Such a joy to read — or rather listen to — this audiobook. Joy isn’t the right word, a comfort perhaps. Here are some favorite passages:
“Which didn’t prepare you for the company—which was astonishingly ample, gentle, comic, overflowing. It makes sense. Books are a social substitute; you read people who, at one level, you’d like to hang out with. Chapters, pages, novels, articles are the next best thing. Even when it’s just a good factual writer, you want to hang around them to get the facts, the way you’d sit next to a brainy kid at a test to copy off their answer sheet. David’s writing self—it’s most pronounced in his essays—was the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style.”
“[Realism] imposes an order and sense and ease of interpretation on experience that’s never there in real life. I’m talking about the stuff, you know, what’s hard or looks structurally strange—or formally weird—I mean some of that stuff can be very cool…but life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative? I’m talking about the way it feels, how our nervous system feels. Some of it has to do with TV and fiction. You watch many videos? MTV videos? Lot of flash cuts in ’em. A lot of shit that looks incongruous but ends up having kind of a dream association with each other. I don’t know about you, but that’s sort of—I mean, Jesus. Um, you flew here. You drove down. Probably while you’re driving down you’re also doing work on another piece. You’re lugging your computer. You come, you talk to me. You and I have our little conversation. Then I need to go do my class and am thinking about that, then you’re thinking about the phone. Then you and I go to the class. God knows what you’re doing in the class. Now we’re here. Now you’re in a good mood ’cause you’ve mailed this thing off, that because of your relationship with these various other webs and commitments—I mean, it’s more as if—Life seems to strobe on and off for me, and to barrage me with input. And that so much of my job is to impose some sort of order, or make some sort of sense of it. In a way that—maybe I’m very naïve—I imagine Leo getting up in the morning, pulling on his homemade boots, going out to chat with the serfs whom he’s freed [making clear he knows something about the texture and subject], you know. Sitting down in his silent room, overlooking some very well-tended gardens, pulling out his quill, and … in deep tranquility, recollecting emotion.”
“This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear: that avant-garde stuff is hard to read. I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff—this is gonna get very abstract—but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us. There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about. But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.” Something else feels this way to someone else. So that the reader feels less lonely.”
“There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake. That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction—sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of photography—that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff. As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes. And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change. And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along. And that’s what’s precious about it. And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious. Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.”
“It means to me like, this is sort of what happened to me. You know, it was probably very much the same for you. You know, you’re in Brown, who’s “gonna make it, who’s not? And then you get, like, you start being able to make a living. So you get all that affirmation from the exterior, that when you’re a young person you think will make everything all right. And I realize that sounds reductive and pop psych or whatever. But to realize—like you say, when it happens to you, when you yourself realize, “Holy shit, this doesn’t make everything all right.” Um, for me, it fucked with my sort of “metaphysics of living” in an incredibly deep way. And I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn’t mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something. And the biggest thing that I like about what’s going on, to be totally honest—and see, you’re being very good, ’cause now I’m starting to like you, and so I’m saying this stuff, and it may sound crazy. I really like that this doesn’t, that this isn’t that big a deal to me. That is like—it’s nice.
But what I really remember is the times when working on that book was really hard. And I just gutted it out, you know? And I finished something. And I did it for the book, not trying to imagine whether David Lipsky would like it, or Michael Pietsch would like it. And that I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I feel like, “All right, like I’m a writer now.” Whether I’m a successful writer or not, I don’t know. But like, like this is who I am, this is what I do. And I know now how to live in such a way that I’m doing it for the work itself. Which I’m aware can kinda come off sounding very pretentious. And it’s also, it’s what everybody says: “Ah, that other stuff doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to say to you is, I went through a period so bad, that that stuff had to stop mattering to me, or I think I would’ve blown my brains out. I came reasonably close. Or I could have at least tried in such a way that I would have damaged myself trying horribly.”
“I was just really stuck about writing. And um, like a lot of the reasons why I was writing, and a lot of the things that I thought were cool about writing, I’d sort of run out of gas on. And I didn’t know … I didn’t know … what to do. I didn’t know whether I really loved to write or whether I’d just gotten kind of excited about having some early success. That story at the end of Curious, which not a lot of people like, was really meant to be extremely sad. And to sort of be a kind of suicide note. And I think by the time I got to the end of that story, I figured that I wasn’t going to write anymore.
That my whole take—that at first I thought writing was empty and just all a game. And then I realized that my take on it was hopelessly empty, and that it was a game. And it was after finishing that and doing the editing on that, that I remember getting really unhappy. And it sounds weird—but I think it was almost more of a like, sort of an artistic and a religious crisis, than it was anything you would call a breakdown. I just—all my reasons for being alive and the stuff that I thought was important, just truly at a gut level weren’t working anymore. Does this make sense to you personally at all?
