Man Gets to Where He's Going

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The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presents: I Decide Who Wins the Emmys, 2014 Edition

Best Actress, Drama

Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
This is so stupidly obvious that I won’t even explain it. The dance party scene at the end of season two was one of the best things on TV this year. I also would have accepted Keri Russell for The Americans.

Best Actor, Drama
Timothy Oliphant, Justified
Next year I’ll be saying that Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss should win their categories for the last season of Mad Men, so this year, Justified’s penultimate, is a make-up win for Oliphant, one so overdue that we have to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that entertainment awards aren’t based on actual artistic merit, just politics and routine and who won last year and who has the most friends in the voting body. Raylan Givens is the coolest, sexiest, funniest guy in the county. He outsmarts you right and left until your only option is to try to outdraw him in a firefight. Which you can’t. Which is why you’re dead. As for the actual nominees (snore), True Detective is embarrassingly in love with itself, Walter White was markedly less interesting once he finished breaking bad, The Newsroom sucks, and it’s genuinely worrying that otherwise rational adults apparently think House of Cards is anything other than a weeknight show on TNT. To anyone who objects, pointing out that Timothy Oliphant was previously nominated for Justified and didn’t win, I say 1) shut up, and 2) fine, then where’s Matthew Rhys for The Americans?

Supporting Actress, Drama
Joanne Froggatt, Downton Abbey
Not only is she one of the best parts of Downton Abbey, she also has to put up with Bates. Come to think of it, she probably deserves some sort of royal commendation.

Supporting Actor, Drama
Year after year they keep nominating Jim Carter and year after year they keep forgetting to give him the statue. It’s time for Mr. Carson to get some love. Mrs. Hughes knows what’s up.

Writing, Drama
Anything but House of Cards or Game of Thrones or True Detective. The prospect of what winning an Emmy would do to the inside of Nic Pizzolatto’s brain is scarier than anything he’s come up with.

Drama Series
The Americans is the best drama on TV. Remember the last show you didn’t watch until you finally did because I nagged you and you were all like “wow, I can’t believe it took me so long to watch that—you, Josh, are a true American hero, unlike the characters on The Americans”? The Americans is that show right now.

Best Actress, Comedy
An Emmy isn’t enough for Amy Poehler. Leslie Knope deserves to have a park in the real world named after her.

Best Actor, Comedy
William H Macy. Shameless Shameless Shameless. Have you watched it? You should watch it.

Supporting Actress, Comedy
Kate McKinnon is great, but my heart is with Anna Chlumsky for making tightly-wound so very funny.

Supporting Actor, Comedy
Let’s be serious. Fred Armisen. Let’s be serious.

Writing, Comedy
Definitely Silicon Valley for the nominated episode’s incredible titular math thing. (Model? Equation? It’s really not important, just youtube that scene when you aren’t at work.)

Comedy Series
Broad City has been my favorite thing about 2014 so far.

All the Miniseries Categories
Billy Bob Thornton *was* season one of Fargo (sorry, Colin Hanks), though Martin Freeman’s hair in the last episode was pretty fly. Sherlock doesn’t need to be nominated for anything, least of all anything Steven Moffat wrote. Treme should win something! Don’t forget how easy it is for you to watch all four of Treme’s short, excellent seasons now that it’s over. Man, Treme is good.

Main Title Design
Of these choices, Silicon Valley. In the same way that most movies should be 90 minutes or less, most main titles should be 10 seconds or less. (Shout-out to True Blood’s awesome and very long opening credits. RIP True Blood. Jason Stackhouse forever.)

Stuff I’m Reading: Good Morning, Midnight, Part 1

My life, which seems so simple and monotonous, is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I never shall be, looking-glasses I look nice in, looking-glasses I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on.

***

I get up into the room. I bolt the door. I lie down on the bed with my face in the pillow. Now I can rest before I go out again. What do I care about anything when I can lie on the bed and pull the past over me like a blanket? Back, back, back…

Top 10 Movies of 2013

10. Escape from Tomorrow
A straightforward documentary of what some of us always knew Disney World is like.

9. The Great Beauty
Are writers naturally more interesting than other people, or do writers simply want their writer characters to appear that way? The Great Beauty has some things in common with 2013′s other, similarly titled movie about wealth, love, and loss, but Beauty somehow manages to edge Gatsby on its home turf: clothes and parties.

