The Outside Came Back In: Reading the Year


A Hand Reached Down Crop

1. A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me

I moved to New York City in 2005 to get a fiction MFA from The New School. The teacher I ended up working with most closely was David Gates. I took his seminar and his workshop, and then he advised my thesis. One night we were sitting in Cafe Loup going over some pages of mine he’d nearly obliterated with queries, corrections, and cuts. I felt comfortable enough with him at that point to challenge his edits and told him that the story had been workshopped the previous semester, and that not only had the class liked it, but the instructor himself had told me the thing was done, finished, ready to go out — all the stuff you want to hear. Gates took this in, thought about it for a second and replied, with genuine dismay in his voice: “He’s getting paid the same money as me and he told you that?”

Another time he brought a marked-up copy of his own work to class, to show us that he practiced what he preached. The story was called “Side Angle Side”: he’d published it in GQ in 2003. And this was not the manuscript version but the actual magazine pages — the published version — that had come under his editorial pen. They were not shallow cuts. He said the biggest problem he had now was that he’d cut the section of the story that the title had derived from, so it needed renaming. At the time he was considering “Peak Weekend,” but in the end he went with “Desecrators.” It’s in his new collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, a book that has been especially meaningful to me since I’ve been waiting for it — not quite knowing if or when it was coming — for about as long as I’ve known him.

Gates moved to Montana a few years ago. I moved to Portland, Oregon, this May. My then-fiancée (now wife, but more on that in a minute) got a job running a book festival here. We hadn’t planned to leave New York, but it was a good opportunity for both of us — for Amanda, the job, obviously; for me, more writing time, escape from the adjunct professor hamster wheel, etc. — so we decided to go. I thought of that Raymond Carver story, “Vitamins,” with that line in it, “Portland is a drawing card.”

The move was hard, at times harder than I ever guessed it could be, but worth it. I was about to say “in the end” but what I really mean is “so far.” Portland has been good to us and we are staying. Amanda’s book festival, Wordstock, took place November 7th. David Gates was one of the invited authors, so a few weeks before he came out here I emailed him to share what I called “a few buried ledes”: namely leaving New York, and that my new wife was the one who had invited him to the festival. We talked about some other former students of his who have ended up out here, and he said he was reminded of that line from the Carver story. This would have been a funny coincidence, except he’s the one who taught me that story, so really it was the opposite. Whatever is the opposite of a coincidence but that is also not “fate.” Life?

My third book, Flings, came out in 2014, and in the title story a bunch of characters move to Portland. They live about a mile from where I’m now living. They eat at some of the restaurants I now eat at. One quotes that Raymond Carver story. “Portland is a drawing card,” he thinks to himself. Almost as if he’d had David Gates for a teacher.

Gates’s collection came out in May, two weeks after I moved to Portland. My wife had been here since January while I stayed in New York, to finish the academic year and endure the coldest, loneliest winter I’ve ever known.

For among those winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.

That’s Rilke, from the Sonnets to Orpheus. (Part 2, Sonnet 13, in the Stephen Mitchell translation, even though Michael Robbins says Mitchell’s too hippie-dippy, at least compared to Edward Snow, and even though he’s probably right.) The cold alone — to say nothing of the separation from Amanda — should have been more than enough to prime me to leave the Northeast in the rearview mirror, but it’s hard to walk away from a place you’ve spent a decade, and a winterized heart, as I learned, is not necessarily going to thaw on command.

Portland: May. I bought Gates’s book the day it came out. I’d read about half the stories in journals and magazines but seeing them together — reading them in succession, the mix of second and first encounters, and all the thematic overlaps and reverberations — was a whole new thing. It was a treat to be back in Gates’s writerly company: his colloquial erudition, stop-short dialogue, incredible asides about music; the cavalcade of miserable people doing horrible things to each other and themselves. “Cuts to the bone” is not just an editorial practice but a state of mind.

There’s a story called “A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens,” which I’d first read in the Tin House 10th Anniversary issue, in 2009. Reading it again in the collection, I felt I’d hit something akin to a glitch in the matrix. It started to make me a little nuts.

