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the divine proportion
There is no excellent beauty that hath not
some strangeness in the proportion.
—Francis Bacon, Of Beauty
Twelve sessions, one every two weeks; but you have no idea what this means, really, I mean how could you, and neither does anyone else, so everybody's at a loss for words; and it's ironically reminiscent of those lead grey-laden, amaranthine after-school afternoons of childhood, on the dusty playground, class is out but it's still too early to go home, so you wait with the others, and there's no need to speak and there's the sense of communion. The big difference is that now, here, there is, palpably, the need to speak. Thing is nobody can. The unspoken words, ultimately, are "What's it going to be like?" And that'd be a funny question even if somebody could voice it: not what is it going to be, but what is it going to be like? But anyway nobody says it out loud, so what can you do but ignore the odors and peruse the list of side effects, around eighty per drug, ordered into three categories, common side effects, uncommon side effects, rare side effects. (Death was inevitably included, and was inevitably "rare.") They hand this information to you on orange pamphlets, professionally printed, the Garamond font levelheaded, direct but never alarming, confidential, appropriate; poised; the thickness of the paper just right, more consequential than flimsy copy stock, but a good long way from cardboard, which would be terrifyingly permanent. The care that takes, the thought that goes into it: all the parameters are really masterfully designed, as if the hospital had hired a PhD in semiotics from Brown. The rhetoric. You're dealing with a balance not easy to achieve. One of my favorite devices was what screenwriters call the plant: "You may notice . . ." It was always answered by the payoff ". . . this is temporary." "You may notice x; this is temporary." (Well, not in the case of death. They never write, "You may notice death; this is not temporary." That's understood.) I read these pamphlets over and over, like a mantra; they're trying to normalize the experience, to throw the patient back into civilization, which is where the patient was, at some point in the past—the patient realizes this, remembers being there, what it was like: what it felt like, how things tasted differently, how different kinds of fabric smelled differently, how even the air smelled differently, somehow: how watching a football game then was so different from watching one now; how different the meanings of things were then—even the meanings of things as simple as water, or taxonomy, or, indeed, what it means to mean. Once, the patient was a child wondrous at the mysterious fact, just learned, that some people are left-handed and some aren't: dividing humanity in two like that: the child wondered why he was one, not the other. Or once, it was nighttime, and the patient was a child sitting in an airport, pretending to read a magazine but in fact watching the airplanes taxi through the tarmac, flush with anticipation of his first flight. Or, for that matter, once, the patient was a child realizing that music, and for that matter sound, and for that matter what's the difference, anyway, isn't in fact immaterial, but rather the eminently material slapping of air molecules against the tympanum in the ear, thereby rendering it the only of our arts that actually involves physical contact. Or once, the patient was standing on a playground. But now the patient—standing between those pamphlets and the unknown experience that beckons, the future to which the pamphlets point—is standing somewhere very high, a vantage point from which civilization is visible, but muted, condensed into a grey mass. I thought of Philippe Petit on that taut tightrope between the Twin Towers. They tell you, for example, how long the infusion lasts: about fifty minutes. Not that experiencing those fifty minutes for the first time will be remotely like any previous experience of fifty minutes. I wanted to know the kind of chair I was going to sit in, what color? Stripes? Canvas, or plastic? What temperature would the room be? Chilly, like David Letterman's studio? Or warm, like a pub in London? Can you (are you supposed to) listen to music, are you expected to carry on a conversation with the nurse? What's the etiquette? Are you alone, doing chemo, in a room, an enclosed space? Are there people -around?
You turn around and the question is answered: it turns out there are people around—at least there were for me, I don't know how it'll be for you (because you must remember that you'll go through it too, almost certainly: it's part of life in the twenty-first century). A large open room painted in rather ghastly shades of orange. At least a dozen patients at any given time. The sheer number of people was startling. Pleasant conversation between nurses and patients, as it turned out: the ambiance is that of an airport gate, or people on the subway, or what I imagine a nail salon must be like. At first I took the complacent cheeriness as an effort on the part of the staff to mask the dread, but after a few sessions I discovered there was in fact no artifice here, nothing feigned: that it was, for them, about as earth-shattering as a trip to the dry cleaners, another chore on the -list.
The extras were suspiciously well cast, suspiciously well represented in a socioeconomic sort of way: the pinkfaced, heavyset businessman (he might as well have a highball in his fifty-nine-year-old hand); the good-looking woman wearing jeans and a nice pair of sandals, doubtless with literary ambitions; the gay man chatting loudly on his cell phone about Italian wines; the black woman in a jogging suit, with her patient husband; the Korean girl, looking spiffy in Ann Taylor, typing on her laptop. And I never saw the same person twice. These are the twenty-first century's faces of death? Pleasant. And yet there was something exceedingly grotesque about it all, as if everyone were sitting around (I hesitate to use this image, but it did come to mind repeatedly) defecating while making affable conversation. (When I was in grade school, fifth grade I think, I read about an African tribe whose members thought nothing of defecating in public but would rather be caught dead than found eating. I think that was my first introduction to cultural relativism. On an unrelated note, I don't view art as excretory.) Chemo can be infused with a simple IV to a vein in the arm, or, as in my case, they can implant a small catheter port, a small silicone disc, into the chest, which leads directly to the jugular vein. I always felt a surge of adrenaline as the nurse pierced my chest with the needle, and the energy never really subsided but melted into the effects of the steroids, the first of four bags of liquid. The steroids do much to mask the effects of the other drugs; I'd be charged up for about forty-eight -hours.
So that was what it was like, I sat there for an hour and talked to the nurse and then got up and walked out and that was that. And so it would be eleven more of these sessions, one every two weeks. Six months. Time exists only in its measurement, and we can't help but measure it: even in an anechoic chamber—an echoless room, in other words a space of total silence, they have one at Harvard—even there we have our heartbeat and our respiration tapping out a countdown, as a composer once discovered, to his dismay. Time isn't a substance that flows or flies and can thus be traced: unlike space, it cannot lurk behind a map of itself. (Calendars aren't maps. Can't be.) During the six months of chemotherapy, a big clock—I imagined a big, octagonal, four-faced clock looming over an industrial cityscape, perhaps a tower that marked the division between the city's north and south sides—ticked twelve times; everything else between those ticks was suspended animation, stasis, flatness, against which the heartbeat bravely, fruitlessly banged its head. (Later I learned this was called depression. Luckily it didn't take.) The twelve "treatments" (a euphemism I learned to detest like I detest few other words, and that is saying something) as rigid as the twelve black grooves on a child's first cheap ruler, rigid as cuneiform. I would arrive late to my appointments as often as possible, but this wasn't an attempt to assert control, to make them, my tormentors, wait for me, to "show them who's boss." That's what a shrink would say, and indeed did. What the shrink didn't understand, among very many other things, was that my habitual tardiness was the manifestation of a patently absurd hope that some sense of the organic malleability of life could extend to these rendezvous that sliced and diced my existence apart like those things on television infomercials you see at three-thirty in the morning, just twelve low monthly payments but wait there's more. In French, the word for editing a film or television show or television commercial is montage, putting together; the German word is schnitt, slicing apart. Two-week-long strips of old film, brittle, sliced apart, sutured back together, the cuts the piercings of the chest. This'll sting for a moment, she says, pushing the needle through, the frozen little venomous mouth seeking the port, into which it will empty its vomit, its poison. In other words, this was discontinuous time, a curve broken into pixels, things didn't lead to other things, they just switched, crosscut. Since there was no trail—no path, say, from my apartment to the subway to the hospital—I often had the uncanny sense that I wasn't actually present; that the setting laid out before me was a painted illusion, for without a past leading to this present moment how could I have this present moment before -me?