8. The Bling Ring
There are probably criticisms to make of all of Sophia Coppola’s movies, but I just don’t want to make them. No one working today is better with music, colors, and youth. Emma Watson delivers the line reading of the year, and neatly encapsulates the entire movie, when she looks at another girl dead-serious and says, “Your butt looks awesome.”

7. Blue Jasmine
Cate Blanchett’s knockout performance alone would get Blue Jasmine on this list. That the movie spins off an all-time character into new territory is what takes it to a really smart place.

6. Mud
For a long time we know hardly anything about Matthew McConaughey’s titular character—where he comes from, what he wants—and still I couldn’t take my eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen. McConaughey spins a flesh-and-blood human being out of a few mannerisms and confidence; as far as definitions go, that’s great acting for me.

5. Spring Breakers
The movie’s merits are obvious: they’re the same things its detractors point to as its flaws. It’s subversive satire, the stunt casting is entirely the point, and it makes good use of James Franco, which is itself worthy of acclaim. Additionally, it enters the hallowed halls of Movies with a Perfectly-Fitted End Credits Song.

4. The Act of Killing
Killers learn how to kill from watching movies. Filmmakers make a movie about the killers. The killers make a movie about killing, using the tropes of the movies they love. This genius documentary is a revelation about the ways that life and movies overlap, intersect, and influence each other.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street
I knew where the story was going almost down to the beat, and I was still thoroughly entertained. A lot of people have said this is Scorsese proving he’s still got it. No arguments here.

2. Frances Ha
Some reviewers complained that they didn’t recognize the New York in this movie, to which I would say either 1) Um, OK? or 2) That’s because it’s a better version of New York—one in which things happen, and they’re accompanied by a soundtrack, and 27-year-old Frances starts to achieve what she wants to—but she also works for it. There are real feelings here of needing to succeed on your own terms, doing things now because you can (apparently flying to Paris for the weekend is easier—logistically, if not financially—than I realized), trying to scrape together rent, realizing your friendships are evolving with age and changing marital statuses, and finally growing up. Maybe you have to be 27 to get it.

1. Before Midnight
I thought a lot about Her, 2013′s other big relationship movie, while trying to articulate why I loved Before Midnight so much. Her, which isn’t on this list, is speculative: it’s an idea of what might happen if technology takes a certain path and if humans use it in certain ways. But Before Midnight is about now. It gets the difficulty, the near-impossibility—the insanity, to use Her‘s term—of trying to live your life alongside another person. It’s about the way things are, the way they always have been, and the way (or one way) they always will be.

I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. The first thing about it is the connection she has with Robert, of course, lives running in parallel, the constancy and the trust and the co-creation. It’s a pretty amazing relationship, love charged through with art. The second thing is the day Patti comes home and Robert is nervous and excited and has something to show her, and it’s a new piece, a whole new direction for his art, and he says It’s good, right? I think it’s really good. And Patti agrees, yes, it’s really good. That certainty is so interesting to me, knowing something you’ve made is good, even if you aren’t sure why or what it’s for or even what it is—you know it works, it’s cohesive, it makes sense. In Los Angeles I shared a loft downtown with a weaver who said the artist’s job is only to create; the critic’s job is to explain what the work is and means. He was talking especially about the (incredible) first weaving you see on his website, but about other things too, like instinct: knowing that something needs to exist, and while it’s in progress, knowing what it needs in order to be better. I can’t always articulate why a poem of mine needs a certain line or why something should be phrased a certain way, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve done something without quite knowing why and then later on someone reads the poem and says Oh, I really like how that line does such-and-such. And it isn’t something I’d consciously realized until then, but it’s true. I think a lot about what Being an Artist means, how odd it is that anyone can call herself an artist, that there’s no prerequisite of talent required to do so (whereas, say, you have to be licensed to be a doctor). But if there is any one criterion for being an artist, maybe that kind of instinct is it. I don’t know how you’d assess that empirically, but still.

I haven’t been reading a lot lately because I’ve been spending more time writing. I tend to swing back and forth between periods of lots of reading+little writing and little reading+lots of writing. Right now I’m somewhere in the middle. There’s this poem I’ve been working on since about October, and it’s taken a long, long time to know what to do with it. But it’s slowly coming along, and there are a lot of good things in it, even if the poem as a whole isn’t hanging together right yet. It’s been nice (and a relief) to see how after each draft I know how to make it better. I read once where Kurt Vonnegut said that he wrote to edit himself into something approaching charm. Lately I’ve been feeling that I write to edit my life—what I’ve been writing about—into something approaching sense.