I started hating everything that I did. I mean I did, I remember I did two different novellas after “Westward,” that I worked very hard on, that were just so unbelievably bad. They were, like, worse than stuff I’d done when I was first starting in college. Hopelessly confused. Hopelessly bending in on themselves in all kinds of … And um, anyway, the reason I applied to philosophy grad school is I remembered that I had flourished in an academic environment. And I had this idea that I could, uh, that I could read philosophy and do philosophy, and write on the side, and that it would make the writing better. ’Cause see, by this time, my ego’s all invested in the writing, right? It’s the only thing that I’ve gotten, you know, food pellets from the universe for, to the extent that I wanted.
So I feel really trapped: Like, “Uh-oh, my five years is up. I’ve gotta move on, but I don’t want to move on.” And I was really stuck. And drinking was part of that. And it’s true that I don’t drink anymore. But it wasn’t that I was stuck because I drank. I mean it was more that—and it wasn’t, it wasn’t like social drinking going out of control. It was like, I really sort of felt like my life was over at twenty-seven or twenty-eight. And I didn’t wanna, and that felt really bad, and I didn’t wanna feel it. And so I would do all kinds of things: I mean, I would drink real heavy, I would like fuck strangers. Oh God—or, then, for two weeks I wouldn’t drink, and I’d run ten miles every morning. You know, that kind of desperate, like very American, “I will fix this somehow, by taking radical action. And uh, you know, that lasted for a, that lasted for a couple of years.
“Yeah. But it’s weird. One of the things I don’t like about myself is, I have a very low capacity for enjoyment. Of an actual thing that’s going on. ’Cause I manage to turn almost anything into something scary. My hope is that when you and I bid each other a fond farewell, and this phase is truly over, that besides just quivering …
For instance, that first reading at KGB. Having it be so crowded that I couldn’t get in. Or having a lot of flashbulbs going off. That was neat. And it was scary at the time, and I’m not just sayin’ that. Given that I—that I’d given two different readings in New York where not enough people came to hold the reading. … It was some kind of, it was some kind of neat vindication… The problem is, at the time I was just terrified because there were all these people looking at me. Because I’d like to be the sort of person who can enjoy things at the time, instead of having to go back in my head and enjoy them then.
[“… Don’t you think the people who actually can’t enjoy that kind ofthing are the ones that actually get stuff done? Because the people who can just get fat off of sort of temporary achievement are the ones who don’t keep going farther.]
You’re describing something that they use the phrase “resting on your laurels” for. And I think there’s got to be some sort of continuum. [One of his words.] I think there’s an ability to savor and be satisfied with something that doesn’t just result in, um, stasis.
[I guess you could squat on your laurels, right?]
Squat your laurels … [Repeats my joke, and then improves it] Or sort of sitting in the vicinity of your laurels and looking fondly at them. But also be ready to keep moving, right? Not …
Yeah. There’s got to be a way to use the laurels to make the work better. Instead of, if … And I’m scared that I won’t. I’m scared that I’ll fuck up, and plunge into a compressed version of what I went through before.”
“I think this generation has it worse or better than any other. Because I think we’re going to have to make it up. I think we’re going to have to make up a lot of our own morality, and a lot of our own values. I mean, the old ones—the ’60s and early ’70s did a marvelous job of just showing how ridiculous and hypocritical, you know, the old authoritarian Father’s-always-right, don’t-question-authority stuff was. But nobody’s ever really come along and given us anything to replace it with. Reagan gave us a kind—I mean, the Reagan spasm I think was very much a story about a desperate desire to get back to that. But Reagan sold the past. Reagan enabled a fantasy that the last forty years hadn’t taken place.
And we’re the first generation—maybe people starting about my age, it started in ’62. We grew up sorta in the rubble of kind of the old system. And we know we don’t want to go back to that. But the sort of—this confusion of permissions, or this idea that pleasure and comfort are the, are really the ultimate goal and meaning of life. I think we’re starting to see a generation die … on the toxicity of that idea.
“I’m talking about the number of people that—I’m not just talking about drug addicts dying in the street. [Watch beeps again. I keep thinking it’s my watch in the bag.] I’m talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from my high school or college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don’t believe in politics, and don’t believe in religion. And believe that civic movements or political activism are either a farce or some way to get power for the people who are in control of it. Or who just … who don’t believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s just a whole lot else.
“It’s sort of like, I don’t know, now you’ve got me thinking—there’s so much beauty and profundity in all kinds of shitty pop culture all around us.
Like living in Bloomington: one of the things that I do, I mean, you have to listen to a lot of shitty country music. ’Cause that’s like pretty much all there is on the radio, when you’re tired of like, listening to Green Day on the one college station. And these country musics that are just so—you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time” and stuff. And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized that, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing is to themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, I mean they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it just to make it salable. But that all the pathos and heart that comes out of them, is they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it. Than just, you know, some girl in tight jeans or something. And it’s so weird. It’s like you live immersed in this stuff, it’s very Flannery O’Connorish. And then every once in a while you realize that it’s all the same, and it’s all about the really profound shit. And that it’s adjusted in various ways to talk to “various demographic groups for commercial reasons. But that if you cock your ear and listen real close, it’s—that it’s deep, you know?
