sensation — a sensation that spreads. Among other things, it makes one want to live.”
The Argonauts is kaleidoscopic rather than atomic; far more collectivist than isolated, even as its collectivists battle prejudice, preconception, conception.
Because the bookstore shelved A Life’s Work in Memoir and The Argonauts in Essays, The Lottery in Short Stories, Three Women in nonfiction, I, arriving home, plucked them from my own, similarly categorized shelves and grouped them on the mantle. I added Middlemarch, Wide Sargasso Sea. A Manual for Cleaning Women, Ordinary Family. Prairie Fires and Monsieur Venus, and Tess of the D’ubervilles and A Room of One’s Own. When the mantle threatened to look overcrowded, I took a photo and texted it to a few of our book club’s founding members.
“FALL BOOK CLUB COMING TOGETHER,” I wrote.
“The theme i’m toying w is motherhood+madness and I’m keeping it to essays, short stories, and excerpts.”
Heady from the battery of exclamation points I received in response, I made vague, grand nods towards a syllabus. I imagined this syllabus prompting me to finally write something of substance, a substack, a movement.
The syllabus, nearly two months in, is a loosely organized google doc, unfinished, each set of excerpts, essays, podcasts chosen on the fly.
A list is not a schema. A list is not, on its own, inspired subtext.
Still, it’s a start. Or, a pretext.
We read Was Shakespeare Was a Woman? And: The Edenic Allure of Ballerina Farm. And: Under the Influence, Ep 1, and then Life Among the Savages and Taffy Brodesner Ackner’s bemused, ineluctably bewitched profile of Gwnyeth Paltrow and her controversy-monetizing wellness empire and the You’re Wrong About episode on Martha Stewart.
The other book club members do not remark upon the lack of cohesion. They do not – bless them– ask what Shakespeare’s murky authorship has to do with motherhood or madness–Shakespeare, whose work is the human experience but is not the disintegration of society. Shakespeare may not have been a woman, but there are some unreconcilable incongruities between the person and the page. He may not have been a woman but the women in his plays are defiant, sharp-tongued, more than matches for their paramours, brothers, enemies. Well read, deeply independent – and Shakespeare, the man, did not educate his own daughters. How do you square that?
Shirley Jackson made a living off her domestic life; Hannah Neeleman, the Julliard-trained ballerina-turned-beef-rancher and mother of seven, does the same, but she’s trafficking in photos and videos, not words; without knowing what is elided, one gets the sense that the elisions themselves are the story, absence portending and upending presence.
For a few weeks, my Instagram discover feed is taken over with mothers of five, six, seven children, performing domesticity at triple-speed. Most of the mothers are white, though only Hannah has an Aga stove.
I do not want to make six peanut butter sandwiches at triple speed.
Slowly, my Discover feed returns to its usual mix of lace-bonneted babies and Ben Pentreath interiors.
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Mid-September, my husband falls from the lowest branch of the hemlock tree beside the kitchen – twenty feet! – and breaks his leg. Beastly tree! Beastly ladder. The latter splayed where it has fallen, the unnatural diagonal, the beastly orange of it all – until my brother in law disposes of it. The ladder is chekhov’s gun where suburban dads are concerned, a truth so predictable it became something of a joke.
At night, I tell the boys scary stories. I make them up on the spot, or weave spooky elements to existing skeins of stories. Once upon a time, there were two boys who lived with their parents in an old white house on the top of a hill. Perry, ever the anticipator, writhes, twists his blanket, tenses, moans.
“Should I stop?”
“The house overlooked a lake – “
“What does overlooked mean?”
“The house was at the top of the hill; at the bottom lay a large lake that was always exactly the color of the sky above.”
“Did the two boys like to swim in the lake?”
“They did. But only when the sun was shining and the lake was blue and clear. On cloudy days, and at night the lake was a shadowy place, and the boys were afraid.
“One morning, the younger boy woke up and his brother wasn’t there.
“It was raining, and the younger boy figured his brother must be downstairs, playing indoors. But downstairs it was quiet, empty. The younger boy saw, then, that his brother’s rainboots were gone, and his slicker.”
“What’s a slicker?”
“His raincoat. So the younger boy grabbed his rainboots and his slicker and went outside. He didn’t see his brother, but his bootprints were there, and the younger brother followed them down to the lake. And there, at the shore, were his brother’s green rainboots – “
“And his yellow slicker.