The next book on my to-read list was described to me as “the most beautifully sad book I have ever read. [It] walks into sadness like a cow into a field of grass. Then it lies down. It’s a difficult read, and no one happy, or aspiring to happy, is likely to appreciate it.” Sounds perfect.

Stuff I’m Reading: Winesburg, Ohio, Part 5

Sometimes you read a book exactly when you need to, or it seems that way because the book describes something you’ve just been thinking about, and just been living through, and the timing is perfect. Here:

"At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called ‘The Book of the Grotesque.’ It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before. The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. 

The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that, about grabbing hold of a few central things that seem true and forming your life around them, making them the basis of who you are and how you live. There are things about myself that I consider primary to my existence, and I define myself in relation to them being true. There are ways I know I behave, there are patterns I know I’m set in. Then last year something happened in my life, and instead of behaving in my usual X way about it, after it, I started behaving in Y way. Now it’s a long time later and I’m still behaving in Y way about it and I’ve been wondering if Y—which I thought a temporary emotional response to what happened that would continue until I no longer needed it and could return to behaving in X way—is a more permanent change than I realized. I’m wondering if Y is the way things are going to be now, if it isn’t just a short-term coping mechanism but a long-term shift in my core self. 

It’s easy for me to think of myself as static (“This is the way I am.”) but as soon as I do, I’m wrong. I think I know myself well, but one change in my behavior and suddenly I haven’t recognized myself for half a year.

Stuff I’m Reading: Winesburg, Ohio, Part 4

"In the main street of Winesburg crowds filled the stores and the sidewalks. Night came on, horses whinnied, the clerks in the stores ran madly about, children became lost and cried lustily, an American town worked terribly at the task of amusing itself."

and

"There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and of the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy."

and

"Now he wanted to see her for another purpose. He wanted to tell her of the new impulses that had come to him. He had tried to make her think of him as a man when he know nothing of manhood and now he wanted to be with her and to try to make her feel the change he believed had taken place in his nature."

Stuff I’m Reading: Winesburg, Ohio, Part 3

"The sick woman spent the last few months of her life hungering for death. Along the road of death she went, seeking, hungering. She personified the figure of death and made him now a strong black-haired youth running over hills, now a stern quiet man marked and scarred by the business of living. In the darkness of her room she put out her hand, thrusting it from under the covers of her bed, and she thought that death like a living thing put out his hand to her. ‘Be patient, lover,’ she whispered. ‘Keep yourself young and beautiful and be patient.’

On the evening when disease laid its heavy hand upon her and defeated her plans for telling her son George of the eight hundred dollars hidden away, she got out of bed and crept half across the room pleading with death for another hour of life. ‘Wait, dear! The boy! The boy! The boy!’ she pleaded as she tried with all of her strength to fight off the arms of the lover she had wanted so earnestly.”

and

"As for the eight hundred dollars the dead woman had kept hidden so long and that was to give George Willard his start in the city, it lay in the tin box behind the plaster by the foot of his mother’s bed. Elizabeth had put it there a week after her marriage, breaking the plaster away with a stick. Then she got one of the workmen her husband was at that time employing about the hotel to mend the wall. ‘I jammed the corner of the bed against it,’ she had explained to her husband, unable at the moment to give up her dream of release, the release that after all came to her but twice in her life, in the moments when her lovers Death and Doctor Reefy held her in their arms."

Stuff I’m Reading: Winesburg, Ohio, Part 2

"Each time she came to see the doctor the hotel keeper’s wife talked a little more freely and after an hour or two in his presence went down the stairway into Main Street feeling renewed and strengthened against the dullness of her days. With something approaching a girlhood swing to her body she walked along, but when she had got back to her chair by the window of her room and when darkness had come on and a girl from the hotel dining room brought her dinner on a tray, she let it grow cold. Her thoughts ran away to her girlhood with its passionate longing for adventure and she remembered the arms of men that had held her when adventure was a possible thing for her. Particularly she remembered one who had for a time been her lover and who in the moment of his passion had cried out to her more than a hundred times, saying the same words madly over and over: ‘You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!’ The words, she thought, expressed something she would have like to have achieved in life."