-Where else do you see that kind of nice stuff rising out of shit pop culture?
Wow. Oh, God, everything. I mean even—we were making jokes about Love Boat and Baywatch. These really—the really commercial, really reductive shows that we so love to sneer at. Are also tremendously compelling. Because the predictability in popular art, the really formulaic stuff, the stuff that makes no attempt to surprise or do anything artistic, is so profoundly soothing. And it even, even the densest or most tired viewer can see what’s coming. And it gives you a sense of order, that everything’s going to be all right, that this is a narrative that will take care of you, and won’t in any way challenge you. It’s like being wrapped in a chamois blanket and nestled against a big, generous tit, you know? And that, OK, artwise maybe not the greatest art. But the function it provides is deep in a certain way.
That all this stuff is like deadly serious and really deep all the time. I mean, it doesn’t mean that you should go around being some kind of scholar of pop culture and dismantling all the stuff. But that it’s—that we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself. And that’s one of the cool things about Kael. Is Kael, Kael writes about the miracle of … all the odds are stacked against, you know, the profundity. You know? Writing about the Hollywood system and stuff. And like crabgrass, or like Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.” You know?
That like, the cool stuff and the magic stuff, it comes out all the time. The trick—you know, if there’s one thing that the serious art can do, is that it can try to put you in places where you’re more alive to hearing that. You know? That it can seduce you into paying attention to stuff in a way that’s hard to pay attention to.”
“I’ll tell ya, the thing that it reminds me of, is that it took me a long time to figure out what was so sad about the cruise. Have you read the thing about the cruise?
Is that the great lie of the cruise is that enough pleasure and enough pampering will quiet this discontented part of you. When in fact, all it does is up the requirement. That’s the sort of thing that it’s about. And yeah, my little corner of that experience, some of this had to do with the writing, you know? I can remember being twenty-four years old and having my, you know, smiling mug in the New York Times Magazine, and it feeling really good for exactly like ten seconds. You know? Or, the big one also, some pointillist drawing of me in the Wall Street Journal, and some article like, “Hot Shot’s Weird New Novel” or something like that. And I remember that coming out when I was at Yaddo. (“Yahdo”) [He has the reformed person’s apparent responsibility to feel contempt for the person he’d been then.] And feeling real cool, because you know all of them were reading it in the living room and stuff. But it feeling intensely good, and probably not unlike a crack high. You know? Intensely good for thirty seconds, and then you’re hungry for more. And so that, clearly, I mean if you’re not stupid, you figure out that the real problem is the discontented self. That all this stuff that you think will work for a second, but then all it does is set up a hunger for more and better. And that the thing that interested me, at least in the book, and I know it’s less interesting for the purposes of your essay [By now calling it an “essay,” which is what he writes. Interesting], is that that general pattern and syndrome seems to me to get repeated, at least in our culture, for our kind of plush middle-class part of the culture, over and over and over again in a million different arenas. And that we don’t seem to get it. We do not seem to get it.
[This is just for color; so the fact that you’ve gotten the readership that you might have wanted in your midtwenties … quote from Self-Consciousness: photograph Updike sees of himself in his mother’s house, as a five-year-old boy, which now looks kind of sinister. “I’m what you wanted me to be,” you know what I mean? “You got me into this: now what do I do? I await his instructions.” I mean, in a sense, you fulfilled the ambitions that twenty-five-year-old had in terms of the kind of impact you wanted to make …]
“You know, it may be that those ambitions are what get you to do the work, to get the exposure, to realize that the original ambitions were misguided. Right? So that it’s a weird paradoxical link. If you didn’t have the ambitions, you’d never find out that they were sort of deluded. But there is, you’re right, once you’ve decided those delusions are empty, you’ve got a big problem, because like you said [three days ago, in airport], you can’t kill off parts of yourself. You have to start building machinery that can incorporate that part of yourself, but … that isn’t at its mercy, you know?”
“I think probably, what I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember in college, a lot of even the experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings, or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? Who felt this way. Who had, you know, worried that perhaps the reverse of paranoia was true: that nothing was connected to anything else. I remember that early on in Gravity’s Rainbow, and really getting an enormous charge out of it.
And I think if there is sort of a sadness for people—I don’t know what, under forty-five or something?—it has to do with pleasure and achievement and entertainment. And a kind of emptiness at the heart of what they thought was going on, that maybe I can hope that parts of this book will speak to their nerve endings a little bit.
“I think with writing it’s really feeling that, their brain voice for a while becomes your brain voice. And that you feel—the Vulcan Mind Meld perhaps is a better analogy.
That just, they feel intimate with you, in a way. Or that you’d be, not just that you’d be somebody that it’d be great to be friends with, but that they are your friend. And, you know, one reason why I’ve got an unlisted number, and why I really try to hold down on the mail, is that, is that that stuff is difficult to deal with. Because I don’t wanna hurt anybody’s feelings. But it’s also a delusion, and it’s kind of an invasive one. ”