“The lake was grey and choppy with rain; at first, when the younger brother scanned it, he saw nothing. Then – what was that, in the center of the lake? One arm, sticking straight out.”
The boy looked very hard. There was a red wristwatch on the arm, just like the one the boy’s brother wore. So the younger brother took off his own rainboots and slicker and ran into the lake. The water was so grey and foggy, it was like moving through a cloud, but the younger brother kept picking up his head to make sure he could see the arm and the red wristwatch.
He swam and he swam but the arm never seemed to get any closer. Eventually the younger brother stopped to catch his breath. He was in the middle of the lake, exactly where he’d thought the arm would be, but it looked just as far away as ever.
Then, from far away and behind him, the younger brother heard someone shouting. He turned around. On the shore there was a figure in a yellow slicker and green boots, jumping up and down and calling his name. The younger brother looked back at where the arm had been, but it was gone.
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T.S. Eliot, when blocked in English, wrote in French.
Mais comment, quand j’ai aucun mot?
The yellow leaves the yellow lines on the freshly paved road the butter yellow glow of our house at night.
Instead, I tell these stories, to their forgiving audience.
The stories spill over into the day. The long dead trees that stick like so many toothpicks out of the swamp – ghost trees.
“Look at that broken house,” Perry says.
Irv murmurs his sympathy.
“Maybe there’s some broken people in it,” he suggests.
The first job my husband reclaims is making pancakes – and thank goodness, as mine are woefully unsymmetrical, stodgy or burned or both. The second is the boys’ bedtime. They will probably ask for a scary story, I tell him. From Ottelie’s room, I hear the rising trill of protest.
“They said my story wasn’t spooky enough,” my husband says, chagrined. Inwardly, I am pleased that my own stories have passed muster, have become the benchmark against which others’ are measured.
The following night, my husband, now aware of the rules of engagement, strips most of the goofy elements from his original tale, adjusts the finale – and sets a new benchmark.
“Your stories are spooky, but daddy’s are spooky and a little bit funny,” Perry says.
“That’s a difficult combination,” I admit. [For me] goes unsaid.
From my stories, my husband’s stories, Tim Burton’s Halloween Town, the Looney Tunes Spooktacular, the boys begin — little Didions — to collage their own. The tales of the two brothers battling absence and suggestion gain shadowy castles, witches, dervish pumpkins. Perry tells of Friendemperry and Friendemmummy, who cross a fiery drawbridge – they had no choice! – and are chased up a tower by a sword-baring vampire. In Irving’s version, he bites the vampire and throws him in a convenient lake (“the brother looked for him but he never came back”).
Perry’s stories are circuitous – linguistically and spacially – and end with meted optimism (a dead vampire, a trip to the hospital). Irving’s stories are concise, and end ambiguously (the vampire disappears, the monster chases Ottelie up a tree and bites her and disappears).
Ottelie does not tell stories yet. She sits in my lap with her little book of monsters opened to the page with the red one with devil’s horns and her wheat gold hair falls in her eyes and she growls on command. When I am not holding her, which is most of the time, she chases me, tugs my pant leg, extends her arms. The way she says ma-ma, the emphasis builds and scales on the second syllable.
The season of embers and umber, of nature and meteorology resurrecting old academic rhythms, freighting, heightening, until one morning you hop a rusting iron gate covered in decades of bittersweet and follow the footpath beyond until you come upon the Charles, first from on high up in the pines and then gradually descending until you’re even with a particularly belled and symmetrical bend and it’s been twenty five years and you’d been somewhat of a doubting thomas all the while (was it a figment? A concatenation?) but hey, memory did serve; it served some poetic shock of intensity, just what the doctor ordered.
Driving through town just after six at night, the fine-boned homes with their blackened shutters cut sharp against the smudgy dusk; all of them conspiring – along with the slate spires and doric columns and clapboard bell towers of the three churches, conspiring towards some kind of puritanically witchy bas-relief FX.
Perry likes to sing a song he made up called The Endless Tree in the Road and Irv likes to sing Country Road and sometimes I’m able to get them to pingpong their verses, in a very lo-fi mashup.
The endless tree in the road –
Take me home, country road –
The endless tree in the road –
To the PLACE i belong –
Sometimes the pieces line up so neatly, you could swear they were part of the same puzzle.