and

"The excited woman sat up very straight in her chair and made a quick girlish movement with her hand as she told of the drive alone on the spring afternoon. ‘It was cloudy and a storm threatened,’ she said. ‘Black clouds made the green of the trees and the grass stand out so that the colors hurt my eyes. I went out Trunion Pike a mile or more and then turned into a side road. The little horse went quickly along up hill and down. I was impatient. Thoughts came and I wanted to get away from my thoughts. I began to beat the horse. The black clouds settled down and it began to rain. I wanted to go at a terrible speed, to drive on and on forever. I wanted to get out of my body, out of everything. I almost killed the horse, making him run, and when he could not run any more I got out of the buggy and ran afoot into the darkness until I fell and hurt my side. I wanted to run away from everything but I wanted to run towards something too. Don’t you see, dear, how it was?"

Stuff I’m Reading: Winesburg, Ohio, Part 1

"In the big empty office the man and the woman sat looking at each other and they were a good deal alike. Their bodies were different, as were also the color of their eyes, the length of their noses, and the circumstances of their existence, but something inside them meant the same thing, wanted the same release, would have left the same impression on the memory of an onlooker. Later, and when he grew older and married a young wife, the doctor often talked to her of the hours spent with the sick woman and expressed a good many things he had been unable to express to Elizabeth. He was almost a poet in his old age and his notion of what had happened took a poetic turn. ‘I had come to the time in my life when prayer became necessary and so I invented gods and prayed to them,’ he said. ‘I did not say my prayers in words nor did I kneel down but sat perfectly still in my chair. In the late afternoon when it was hot and quiet on Main Street or in the winter when the days were gloomy, the gods came into the office and I thought no one knew about them. Then I found that this woman Elizabeth knew, that she worshipped also the same gods. I have a notion that she came to the office because she thought the gods would be there but she was happy to find herself not alone just the same. It was an experience that cannot be explained, although I suppose it is always happening to men and women in all sorts of places.’"

Two Things About British TV

I’ve been getting more into British tv beyond the usual suspects (Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, Monty Python, The Office, Fawlty Towers, etc.). I’m starting with a couple of easy shows—Misfits and Spooks—and then delving into the deep cuts.

Spooks was described to me as the British (and better) 24, and my favorite thing about it so far is in the very first episode. The ep’s villain is an American woman who’s the leader of a violent activist group; she’s pursued by MI5 when she comes to England to perpetrate some evil. What’s great about her is we’re told she’s from Florida, which duh is not the South—but when we finally meet her character, she has the most generic Southern accent you’ve ever heard. It took me a second to register the enormity of what I was hearing, then it hit me: Do British people have as little idea about the variety of American accents as Americans do about British accents? To British actors, is there one “American Southern” accent the way Americans do one “British” accent? (Can’t help thinking of The Sound and the Fury and the guy Quentin meets at Harvard who can tell which state each Southern student is from by his unique accent.) If so, this would be huge. Granted, the first season of Spooks is now over a decade old, but still. On behalf of all Americans, I formally reject the inferiority-complex relationship we have with the Brits when it comes to accents.

The first two seasons of Misfits are dope. The show is a bit like Heroes if Heroes didn’t suck and weren’t ridiculous. But what I don’t like is Curtis’s time-travel power, because there’s no way for him to prove it’s real. He goes back in time and changes something and he’s the only one who knows. I guess that’s all right if you’re a superhero fighting for the common good, but it seems like a silly power for a tv show, drama-wise. Also, the season three episode involving a certain historical far-right political group: wow.