I'm exaggerating a little bit, because counterpointing this, I'll admit, was a different time, the time of the body: the body recovering from the infusion of poison. In complete contrast to ticking-twelve-time, body-time sang its song in slow dissolves. Gradual transformations, slow washes, a slowmoving music of colors, of thick chords. The shape of these modulations was all curves, parabolas, the organic transformations of nature, the majesty of that tempo, the utter indifference of the sunset, of cloud formations, of an increase in humidity: the pace of the needle measuring barometric pressure. It would take about two days for the steroids to wear off; this would give way to the nausea that the steroids had been veiling, but the nausea was erased beautifully with these little white pills they give you now (at about a hundred bucks a pop) that magically dissolve under the tongue. The pills act fast. But in those slim intervals between the sudden decay of one pill and the onset of another, the nausea was briefly sensible, like when you're going through mountains on one of those high-speed European trains really fast and it's all blackness in the tunnel and then a woosh and your ears pop and the white noise of the train's speed is an octave higher, and it's a blur of green and brown and white right up against the window, and far behind that stands an inviolable hillside—like in one of those late medieval paintings, where you have a glimpse of landscape perfectly in focus, through the fenestration of the castle chamber wall, which is behind the girl who looks like a discarded figurine, the weird way her neck is bent as she looks at her baby, who looks older than she -does.
The little glimpses of nausea had different hues as the days went by, like there was some pure form of ultimate nausea that the body refracted, prismlike, and ordered the colors on a temporal palette; or, palimpsest-like, continually erased and re-erased the current state to reveal another that had always been behind it. The whole spectacle inevitably culminated in a kind of final chorus: a mysterious throbbing pain, as if the body required one last push to purge its cells of the poison, a dark pain that began in the lower back and radiated in crippling pulses up the spine and out. (The disease itself being a pebble thrown in water, a friend who knows told me: the rippled rings radiate out, not in.) And after that, I would feel quite normal; this usually occurred a day or two before the next chemo, chemo number x plus one. Or 12 - (x + 1), as I tended to think of the next one, counting backward, or calculating the percentage, or ratio: one out of twelve, two out of twelve; or two down, ten to go; three down, nine to go; four to eight; five to seven—kind of like the way they express Supreme Court decisions except there'd be twelve justices instead of however many there actually are, a figure that eleven out of twelve Americans, I'm sure, don't -know.
Before I started chemo, I went on medical leave from the university where I teach as a fellowship graduate student in music (composition of music, to be precise). I didn't know if I'd be able to teach; I didn't know whether I would "breeze through," like the high-powered lawyer the nurses always talked about who never missed a day of work; or whether I'd be more like a guy I spoke to, a writer and professor, who vomited constantly for six months. As it turned out, my case was far closer to the former than the latter; I never threw up, not once, and in retrospect I certainly could have taught that semester. ( Not the following one, however.) But counting down the days and observing the body became, temporarily, a full-time vocation. I wanted to perfect the art of being a patient, I read books, took a Kundalini class—a type of yoga centered on breathing, with a heavy meditation component—and practiced, practiced, practiced imagery techniques, relaxation. I even bought some green tea and drank a box of that; I couldn't stand the taste but I kept thinking of an interview with the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch I had read in the Sunday Times magazine, I think, and he was drinking green tea so that helped—nobody's cooler than Jim Jarmusch. The deep breath of the day: the day inhales in the morning and exhales in the evening. Meanwhile I wasn't really feeling too bad: I wasn't losing any hair, I kept wondering if any of this was really working. They kept saying don't worry—it's cumulative, it adds up. But I felt pretty -good.
And then, from this point of serenity, of composure, I lost a little bit of my mind, as the series of chemo treatments tipped forward, tipping me forward—oddly enough, right at the pyramidical, diamondsharp point of the Golden -Ratio.
"What's the Golden Ratio?" you might well ask. Easy to explain. Now so the thing that studying music does for someone, I think, is it gives them a real acute sensitivity to form. At least that's what it did for me. A sensitivity to where one is in relation to a frame, which could be a physical surrounding, like where you're sitting in a Starbucks, the heat of the wall next to you as opposed to the cool open space to your right. Manhattan, being an island, is a perfect arena for such unconscious observations, like the rocky ins and outs of the Peloponnese were for the Ancient Greeks. (The Persians, like us midwesterners, were stuck with plains.) The hospital I went to, for example, is on the Upper East Side, on Sixty-Eighth Street, and its location first of all is marked by the proximity of the East River, which, even if not seen, is felt in the air—there's usually a breeze—and by the sense of a border: the city tipping into the water like it's on a slope, as if the relative lack of buildings there demonstrates it's a little dangerous to build them, like in Malibu. Often there's direct sunlight, unlike in midtown proper, where the light is so often that peculiar greenish blue because it's mainly reflected off the glass of skyscrapers. (That fact also accounts for the light's seeming polydirectionality: it's always coming from multiple sources, which creates a kind of otherworldly aura or glow.) The high-rises around the hospital are dated: they were built in the 1960s, most of them, and have corner balconies: they're built out of white brick, harkening back to the Onassian era of the Mediterranean. Less cabs, more trucks on First Avenue and York, pushing the city toward its limits and pointing beyond them. Same for the 59th Street Bridge, the least elegant, most aggressively, heavily industrial of our bridges ("our" bridges: for to live in New York, like living in any great city, is to possess it): not a joiner, but an exit. There are vacant lots, rare for Manhattan, and smokestacks, iron. You get the sense that you're at the edge of the city. These types of observations can apply not only to space but to time: you can be on the edge of a day. This all might sound stupid, or obvious, but I notice it uncannily sometimes and I think, again, it comes from studying music, the way in Debussy (just to pick one) the music can be wandering along for a while and you find yourself drifting, the mind is drifting, you're almost not aware of hearing anything, perhaps you've even forgotten you were listening to music in the first place, and then all of a sudden the music does something: it asserts its presence and opens up to take you in and it feels like the pilot has moved the throttle and you feel motion again and the plane's going down now, you're definitely going down, and the sun is going down and now you can make out the Empire State Building and it's casting a little shadow like the little plastic model it must have been once, in New York, and later must have been again, in Hollywood, and unceremoniously (not!) you're back in the country you were born in and you remember the odors and the way diner coffee tastes and splashes and the color of the linoleum on the floor of the bathroom you had when you were four, and you're coming down and the plane is coming down and the century is coming down and the millennium is coming down and New York is coming down, like Paris came down and Vienna came down and Persepolis came down except the difference is that for New York you're there to witness it, and that's the arrogance and the humility of the living. And you are in this plane and you are in this life, and life will end like this plane trip will end and life will show you a little pale orange Empire State Building casting a long shadow like this plane is showing you as it -lands.