This is from the book:

When they went through her father’s things, Lily took a white shirt with a Brooks Brothers label and his razor, with which she now shaves her legs. In the back of his closet, she found the framed photo of the Shelley Memorial at Oxford that used to hang above the desk in his study; when he got sober, he’d replaced it with a photo of their cottage in Dennis Port. (“What’s your favorite sport?” her father would ask them, turning his head to the backseat, and they would shout back, “Dennis Port!”) When she was little, she would go into the study to look at it: a statue of a beautiful naked drowned man lying on his side; you could sort of see his junk. Neither her mother nor Portia had wanted the thing, so Lily hung it over her nonworking fireplace in Brooklyn. Sometimes she thinks it’s bringing her bad luck. But didn’t she already have that?

I had distinctly remembered the framed picture as having been — in Tin House — a print of the Gustave Doré illustration of Satan from Paradise Lost, with a line from the poem as a caption. I could see the italics in my mind’s eye. Whatever it says about me, or my state of mind, I was bothered enough by the incongruity that I eventually made arrangements to visit the Tin House office — an actual tin house, on a sleepy street in Northwest Portland — and check the original.

This is from Tin House:

When they went through her father’s things, Lily took a white shirt with a Brooks Brothers label and his razor, with which she now shaves her legs. In the back of his closet, she found the Doré print that used to hang above the desk in his study; when he got sober, he’d replaced it with a photo of their cottage in Dennisport. (“What’s your favorite sport?” her father would ask them, turning his head to the backseat, and they would shout back, “Dennisport!”) When she was little, she would go into the study to look at it: a man with bat wings, clawing at his head with one hand; his chest seemed to have bosoms and he wore a skirt that came up above his knees. Underneath it was written, Me miserable! / Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair? Neither her mother nor Portia had wanted the thing, so Lily hung it over her non-working fireplace in Brooklyn Heights. Sometimes she thinks it’s bringing her bad luck. But didn’t she have bad luck before?

The smaller changes are themselves instructive: the dash in “nonworking” disappears, bringing it closer to alignment with the “fireplace” it describes. Dennisport expands to Dennis Port, which forces a heavier emphasis on the p in “Port,” and also happens to be correct — it’s a real place. Brooklyn Heights is now just Brooklyn. The final sentence has been altered so it ends on the flat cutting “that” rather than the open, contemplative “before.” The original title, it turns out, was simply “Where Nothing Ever Happens.” “A Place” was added later, I assume to bring out the lyricism of the lyric (from the Talking Heads) and perhaps to heighten the absence of the part of the line that still remains unquoted: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The boredom of Heaven suggesting, naturally, the allure of Hell, which resonates with the protagonist Lily’s penchant for bad choices freely chosen, hence the presence of the Miltonic Satan, and the irony of the framed Doré print. Why give all that up?

The answer, I suspect, is to be found in “Desecrators,” the story I was talking about earlier, now included in A Hand Reached Down. It had stood in my mind for ten years as a model of best editorial practice, but I’d only ever glimpsed the pages that one time they were passed around in class. So I read it. If there were missing pieces I couldn’t find them. The story felt complete in its pared-down form, which of course had been Gates’s point. (Oh, and Cafe Loup has a cameo.) One thing that’s still in “Desecrators” is Milton — a magazine editor named Cal uses a Milton conference at Princeton as pretext for an adulterous weekend getaway with one of his writers. The reference is neither as weighty nor as involved as what appeared in the original “Where Nothing Ever Happens,” but it’s enough that you’d notice it popping up twice in thirty-odd pages.

So Gates has to call an audible. He knows that whatever he puts in place of Satan has to still be Satanically self-determined in its bent toward destruction, it has to be plausible as a touchstone for Lily’s father to have had, and it has to connect up with an ending — already in place, and too perfect to revise — wherein Lily, fed up with herself as much as the ghosts who haunt her, plunges into a dark lake, described in both versions of the story as follows: “It’s as close to flying as we get in this world: breast-stroking through this uncanny element midway between earth and air, your legs extended behind you, your feet touching nothing.”

Keats, too, died young and full of promise, but of tuberculosis, and on dry land. Byron died trying to liberate Greece from the Ottomans, but who reads Byron anymore and who, if they did, would have any sympathy for him? Which leaves what — Coleridge and his opium? Wordsworth and his clouds? Shelley, who owned a ship christened The Ariel but could not swim, sailed out into the Gulf of Spezia, despite warnings of a brewing storm.