Stuff I’m Reading: American Pastoral, Part 5

In some ways, American Pastoral reminded me of Ulysses (the novel that, more than any other, differs most from the popular conception of it; that is, people think they know what it is from hearing about it from other people who think they know what it is from hearing about it, but I don’t know many people who have actually read it) in that it details the inner life of a person for the length of a book, shows that an ordinary (“ordinary”) person’s inner life can take an entire book to detail. Also like Ulysses, American Pastoral could be a lot longer, it really doesn’t end, or need to end, except that a book obviously has to end. The only way it wouldn’t end would be if it continued on forever, an existence serialization that never stopped. (It’s the Up Series, it’s Synechdoche, New York.) But the Swede—the Swede. See how he is primed and probed and plumbed. There’s that David Foster Wallace quote where he wonders how he can possibly assume his own inner life is any deeper or more colorful or more thoughtful than anyone else’s. That’s Nathan Zuckerman and the Swede, to me. The final section of the book, the dinner party, so wonderfully gets how people can be split in half between what’s going on around them and what’s going on inside their heads. As someone who lives the greater percentage of his life inside his head, I loved it. I guess one of the joys of reading is discovering that a writer has captured you on the page, feeling that someone else has somehow understood you well enough to articulate you in a profound way. Except Roth hasn’t understood me, he’s understood the Swede. Anyway. The mysteries and vagaries and whimsies of fiction, amirite? 

Stuff I’m Reading: American Pastoral, Part 4

Spoilers for the novel below. I’m serious, be careful.

"After Dawn. After Dawn life was inconceivable. There was nothing he could do without Dawn. But she wanted Orcutt. ‘That Wasp blandness,’ she’d said, all but yawning to make her point. But that blandness had terrific glamour for a little Irish Catholic girl. The mother of Merry Levov needs nothing less than William Orcutt III. The cuckolded husband understands. Of course. Understands everything now. Who will get her back to the dream of where she has always wanted to go? Mr. America. Teamed up with Orcutt she’ll be back on the track. Spring Lake, Atlantic City, now Mr. America. Rid of the stain of our child, the stain on her credentials, rid of the stain of the destruction of the store, she can begin to resume the uncontaminated life. But I was stopped at the general store. And she knows it. Knows that I am allowed in no farther. I’m of no use anymore. This is as far as she goes with me.

He brought a chair around, sat himself down between his wife and his mother, and, even as Dawn spoke, took her hand in his. There are a hundred different ways to hold someone’s hand. There are the ways you hold a child’s hand, the ways you hold a friend’s hand, the ways you hold an elderly parent’s hand, the ways you hold the hands of the departing and of the dying and of the dead. He held Dawn’s hand the way a man holds the hand of a woman he adores, with all that excitement passing into his grip, as though pressure on the palm of the hand effects a transference of souls, as though the interlinking of fingers symbolizes every intimacy. He held Dawn’s hand as though he possessed no information about the condition of his life.”

and

"She wasn’t the same girl that she’d been. Something had gone wrong. She’d gotten so fat. I just thought she was so fat and so angry that something very bad must have gone on at home. That it was my fault. I didn’t think that. We all have homes. That’s where everything always goes wrong.”

Stuff I’m Reading: American Pastoral, Part 3

"It was a band of brown streaks and not gray ones that Orcutt had been trying to rub out of Meditation #27, and the background was purplish rather than white. The dark colors, according to Dawn, signaled a revolution of the painter’s formal means. That’s what she told him, and the Swede, not knowing quite how to respond and with no interest in what ‘formal means’ meant, settled lamely on ‘Interesting.’ They didn’t have any art hanging on the walls when he was a kid, let alone ‘modern’ art—art hadn’t existed in his house any more than it did in Dawn’s. The Dwyers had religious pictures, which might even be what accounted for Dawn’s having all of a sudden become a connoisseur of ‘formal means’: a secret embarrassment about growing up where, aside from the framed photos of Dawn and her kid brother, the only pictures were pictures of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus’ heart. These tasteful people have modern art on the wall, we’re going to have modern art on the wall. However much Dawn might deny it, wasn’t there something of that going on here. Irish envy?

His father’s comment, when he saw the new painting, was ‘How much the guy charge you for that?’ With reluctance Dawn replied, ‘Five thousand dollars.’ ‘Awful lot of money for a first coat. What’s it going to be?’ ‘Going to be?’ Dawn had replied sourly. ‘Well, it ain’t finished…I hope it ain’t…Is it?’ ‘That it isn’t “finished,”’ said Dawn, ‘is the idea, Lou.’ ‘Yeah?’ He looked again. ‘Well, if the guy ever wants to finish it, I can tell him how.’ ‘Dad,’ said the Swede, to forestall further criticism, ‘Dawn bought it because she likes it,’ and though he also could have told the guy how to finish it (probably in words close to those his father had in mind), he was more than willing to hang anything Dawn bought from Orcutt just because she had bought it. Irish envy or no Irish envy, the painting was another sign that the desire to live had become stronger in her than the wish to die that had put her into the psychiatric clinic twice. ‘So the picture is shit,’ he told his father later. ‘The thing is, she wanted it. The thing is she wants again. Please,’ he warned him, feeling himself—strangely, given the slightness of the provocation—at the edge of anger, ‘no more about that picture.’ And Lou Levov being Lou Levov, the next time he visited Old Rimrock the first thing he did was to walk up to the picture and say loudly, ‘You know something? I like that thing. I’m getting used to it and I actually like it. Look,’ he said to his wife, ‘look at how the guy didn’t finish it. See that? Where it’s blurry? He did that on purpose. That’s art.’”