So the Golden Ratio—that's the point in Debussy where you get that tipping feeling. A length, whether in space or in time (here, obviously, we mean time), is divided in two: the proportion of the smaller to the longer segment is the same as the relation of the longer segment to the whole. Algebraically the situation is -expressed
(a + b) / a = a/b
If you've studied math you can easily solve this equation. (I guess.) It's an irrational number:
(1 + √5) / 2
which is pretty close to 1.618, but it's irrational so the actual number would go on and on to infinity, just as irrational people -do.
Artists, sculptors, composers, architects have intuitively hit on this proportion for centuries. No one really knows why the relationship is so powerfully pleasing aesthetically, but it seems to transcend cultures, media, ages. It's embedded in the Egyptian pyramids, in Japanese woodcuts, in the Acropolis in Athens, in Islamic mosques, in paintings by Leonardo, who called it the divina proportione, the divine -proportion.
Let's say, for example—and this is what happened to me, this was how I found out—you feel a pulled muscle in your neck after lifting weights like a good young man of Midwestern stock does, and you ignore it and then you notice it again a few weeks later and you go to a doctor who tells you it's a virus and it's sure to go away, but for some reason you have a nagging feeling about it so you go see another guy who pushes a needle into your neck and tells you it's probably just a virus but it could be a tumor but even if it is, it's probably benign, and then he goes to Barbados for a week and comes back and says, tanner, that it is in fact a tumor and it is in fact malignant, and then you go see a third doctor, but the first doctor with a mustache (for that matter, a mustache and a bow tie, as if his office were in a building of cast iron and glass, with a skylight in the ceiling and a fountain at the bottom, as if he would sing with his friends in a tavern after work), and he says you should do chemotherapy twelve times at two-week intervals. The Golden Ratio would apply -thusly:
1/1.618 = x/12 x ≈ -7.42
Just about where it happened, just about where it tipped: the weight seems to pile up behind you like a shadow lengthening millimeter by millimeter, until it alights upon an invisible point and the scale moves level—the peak of the roller coaster: where you are, compared to where you're going, equals what you have left, compared to how much you've done. Does that make sense? For some reason it reminds me of that great scene in Steven Spielberg's masterpiece of Jewish mysticism, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones, in Cairo and in keffiyeh—Han Solo playing T. F. Lawrence—is standing in the secret "map room" the Nazis have discovered. It's a room with a perfectly scaled three-dimensional model of ancient Cairo, very much like the three-dimensional model of Lower Manhattan I saw at Ground Zero, after September 11, showcasing the work of another Jewish mystic, Daniel Libeskind (MA, University of Essex). Professor Jones (PhD, University of Chicago) has already explained to two government Nazi-hunters (one fat, the other thin) that the map room will divulge the hiding place of Moses's tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. If a prismatic medallion is stuck on the end of a staff and then fitted into a hole in the floor, a beam of sunlight, entering the chamber through a single fenestration, drawing its spotlight slowly along the room, will at a certain moment pass through the prism, focusing the sun's rays, with a baleful intensity, into a kind of laser beam that points to the hiding place of Moses's tablets. (Did Osama bin Laden, a man without a degree, have a model of my city in an underground map room?)
I had been such a model patient up until that night, the night of the Golden Ratio, and stepping out from the hospital into the river's breeze on York Avenue, I suddenly realized I was Indiana Jones disguised as an Arab, and it was time to tear off the keffiyeh (what is ethnicity, anyway, besides a keffiyeh?), throw it to the ground, and go find the Ark of the Covenant. The shadow cast by the toxicity of the chemo had reached the right length: the steroids were burning through the prism, creating a laser beam. I set out on foot, fast. No question of going home, downtown, by subway: no possibility of grabbing a cab: what was of utmost importance at this moment was the traction of concrete against my shoes, the physical movement of my deteriorating body, the aging fighter, the right hook of the disease and the left hook of treatment. What if Harrison Ford had played Jake LaMotta? George Lucas wanted somebody else for Indiana Jones: he didn't want Harrison to be seen as his "De Niro." It was late, and the sky seemed blacker and the lights of the buildings and the cars seemed brighter than normal. I recalled reading somewhere on one of those orange pamphlets that one of the side effects of one of the drugs was "changes in vision." Everything seemed slightly crushed in, like I was viewing things through a narrow-angled lens. The city took on the magical aspect of a miniature model—tiny points of light applied with the skill and patience of some anonymous Persian artisan. New York, which I usually felt as a massive, comforting presence around me, had tightened into the knot of a Mediterranean city. The neighborhoods were flashing by: the east sixties, now the desolate east fifties, now the skyscrapers of east midtown and now—for those of you on the left side of the cabin—the sharply soft green jewel of the United Nations building, so lonely and lovely alone against the raging sea of the East River, like helpless Andromeda, ready to be sacrificed to the sea monster, chained to the rock, the Vermont marble, a rectangle of divine proportions, Stanley Kubrick's lunar monolith patiently housing the Ark of the -Covenant.
And then I was in the east twenties and I went into a bar and downed a martini. That's what we do, I remember thinking: we break things up and shatter them so we can put them back together, otherwise what would we do? Because we need something to do. And the pieces don't quite fit back together, forming something new and that's called growth, like the same furniture in a new apartment. The glass of the fourth martini was a glinting lens, through which I could see for the first time what I had in fact been feeling, which might be described as terror. But terror now was the image of a frozen explosion that could no longer cause harm and was therefore safe to view, to touch even, like a child's finger against the surprisingly velvety skin of an Egyptian cobra, safely held by its trainer; the child had been squealing in fear, partly real and partly feigned: a benefit performance for her young parents, and now the child is silent, utterly absorbed, tracing patterns on the snake-scales, gauging the differences in -skin.