It’s a canny choice, and as close to seamless as it possibly could be, and yet there are consequences. In changing from the image of Milton’s creation Satan to that of Shelley the man, Gates shifts focus from product to producer, from the art to the artist’s life. We move away from Satan’s relentlessly self-justifying and self-destructive rage against God and toward a more purely tragic vision of senseless loss. It’s the difference between war against an indomitable enemy and a war against nothing at all. This reorientation means that, despite the consideration of Lily’s father in the scene I quoted, the story now pays greater heed overall to the death of Elena, a family friend roughly Lily’s own age, who was murdered years earlier while doing charity work abroad. Lily is staying at that family’s lake house, indeed is sleeping (and drinking and screwing) in Elena’s bed.

I don’t know that the story is “better” in one version than the other, but I know that this parallax view affords its own special pleasure. Edward Snow’s Rilke says, For among winters there’s one so endlessly winter / that, wintering, your heart will win through. Not as pithy as Mitchell, I think, but more affirming: to win through rather than merely survive.

2. Darkness Visible

In June, about a week before my thirty-third birthday, we adopted a cat. It was something we’d talked about doing for years, and suddenly the time seemed right.

I had a hard time adjusting to Portland. I missed New York — our friends, our apartments, our lives, even my students. I didn’t like owning a washing machine or driving a car. I felt isolated, physically and emotionally — both stranded and adrift. (There’s also been a lot of illness in my family over the past few years, with requisite financial and psychic damage accruing, but that’s a story for another day.) I didn’t know when I would work again or what that work would be. The thing about taking a chance is that you have to take it.

A lot of people were putting a lot of energy into making me feel welcome, wanted, and part of things. It was like they were all shouting and waving through smoked glass. Because I’d never experienced depression before, I didn’t know what it would look or feel like, apart from what I’d read about it. Here’s William Styron, from Darkness Visible, which I’d read a few years back to try and gain a better understanding of what someone I knew was suffering:

I was feeling in my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain. This leads me to touch again on the elusive nature of such distress. That the word ‘indescribable’ should present itself is not fortuitous, since it has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

The title, Darkness Visible, is from Paradise Lost. It is Milton’s description of Hell:

No light; but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed
With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

I don’t want to put on airs of suffering here, but Styron’s account rings true in kind if hardly in degree. I spent a fair amount of time (not that there was anything fair about it) wrapped in what felt like a blanket of gray noise, which made it difficult to navigate basic emotional exchanges, or to communicate what I was feeling — to the people around me, or even to myself.

But I was telling you about our cat. We got her from a no-kill shelter. It’s also no-cage. You go there and the cats roam free and you sort of meet them when they’re ready to be met. Amanda and I spent two hours and met them all. Emma was the last one. She had been hiding on a high shelf, away from the fray. A volunteer saw her peeking out from it, and called to her, cooing her down to where we were. She jumped into my arms. We filled out the forms.

When Emma came home she was scared of everything and extremely sensitive to noise. She didn’t come out from under our bed for the first two days, and even after that it was usually for mere minutes. A car door slamming in the street or footsteps upstairs could undo an hour’s worth of built-up courage and hesitant edging forward into the hall. I decided to habituate her to the sounds of her new home, which during the work week is me, whatever music I have on, and the ambient bustle of the neighborhood. I sat on the floor of our bedroom and read to her Wordsworth’s Prelude — the 1805 version — which I was (and still am) working my slow way through. Ten minutes, fifteen, a half hour.

So was it with me in my solitude:
So often among multitudes of men.
Unknown, unthought of, yet I was most rich,
I had a world about me — ’twas my own,
I made it: for it only lived to me,
And to the God who looked into my mind.
Such sympathies would sometimes shew themselves
By outward gestures and by visible looks —
Some called it madness; such indeed it was,
If childlike fruitfulness in passing joy,
If steady moods of thoughtfulness matured
To inspiration, sort with such a name;
If prophesy be madness; if things viewed
By poets of old time, and higher up
By the first men, earth’s first inhabitants,
May in these tutored days no more be seen
With undisordered sight.

When Emma stuck her head out from under the bedskirt I put a treat down on the carpet. If she came out entirely, I offered her my hand.