Stuff I’m Reading: American Pastoral, Part 2

"He remembered then something she had written in the sixth or seventh grade, before she’d gone on to Morristown High. The students in her class at her Montessori school were asked ten questions about their ‘philosophy,’ one a week. The first week the teacher asked, ‘Why are we here?’ Instead of writing as the other kids did—here to do good, here to make the world a better place, etc.—Merry answered with her own question: ‘Why are apes here?’ But the teacher found this an inadequate response and told her to go home and think about the question more seriously—’Expand on this,’ the teacher said. So Merry went home and did as she was told and the next day handed in an additional sentence: ‘Why are kangaroos here?’ It was at this point that Merry was first informed by a teacher that she had a ‘stubborn streak.’ The final question assigned to the class was ‘What is life?’ Merry’s answer was something her father and mother chuckled over together that night. According to Merry, while the other students labored busily away with their phony deep thoughts, she—after an hour of thinking at her desk—wrote a single, unplatitudinous sentence: ‘Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.’ ‘You know,’ said the Swede, ‘it’s smarter than it sounds. She’s a kid—how has she figured out that life is short? She is something, our precocious daughter. This girl is going to Harvard.’ But once again the teacher didn’t agree, and she wrote beside Merry’s answer, ‘Is that all?' Yes, the Swede thought now, that is all. Thank God, that's all; even that is unendurable.”

Stuff I’m Reading: American Pastoral, Part 1

Can we talk about American Pastoral? Because that’s the first thing about it: I’m only 80 pages in (less than 1/5 through) and I’ve already been wanting to talk about it for a week. It’s been a while since a book has connected with me this way, since I’ve been so thoroughly engrossed in something I’m reading that I think about it when I’m not reading it, that I want to recommend it to people even before I’ve finished it (normally this is a big deal for me, as I take recommendations seriously—I’m watching a British show right now that my friend Jimmy will love, but I told him I need to watch another season before being able to recommend it with full confidence). I’ve read Roth before (notably while locked in a windowless, clockless, cellphoneless, internetless, computerless, otherpeopleless room for 13 days), and this time, as before, I’m reminded of how incredible it is to read an author you really like—not just one who’s a good writer, but one whose prose somehow has a direct line to whatever the center of your self is. It’s like the music of a favorite band. The Beatles were a great band, but I rarely listen to them because they just don’t do it for me the way other bands do; some of these other bands are ones no one will remember in 50 years, but their music is like Roth’s writing in the way it electrifies my brain when I listen to it. Something in the music, in the prose, in other artists’ poetry or paintings or movies, aligns with some not-physical part of me, lights up a section of my consciousness that otherwise is dark, or only dimly lit, and the connection is palpable. I’m trying hard not to use the word “soul” right now, but whatever souls are, they’re definitely a piece of it. 80 pages in, narrator Zuckerman and I have only just discovered what the book is actually about, except even now we still don’t know more than what the back cover blurb reveals. That title, though: “…transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.” I think most of my favorite writers are people whose writing is very different from my own, and most of them are novelists, which may be why my poems have become something less poetic, or at least less image-driven, in the last few years, but I’m no kind of novelist. They’re not people I necessarily want to write like, but they’re people whose work is strikingly distinct from my own. I think I read poetry to see what poetry can do, for craft, and I read novels to see what writing can do in a larger sense, for pleasure. Roth is definitely someone I read for pleasure. He’s a holy-crap writer, one whose sentences produce that reaction in me, like Nabokov, like Cather, one who makes me marvel at what a combination of words can do. He’s a writer, as Stephen Elliott says of Bolaño, who’s so good that he makes you only want to write.