Children have these famously brief attention spans. I left the bar. It was chilly now. I walked through Union Square, empty, through ghosts. I was walking down the same street a relative of mine, Will Cody, had rode down on a white horse on September 4, 1884. It was a lavish parade welcoming his circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, to New York. Triumphant arches spanned the street, strewn with ribbons. Marksmen on horses; wagon trains; white scouts; Pawnee actors. The whole city watched, wearing top hats and mustaches. A five-year-old building—Madison Square Garden—housed the circus. Will would make a thrilling entrance onstage, on horseback. The spectacle ended with the destruction of an entire mining colony by a cyclone, like the one in The Wizard of Oz. Incredible special effects for the time: a tunnel was drilled under the Garden, through city blocks, to a state-of-the-art mechanical ventilator. When the tornado hit, the ventilator was switched on, spewing specially assembled dry leaves and newspapers into the Garden, spilling into the first few front rows of thrilled spectators. The only member of my family I knew who remembered Will was my Aunt Edna: she had sat on his lap when she was six or seven. We all know ghosts, it's the sensation when one revisits a place one hasn't visited in a long time: my grandparents' home, a playground, a movie theater that's been converted into a restaurant. I walked past the apartment of a woman I had slept with, once, shortly after I'd moved to New York. That hadn't been that long ago. But it seemed closer to the time of Will's triumphant night. Again, the diseased are highly suspicious animals. Why was the recent past so telescoped? Because, perhaps, I was ready to die? Fight the telescoping, I told myself. Bring that night with the girl back, close. Put it closer, make it yesterday. Connect it to this moment with a hydraulic wind tunnel: let it be a bridge, not an exit: let the dry leaves and newspapers simulate the destruction of a model mining -colony.
I entered my neighborhood bar. It was hot inside, moist from the kitchen and from the proximity of so many people, most of whom I know. I had been a frequent habitué; I would stop by almost every evening for a beer or two, as would many in the neighborhood. A cross section of my neighborhood, TriBeCa: older artists who'd never really made it as big as their old friends who now lived in Rome or South Africa or who had died, and had paintings at the Whitney or the Met. But these guys were doing fine, they'd bought lofts for no money at all in the early 1970s and were millionaires, at least on paper. I sat down next to a friend of mine, an employee of Con Edison, a big man, tattooed, military haircut, whose machismo was tempered by his choice of drink, a tiny glass of Dewer's and soda with a cherry. He was a devoted father of two daughters, unhappily married, who was having an affair with a bright young waitress from somewhere in Ontario, who herself was living with a high-level cocaine dealer in a luxury three—bedroom apartment on Greenwich Avenue. He dealt to the movie stars and famous musicians and sons of presidents who lived in the area, and whom we rarely saw. I was in his apartment once, when I was sleeping with the waitress's best friend. The place was spotless, and, yes, there were sugar bowls with the finest stuff I'd ever had; a luxury condo with luxury -cocaine.
Our local homeless schizophrenic sat down at the bar next to me; he's a jazz aficionado who had tried, one night, to convince me that Thelonious Monk was still alive, that he'd just seen him play the night before, uptown: or rather, he didn't play. The trio—bass, drums, guitar—played a piece as a warmup and then, to applause, Monk made his thrilling entrance, as if on horseback. He sat down in front of the piano and raised his hands straight up into the air. "Like yoga!" my friend said. "Fucking nigger's doing yoga!" Monk lowered his hands toward the keyboard, a descent stretched over fifteen silent minutes, the audience rapt. His fingers, those incredible hands from which had emanated a chapter of music history, a millimeter above the keys. Then in an instant they rose slightly, slammed the lid over the keyboard with a brittle clash, and he ran offstage. The trio paused, then started another number. Monk never -returned.
And here comes into the bar the restaurant crowd from the swanky establishments in the neighborhood, among the finest in the city, in their black suits, Americans, Italians, Frenchmen. Sous-chefs, managers, sommeliers, maitre d's, line cooks. All were surprised to see me. They were delighted. All of these restaurant guys were late-nighters, inveterate cokeheads. The familiar signal, no words. Not even a gesture. A look. Because the instant they discover you're an aficionado, you've gained membership in a private club, a secret society, and at the beginning the initiation fees are waived, such is the delight the senior members share at recruiting a young pledge. The meetings are held in bathrooms of bars and clubs throughout the city, and usually one must wait and listen to an entirely uninteresting monologue by the friend while he goes through the ritual of carefully (or not so carefully, depending on the level of intoxication) dumping the white powder on the shelf in front of the bathroom mirror, crushing the clumps with the pressure of a MetroCard, the old ridged wood serving as the mortar, the flimsy yellow plastic the pestle. We grind away, in titillating anticipation. Oddly, and disappointingly, these monologues often focus on politics: another tirade against the Bush doctrine, a new senator's tribulations in Albany, the pros and cons of a female in the White House, the virtues of a presidential candidate and whether he's black or white. Depending on time—there's always the added excitement of paranoia, waiting for a knock at the door—the instrument of inhalation might be the classic, tightly rolled twenty-dollar bill. Senior members of the club might carry a short, thick plastic straw with a diagonally shorn end like the forty-five-degree angle at the top of Citicorp Center on Fifty-Third and Lexington. If time is pressing, the end of a house key transports the clump of powder to the nostril. The bathroom setting adds a nice tawdriness to the atmosphere of self-congratulation, and if it's a coed meeting, a celebratory erotic interlude is usually a foregone conclusion. The slight surge of adrenaline hits in about twenty seconds and if the powder has any degree of purity at all—which is not always the case—the clean, white thrust of pleasure is comparable to mountain air, the Rockies or even the Italian Alps. (I've never been to Nepal. Had plans to go, once.)