I think it’s fair to say — or anyway I want to say, and am going to — that the cat and I cured each other, though “cure” is the wrong word for both her deep skittishness and for whatever it was I was working through. Maybe it’s closer to the mark to say, We brought each other around. I understand that depression is largely chemical, even physiological (and before you freak, yes, I’ve also seen a human therapist) but when considered as a purely psychological phenomenon, it seems right to say that it is an infliction — an infection — of solipsism; all you can see anymore is yourself, and you don’t like what you’re seeing, but you can’t figure out how to look away. Emma forced me to look away. She needed my attention, compassion, and creativity — all the things the sadness had muted — and by the time I realized what was happening, it was done. The bad feedback loop of inwardness was broken. The outside came back in.

3. In Praise of Shadows

Amanda and I got married in July. It was a small wedding, here in Portland. In a year where so much was out of our control, this was one thing, we felt, that we could do exactly the way we wanted to do it. And so that’s what we did. We were married at the courthouse on a Monday afternoon, then had dinner with about two dozen friends and family at a restaurant called Olympia Provisions. Which is excellent, by the way — you should go if you’re ever in town.

For the honeymoon we took the train up to Seattle, where we rented a car and drove north, past Bellingham, to a ferry that took us to Lummi Island, in the San Juans. We spent the night at a place called the Willows Inn, where we had one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten (tasting menu; ex-Noma chef) and toured their farm and hiked a little mountain. Then we went back to Seattle to catch a Father John Misty show. The part of the honeymoon relevant to this story is that we spent a few hours at Elliott Bay Book Co., browsing travel guides (Japan, Portugal, the Azores) and thinking about where we might go the next time we’re able to take a big trip. On a whim, I bought a copy of Junichiro Tanizaki’s Seven Japanese Tales, which turned out to be the beginning of a long fall fling with his work, and with twentieth-century Japanese literature in general. I went back to my old Kawabata volumes, especially the Palm-of-the-hand Stories, dabbled in Mishima, even bought a Soseki Natsume (Ten Nights of Dream), though I haven’t gotten to it yet.

After I finished the collection I went for the novellas, which are paired two to the volume in the Vintage paperback editions: The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, The Reed Cutter and Captain Shigemoto’s Mother; the stand-alone pamphlet-length essay, In Praise of Shadows:

I wonder if my readers know the color of that “darkness seen by candlelight.” It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes. [ . . . ] The elegant aristocrat of old was immersed in this suspension of ashen particles, soaked in it, but the man of today, long used to the electric light, has forgotten that such a darkness existed. It must have been simple for specters to appear in a “visible darkness,” where always something seemed to be flickering and shimmering, a darkness that on occasion held greater terrors than darkness out-of-doors.

We took the train back to Portland. The cat was happy to see us — and bold enough now to greet us at the front door, to whine for her dinner, though my sister-in-law had already fed her dinner. Emma trusted us enough to try to trick us. We rubbed her belly and gave her treats.

July, August, September. Semesters started without me. Amanda’s festival drew closer, her workload increased. I went to New York City for two weeks, as a visitor, a guest: first of my sister’s, then of the friends who we’d passed our apartment along to when we’d left. Julie and Gabe were now on their honeymoon, so I watched their cat for them. (And also ate all their wedding leftovers, which Julie’s mom had kindly left in the fridge for me.) Amanda and I both worried about me being back in our old place, now filled with somebody else’s furniture — a good chunk of which, ironically, was actually our furniture; we’d sold it to them. Wasn’t it a bit risky, especially given my rough spring and summer, to set myself up to be haunted by my own old life? Maybe. But the thing about New York City — one of the great things about it, in my opinion — is that exigency trumps psychology. The apartment was private, free, furnished, and mine for a week — ergo, perfect.

During the days I read the manuscript of my novel-in-progress to Julie and Gabe’s cat, editing it the way that Gates had taught me to — mercilessly, slowly, and by ear. In the evenings I met up with former students, drank too much with old friends. When it was sunny I sat in Carroll Park with coffee from my old neighborhood coffee shop, which I had never liked, and still don’t — too bitter, too expensive; but mine, you know? I drank coffee and read books. I flew from New York to Georgia and gave a reading, and then to Nashville for a reading and a craft talk. Then I went back to New York to meet up with Amanda for the wedding of our friends Nick and Rachel, who in their vows took care to reject the notion of being fated or destined for one another. The strength of their love, they thought, lay in its very contingency: there were so many reasons they might never have met, or not have lasted. They wanted everyone to know that they owed everything to freely made choices and sheer luck. We flew back to Portland two days later. It felt like coming home, because that’s what it was.