I felt the drug relax into the bloodstream and that little tightening up and opening at the same time, and life's pressures at last presented themselves individually, conscripted, with perfect upbringing before retiring with a bow. I thought of an old movie where the passage of time was conveyed by the pages of a daily calendar being manually pulled away. After the amount of poison I'd dumped into my body for the last few weeks, what on earth could be harmed by a half a gram of cocaine? And now it was the blissful refuge of a sudden rainstorm in the city, wherein everyone pretends to be inconvenienced, but they're secretly relieved: they're all on the phone, they look out through the office window, at the clouds, probably at about the same moment, probably looking at the same building with the diagonally shorn top. Beautiful dark blue, dark grey. Cocaine's quiet, smug euphoria. The light that brings out the truly urban hues. For the moment—demand -nothing.
because you hate the disease, you hate yourself for having the disease. You don't want to die: it's the opposite of suicidal; the source of the rage and shame is in the will to live itself. You want to annihilate your diseased self in some kind of life-affirming self-immolation. You don't want to be the sick one. The diseased are repulsive; you sequester yourself as the sick were sequestered in a medieval city. But it's not suicidal. My college roommate was suicidal. He was profoundly sad; he had lost his mother at seven and never fully recovered from this. He was one of the most intelligent people I'd ever known but more than this he was curious. He was conservative, a fan of William F. Buckley and a Reaganite, but was never judgmental. When I say "sad," such a banal word, I think it really is perhaps the best one, better than despairing or melancholic; he was always in good humor, always wry. I had just flown back from Paris—I'd been listening to Debussy on the plane, had a layover in New York, the plane tipped, and we descended, and the sun was going down, and the Empire State Building looked orange and it cast a little shadow as we came down, then we went up again and I landed in Chicago—and the front door to the tiny old farmhouse we rented in Evanston was open in spite of the cold. The television in the living room was on, and there were two empty bottles of scotch on the floor, one standing, the other on its side. I remember wondering when it had stopped rolling. My landlord was standing there, with a bunch of policemen. "So you've heard?" he said. "I can see, the way your face looks." He'd figured I'd heard, I realized later, not because of my face, but because it was all over local TV. My roommate had finished up the two bottles of scotch sometime the previous night, left the house, and ran down Sheridan Road to the cemetery. He found a gravestone large enough to serve as a bed—a sarcophagus, really—and he took off his clothes and lay on it. His family was still trying to fly out of Denver so I had to identify the body at the morgue. It was the first time I'd seen a corpse. My roommate was somewhat disfigured by the frozen tissue but perfectly recognizable, and what was strange was not so much the traces of life in the corpse, but, retrospectively, how the traces of death, so definitive now, had been latent in the living -self.
i said good-bye to everyone and left the bar and the street was cold now. Her first words—which I heard before I saw her—were (and I'm not making this up), "Hey, handsome—which way is Canal Street?"
Really? Was I still handsome? I mean if I ever was? I had just heard myself say, "Hey, beautiful. Right over there." Was she beautiful? Too dark to tell. Plus she was bundled up, a hat, a short black winter coat, a scarf around her head like a keffiyeh. She was Asian, she had a light accent: Japanese, maybe. She was small, smiling, her eyes were direct enough that her glancing around at things didn't spell nervousness, just curiosity. (As you might tell, this is perhaps the trait I value most in people.) She was looking for a bar on Canal Street, she said, to meet a friend; she wanted a drink: she hadn't had a drink all night. She'd been dancing with some other friends and had lost track of time. I've never known the thrill of closing a deal for a lot of money like my friends in finance, and I've never had the institutionally certified thrill of, say, getting into a really good law school or getting that government appointment, but this is a thrill that I know. I doubted, I told her, that her bar would still be open, since it was a few minutes after four. "You're probably right," she said. For a moment, we stood there like two schoolchildren on an empty playground. "I could use one drink, just a beer, maybe," she mused. "Is there a deli around here?"
There was, and I offered to walk her there and we smoked a cigarette together. On the way, we talked a little. I told her I was a composer and I was in the process of finishing graduate school. She was originally from Seoul and had gone to culinary school in the States and was working as a sous-chef at a restaurant in midtown. We stopped at the deli and she laughed. "I don't really want a drink anymore. But you were nice to walk me here. Let's have another cigarette and I'll walk you home." I had told her at some point that I lived in the neighborhood. We crossed lower Broadway, narrow and empty, and stood under the awning of my apartment building, a recently built, cheaply built high-rise. "It was nice to meet you," she said and smiled, and in mock courtesy I shook the slender, cool hand she had so generously ungloved, and I said I agreed it had been nice to meet. I asked her if she needed a -cab.
She didn't move closer but her voice did. She admitted that what she was about to ask was going to seem absurd, and she couldn't quite believe she was going to actually ask it; she was afraid I would think her crazy, or drunk, but she wasn't. She was wondering whether I'd like to have sex with her. She said that we seemed attracted to each other, and she had a maddening desire to have sex, right now; we could just go up to your apartment, she said, and she promised that she would leave right afterward, and that we didn't even have to exchange names. "I promise you, it'll be really nice," she -smiled.
"Sure, fine," I said, "I'd be delighted." I wasn't fucked up enough to not wonder if she was schizophrenic, or a prostitute, but I was fucked up enough to figure maybe the best way to answer that question was to take her upstairs. Plus I felt like I had gotten to know her fairly well over the last ten minutes, she was a good conversationalist and seemed like a nice, honest -person.
We walked into my apartment and I closed the door, and it clicked behind us with a funny sound. I was suddenly self-conscious; but of course when you bring somebody over for the first time, whether a lover or a potential lover or even (or especially) just a friend, you tend to look at your own habitat through the lens of the guest's eyes. Nowhere more so, perhaps, than in New York, where one's apartment is one of the few distinguishing signals of status, where everyone is overeducated and overpaid and broke at the same time, and everyone wears basically the same clothes and has a book deal about to go through. People look at their apartments here the way people in Los Angeles look at their, and each others', cars. Of course opinions can vary widely, apartments being more complex organisms than cars, which can be translated into their cash equivalents with a simple equation, rather than a pretty complex algorithm. I remember my friend Adriane, a childlike actress, remarking, "This is what I always imagined as a grown-up's New York apartment." But an ex-girlfriend, a manicured New Jersey Italian blonde, nouveau riche, as she freely would confess, peered around with narrowed eyes as if she'd just gotten off a small plane in the middle of Africa: "Well two things are for sure, you are single, and you're not gay."
We stood there, America and Korea, facing each other, like in High Noon. "Take off your clothes," she ordered. At first I thought she was kidding—a little ironic jest to dispel the awkwardness everybody feels when they're about to fuck someone they've known for ten minutes. But she was serious. "No, I'm serious," she said. "Take off your clothes."
I was a little irritated. "Why don't you take off your clothes?" Ever think of that? How do you like it -now?
"Okay," she conceded. "Why don't we both take off our clothes. One article at a time."
"Sure," I said. I took off my shirt. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and pulled her shirt up over her head, and froze there for a moment, her arms stretched up to the stars, her head wrapped in cloth: Andromeda against the rock, waiting for her sea monster: a statue of Andromeda carved out of green marble. How the Greeks could sculpt fabric! Then with
a flourish, applauding the virtuosity of her body, the shirt crumpled and, released into the air, unfolded with a sigh and she looked at me modestly, amused. She was in fact beautiful. She came over and knelt before me and gently tugged down my boxers and took me in her mouth. "This is nice!" She smiled. "Half is already enough." But somehow it wasn't -ridiculous.
I picked her up and carried her over to the bed, but she was aghast that I could even conceive of having intercourse without a shower first. "I have, on occasion, had sex without taking a shower immediately before," I told -her.
"Europeans," she muttered, incredulous. I knew intuitively that with this epithet she was casting all non-Asians, and perhaps anyone outside of the Korean Peninsula, in the same lot, just as a Cameroonian I knew in Paris told me the word for "white folk" in one of his languages applied equally to a Pakistani as to a -Finn.
The water was scalding hot; I protested and she mocked me, saying I didn't even know how to bathe. "What's this?" She had found the hard round silicone disc of the catheter that had been surgically implanted, so shallow, in my chest. "Oh, that's nothing. I'm taking medicine through that, at the hospital. It puts the medicine right into the jugular vein, so it's very clever."
"What is it—what do you have that's wrong?"
"It's no big deal," I -said.
"That's good. What is it, though?"
I told her. She cried. Like anyone from the Midwest, I get alarmed when I have a life-threatening disease and I tell someone and they cry. "You don't have to cry," I said, but she stood there frozen, abandoning her choreography, just enduring the scalding water against her cheek. The water mingled with her tears: very New Asian cinema. That long black hair, plastered against her marble back, matted. I held her, felt her skeleton under her perfect skin and I felt like I was, yes, holding a -bird.
"I'm sorry," she said; she embraced me, pressed her perfect body against mine. I kissed her, for the first time—I'd been trying to kiss her the whole time, but for some reason she refused. I'd been wondering about this. I'd had a girlfriend in high school who loved to have sex without kissing. One night we had sex like this, outside, in a park (in Milwaukee), under a structure that was briefly the tallest free-standing tower in the world. (I'm not kidding! Milwaukee also boasts the world's largest four-faced clock; the tower looms over a landscape of factories and marks the division between the city's north and south sides.) But it turned out that the Korean girl's reluctance wasn't a fetish, she was missing an eyetooth: I'd caught her between dentist appointments, between the extraction and the replacement. She was self-conscious about it. I held her tight. What could be more endearingly apocalyptic? Two war-torn bodies silhouetted against -fire.
With an elegant foot she kicked the faucet's wand and the water was icy. I jumped, and she twirled us around twice, then shut off the water while grabbing the four towels she had artfully placed just outside the shower curtain and we were shrouded in the warmth of the fabric and of our bodies. "See how nice it is?" she -said.
She was right—it really was nice. I gave in. Europeans are barbarians. She seemed to accept my apology. "Now we can have sex!" she exclaimed, with peninsular, wet-rice glee. She raced across the apartment, stopped short, turned on a dime (a small, gleaming silver Mercury, not our mundane, cupronickel FDR), flashed me a glance from under a lightly etched eyebrow, and then leapt and dove into the tangled sheets on the bed like a beautiful, bright-green fly. And then it was a series of tasks, of little adventures. First we tried to scale a sheer wall; then we were flying over a miniature city, on a carpet in the air; then we dove down alongside the city's wall and all at once we were swimming together; then we were testing how long we could float on the surface, without moving; then we sank to the bottom and leapt in the underwater leaps so familiar from dreams, judging our buoyancy. Note to reader: when I was describing the proportion of the Golden Ratio I wasn't really thinking of chemo number seven, or Debussy, or the Parthenon: I was thinking of a woman's body and of her body, which was pure and ancient, and of which no part was not a beautiful surface, akin to a piece of music in which there is not a single moment that is not beautiful. That's a consistency one doesn't find too often. Or at least we don't, maybe, in the West; our music, around the time of the Renaissance, uniquely divorced itself from religion and as a consequence had to replace sustained ecstasy with dynamic contrast, meaning that beauty had to be held up against something at least slightly different in order to cue the audience, as if to say, this is beauty. And this situation—somebody onstage suddenly, apostrophically, pointing to "beauty" with a Godlike, outstretched arm, while staring directly at the naked couple (save for fig leaves) in the front row, breaking the fourth wall—this is what we mean by "drama." The anonymous seventh-century craftsmen of the sustained ecstasy of Gregorian chant wouldn't have understood any of this stuff, the creases and folds and spasms. But even nowadays you come across traces of it sometimes, that older aesthetic. Mozart, sometimes, maybe. Her body was stretched out like a tightrope strung between two towers. Of course it's entirely subjective. But then again when enough people find it in a piece by, say, Mozart, then pretty soon you're dealing with a canonized artist who is different from the real human being and then cultural critics—well, you know the rest, obviously there's no need to go on about it -now.
Our fucking that night—there was obviously a ritualistic quality to it, but not in our usual sense of the word, which is a pejorative sense, artificiality, mannerisms, as when Anglo-Saxons loutishly deride the French as the "most ritualistic" of European cultures because of French table manners and the French fondness for Angkor Wat and Ancient Egypt. There's a difference between that sense of "ritualistic" and the kind of wholesale devotion to, and fervent absorption in, a certain praxis that this woman exhibited while we fucked. I hope I did too. I certainly tried. I detest the phrase "good lover" or "great lover"—"she was a marvelous lover" or "he was magnificent in bed" or "he's great in the sack"—honestly I've never even known what that means. If you love someone then you make love with them. And then being a "good lover" is like being a "good breather." But having said that, there was the sense of engaging in an experiment together, a game on which our minds and bodies were focused in synchrony, which was very conscious and very purposeful—she would talk about things—and at the same time utterly unself—conscious.
The sky was light and I was exhausted, I fell asleep and she continued quietly to do things for a while and then I fell into a deep sleep for the first time in several weeks. Some time went by. I opened my eyes at one point and noticed that she had tidied up the apartment. Moved some things around, stacked papers into neat piles, that kind of thing. "I couldn't sleep," she said. Come back to bed, I said. "Really?" she asked. Of course, I said, and she moved over and I grabbed her legs and threw her over me, over a precipice, she fell like Fay Wray falling out of the pterodactyl's winged fingers down the sheer cliff, plunging down and resurfacing with the glimpse of a bare breast. (That was 1933!) And then I asked her what her name was. "You really want to know?" Of course I did. She told me. I couldn't quite understand it, but it sounded something like Ilene, so that's how I put it in my cell phone, the cell phone that quit for good later that afternoon, ushering her, as far as I was concerned, into oblivion—there was, come to think of it, something ghostly about the whole encounter, the way she sort of materialized, like the way a girl did in a Japanese film I saw once, a black-and-white film: she floated out of mist. Or was it smoke? In black and white, mist and smoke are extraordinarily similar things; Orson Welles said the most beautiful thing in the world to film is -smoke.
I'd already had a crush on my chemo nurse, a lovely, bohemian Brooklynite named (of course) Felicity, a freckled strawberry blonde with brilliant green eyes, and in typical form she had returned my affection by betraying me. Around chemo number four, I think, she'd married the father of her child, her long-term boyfriend who was incidentally (salt into the wound) the son of a prominent jazz musician. The encounter with Ilene, or whatever her name was, made the next session somewhat easier. Felicity was happy that I seemed cheerier; she wondered, I could tell, what was going on. "Still no nausea, no vomiting, no tingling in the hands and feet?" This was a rote question but there was a different inflection behind it. None of that, I told her: not even the loss of a single hair. She looked quizzical: eyes narrowed, angled, the hint of a -smile.
I said, "I feel, really, pretty good—are you sure this stuff is working?"
"Oh, it's working," and now she smiled broadly, and she was wrong.
I The Divine Proportion 1
II Act II 36
III The Slave Market 65
IV The Catalogue Aria 77
V Sister Morphine 105
VI Was Picasso Smart? 136
VII A Series of Vignettes, Which Turn to Melodrama 181
VIII Gutenberg's Folly 315
IX The Age of Innocence 348
X Canal Street 257
5 Questions for Joshua Cody
[sic], with its facsimile pages of your personal journals and highlighted passages, is as visually arresting as the writing is intellectually stimulating. How do you think these visual elements impact the readers' experience of the story you're telling?
As much as I admire Sebald I hesitated before the images thing because I was afraid I was using them as a crutch to bridge the scary gap between my past in music and the plastic arts and my uncertain present in literature. Added to this were the concerns of my editor at Norton, Jill Bialosky, who, very rightly, didn't want an 'art book;' and she once said that she didn't want the images to distract the reader, that she didn't want the images to reduce the power of the words. (Which in a sense was flattering, maybe!) Of course words always fear images. This isn't new, and it didn't start with MTV, or the movies; it's the whole controversy surrounding iconography: the Christians and the Muslims were very well aware of the visual's ineluctable modality, its attendant encroachments.
Apart from the moral/aesthetic question was a practical one. Placing images in a book saddles the design team, already overworked, with more duties; incurs additional cost in terms of licensing and reproduction fees; and labor in terms of simply trying to procure the rights in the first place, figuring out who holds them, etc. That last is a very tedious process that I didn't enjoy at all; it's like trying to license music rights for a film. It really stressed me out.
In spite of all these arguments against the inclusion of the images, in the end I kept them (or at least the ones I could license): I think they are a crutch in a way, but, after all, sometimes one needs crutches. I guess one reason that they might work in this particular instance is that the pictures form a continuum between image and text - i.e. paintings and photos on the one hand, facsimiles of journal entries on the other. I'm not sure if it's a linear continuum or not, but my hope was that the continuum would extend to the typography itself. The book began as a handwritten journal and was never intended to be published. I never intended to write a book at all. I found the act of handwriting soothing when I was in the hospital - it might have been as simple a matter as that. Nabokov said that literature is primarily a visual medium, and Raymond Durgnat, one of my favorite critics, said that film is not primarily a visual medium.
But anyway I sure am glad you find the book "visually arresting" and "intellectually stimulating!" Thank you!
In his praise of [sic], Nick Flynn, author of The Ticking Is the Bomb, proclaimed, "Welcome to the new face of the memoir." What aspects of your memoir do you consider to be the most revolutionary?
I know Mr. Flynn said that, and it sure was nice of him. I have no idea what he meant! I thought his was the new face of memoir.
The only thing I can possibly think of is that the book is not written by a professionally trained author - I mean I know that as a fact, but I have a feeling that the text will read as such. I might be a trespasser, coming upon this territory accidentally, as unintentional as Columbus happening upon the eastern shores of Asia (I am a Columbia alum, very proud to say it, always very proud to say it [as a pre-Columbian I was a Northwesterner], and there exists a Columbus in Wisconsin), as singular as Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (not that I'm comparing my book to Night of the Hunter!). The peculiar narrative voice employed in the book was less an artistic choice, more the result of need: on one level, I had to create a fictitious narrator to form the necessary distance in order to recall traumatic events. So this is both like and unlike any literary enterprise. My next book is fiction, and it is paradoxically more autobiographical: in general, this is both usual and unusual.
On the first page of your memoir you state that someone who has not experienced cancer treatment cannot fully comprehend what it is like. Was it challenging for you to express what your body had gone through in a way that readers could empathize with?
I believe you're referring to the opening sentence:
Twelve sessions, one every two weeks; but you have no idea what this means, really, I mean how could you, and neither does anyone else, so everybody's at a loss for words; and it's ironically reminiscent of those lead-grey-laden, amaranthine after-school afternoons of childhood, on the dusty playground, class is out but it's still too early to go home, so you wait with the others, and there's no need to speak and there's the sense of communion.
But no, actually, I didn't intend the passage to suggest my experience was insurmountably subjective. I was merely trying to express the shock and feeling of alienation brought about by the cancer diagnosis (they're always so profoundly ill-timed) that, on the contrary, was sensed both by me and by those around me. The diagnosis might have been mine, but we were all in the same boat: hence the "sense of communion."
Matter fact, I'd go so far as to echo David Foster Wallace that the very impulse towards the artistic endeavor - otherwise an absurdly inefficient mode of communication - stems from a highly idealized faith in intersubjectivity. Or - maybe it's not idealized! Sometimes I suspect that the impenetrability of the existential self is itself an absurdly romantic notion, and perhaps the essence of romanticism: leveraging self-imputed suffering. (Of course I constantly invoke romanticism, and its cousin, decadent romanticism, in the book self-consciously, and slightly ironically, because of the themes of disease and love and sex which in themselves were inevitable concerns for someone in my situation.)
On the other hand, one of the big concerns I had with the book was my invocation of self-administered intoxication. What I tried to do was to compare the poison of, say, chemotherapy to the poison of drink or recreational drugs: medication versus self-medication. I therefore chose to frame certain personal activities and to exclude others, and since the book is only 266 pages long, the proportion between the pages that mention cocaine use, for instance, and the full 266 pages is much closer to 1 than that between the number of my days that have had anything to do with cocaine and the number of days I've spent on earth. What I was afraid of was in any way laying claim to true experiences of addiction. It's an easy metaphor and I still have qualms about using addiction, luxuriously, as a metaphor. The portrait I draw in the book of "Sophie" is based in part upon a real person whose own struggle with addiction I found inspiring, and I included her as a contrast to the narrator ("me").
I hope this isn't getting needlessly complicated. There's nothing in the book that isn't truthful.
You're a composer as well as a writer. How does writing a book differ from composing a musical score?
Music is the least referential artistic medium because its signs do not represent natural phenomena. Cases have been made for biomorphism, which is true enough (walking, dancing, breathing, orgasm), especially in romantic music, but it hardly accounts for (to pick only one parameter) structural harmony. Program music is proto-cinematic in that the score accompanies a narration but it cannot represent it in any meaningful way except superficially, like Vivaldi's Four Seasons where the violins chirp like birds or - to take a favorite example - Berlioz's guillotine in Symphonie Fantastique when the audience "hears" the slice of the blade and the head bouncing down the steps. Sound exists in nature, but music has little to do with sound. (At the risk of oversimplifying matters, this is where I might differ from the "spectral" composers, including one of my mentors, Tristan Murail.
The spectral composers look to natural acoustics as a fundament for musical grammar.) Because music is non-referential, it highlights form: it boasts a unique congruency between content and form, to rehash the weary dichotomy. The reflexive nature of its content is an aspect that has proved to fascinate many people, especially people that haven't studied music. Claude Lévi-Strauss remarks that music is pure form. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche admired music (although Nietzsche's music made Wagner fall on the floor in laughter). Very often when an artist in another medium is asked what other profession she would choose, the response is "musician." When someone says this - it happens all the time at the end of an episode of "Inside the Actors Studio," when James Lipton ritualistically inflicts upon his guest the Proust questionnaire, invoking the "great Bernard Pivot" - I always wonder what, exactly, is meant. Singer? Conductor? Composer? What kind of music? Pop music? Jazz? When I tell someone I'm a composer (which I rarely do) I'll often encounter a look of cloudy amazement. Learning to write music is as simple, and as boring, as anything else, but it's been mystified.
I guess writing a book must be the opposite to writing music in several ways. Prose might be the least mystified of the arts, in that it's a little tricky to precisely locate the role of craft. I think it was Louis Auchincloss who said that anyone can write at least one book. (Or was it Anthony Burgess? Not that I confuse them, it's just that I recently listened to interviews with them, back-to-back. Do you know the website Wiredforbooks.org? It's an archive of interviews with authors by a guy named Don Swaim, who broadcasted for CBS in New York. The interviews are unedited, and they're often hilarious, albeit unintentionally. Swaim has a great Midwestern radio voice that reminds me a bit of my father's, who also worked in broadcasting; but he has a type of aw-shucks naivete that is very dorky and awkward and funny and completely outdated.) Anyway the point is that in a literate society, everyone uses words to narrate events, and that's what a book is. So once literacy hit the scene, it was a much more natural act to tell a story with words than to write a violin concerto, or paint a figure, or produce a staged play, or even perhaps sing or dance, even though those forms obviously predate balladry. Also, literature seems to almost exactly invert music's relationship between representation and non-representation. Literature must make the same great effort to reach non-representation (Ashbery's poetry, for instance) that music must make to achieve representation (Berlioz), and both aims can never be fully achieved, due to the artifacts of words as referents on the one hand and of the elements of music as abstract on the other.
There seems to me to be an awful lot of room left in mapping the topography of the different arts in the first place. If drawn correctly, the boundaries sure wouldn't be as clean and square as the arts section of the New York Times might lead us to unconsciously imagine.
Writing the book came much more easily to me than writing music ever had, but I'm not sure whether that's because I personally have a more natural inclination for words or if it just illustrates some of the differences between the two media that I was describing above. Actually I suspect it's the former. Also, the book seems to be generating more public interest (such as it is) then my music ever did; this, again, may simply be a question of the enormous difference in numbers between the reading public and devotees of the kind of post-classical concert music I was writing. David Foster Wallace, in attempting to locate his own work on the continuum between popular and experimental writing, compared Infinite Jest to contemporary classical music, but he was incorrect.
On the other hand, I suppose I approached writing the book a little like I approached writing music. I had a distinct form in mind. There are changes in tempo and rhythm that probably were conceived "musically." The patterning of motives is a familiar technique in writing music. I don't know if any of that will be sensed by the reader, but such methods abetted the creative process, and anyway they were familiar to me. Who have you discovered lately?
Let's see, what have I been reading lately. My friend Barry introduced me to Gregor von Rezzori, and I've really been enjoying The Death of My Brother Abel. What an opening! Wow. Barry also gave me some Stanley Elkin, so I've been reading that too, I'd never read him before.
I've always got one of the Bolaños open somewhere. The apparent ease of his narratives has been helpful for the thing I'm writing right now.
Also there's this English writer named Shakespeare. He's very interesting.
(By the way, did you see Slate's thing on underrated writers? Funny. A lot of people sure hate Pound. That doesn't bode too well for my book. People hate Pynchon, too. I have to admit, though, there I agree. But the point of the article, I think, is surprisingly refreshing for being so trite: that taste is entirely subjective and irrational. I like salt. I don't like sweets. Type of thing.)
Speaking of "type of thing," I think The Pale King is Wallace's best, and Michael Pietsch did a superb job. The form is superb.
Speaking of Wallace, I am also reading some books that I really should have read already, written by authors that are being very gracious about the thing that I wrote. I won't go into detail.
(Clears throat.) I'm also, yes, reading a couple of biographies: Wyndham-Lewis's fanciful biography of Louis XI, King Spider, Andrew Motion's bio of Philip Larkin; and a funny book on Auden and Chester Kallman written by Dorothy Farnan, a girl who ended up marrying Kallman's dad. Also a couple of non-fiction books: my Dutch friend Angele gave me Geert Mak's In Europe, which I'm enjoying, even though I've heard it's inaccurate and despised by historians; and David Browne's Fire and Rain is fun, too. My friend Uday lent me the Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor, and I can't quite believe I've been living all this time without it. (All this time? Hmm.) Cyril Connolly's journals - a fascinating thing, a writer who never actually wrote. In a great bookstore in Provincetown I happened upon the first edition of Maisie Ward's Return to Chesterton, described in the jacket copy as a "book for those who can never have enough of Chesterton." That's how the jacket copy begins. It ends thusly: "If you still doubt whether you really want this book, turn to page 214." This type of thing, my friends, is why I still haven't read Tolstoy
Posted February 28, 2012
The rambling stream of consciousness writing is not appreciated when the rambler has no sense of direction. He certainly conveys none to me. I found the book pompous in that he essentially thought he could put any words to paper and we would find them readable. If anything, his writing style puts off the reader instead of welcoming him in. Sorry about the illness and all, but it didn't suddenly give you a talent for writing.
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