Saturday, April 29, 2006
There was a guy at the door with a list, but the party was well underway and no one was waiting to go in. I said, "Is this the PEN thing?" The guy said, "Oh, are you with [name I couldn't understand]?" I said, "Maybe." Then he said, "Okay," and seemed to forget I existed.
Inside, a woman was singing in Hungarian, accompanied by a band. There was caviar-y stuff (probably caviar) and slabs of what might have been foie gras, plus lots of salmon, which was horded and devoured by me. Then I noticed a strutting silver-haired person who looked a lot like Martin Amis, one of my favorite writers. I feel pretty confident that it was, in fact, Martin Amis.
(Once, about two years ago, I went to a reading at I think the New Yorker festival. It cost too much but I was in college and I almost never came to New York, and I just really wanted to go. Anyway, I'm in the bathroom before the reading, and a man is standing next to me at the urinal. I look over and it's Martin Amis. After we finish using the urinals, I say, "Are you Martin Amis?"
Him: "Uh, yes."
Me: "I came to see you read."
A pause as we stand by the urinals. He looks at his palms.
Him: "I'm not going to shake your hand.")
Then suddenly, like I'm in one of those surreal dreams where someone famous is sort of bobbing beside you in the swimming pool, I realize the guy standing just to my right is Salman Rushdie. I haven't read as much of Rushdie as I have of Amis, but I'm an admirer, with some reservations. So I say, "Oh, didn't I meet you at [reading event last fall]?"
The truth is, no, I didn't actually meet him there. I feel stupid having done this after just writing condescending things about that girl who plagiarized the Opal Mehta book, but I said what I said.
He was like, "Mm, mm-hm, hm."
I said, "It's okay, I know you don't remember."
He made sort of "Eh, mmm, hm-HMM," noises, I believe designed to (very generously) imply that he might indeed remember without lying outright by actually saying he remembered.
Then somehow I started rambling about this place that hosts readings, and the pool event from a couple weeks ago, and Satyricon, and book parties (he said something like, "What a quaint notion...book parties.") and I had no idea what I was saying or where I was going with any of it, because I seemed like I was going somewhere, but then mercifully some even more awkward person than me just shoved in and said, "Just wanted to say I love your books!" and I was able to sort of back away and spare myself the indignity of forcing him to have to escape from me.
I really should not talk to writers like this on the rare occasions I encounter them. I never compliment their writing, I don't have the sheer obnoxious balls to ask them for...what, a blurb?--and I don't even mention to them that I'm a writer too. I just seem awkward and probably a little alarming.
The rest of the time I mostly wandered around, not drinking. I had fun even if I did feel quite out of place. The food was delicious.
Friday, April 28, 2006
Of course there's Kaavya Viswanathan. Viswanathan plagiarized while writing parts of her debut novel, How Opal Mehta [Did Something or Other], a book which would otherwise be of interest only because its cover appears to depict a sort of cat-person traipsing through the rust-colored flames of hell.
Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore who says she really just wants to be an investment banker, claims she plagiarized by accident. Just about no one believes her, and her publisher pulled the book from stores. However, my interest in immoral women notwithstanding, I don’t really care about the plagiarism story anymore.
I’m more curious about why a supposedly literate, intelligent student at the world’s preeminent university would write a novel that barely even pretended not to be garbage.
It can’t just be that she’s actually stupid. It had to be the money. I’ve been dealing with agents and publishers since I was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Yale, when an agent (who, I note, currently has a heartwarming bestseller on the charts) read the manuscript of a novel I’d written and told me he might be able to sell it for “a million dollars.” Eighteen months later, after I balked yet again at “toning down” the “dark stuff,” I found myself without an agent. Eventually there was another agent, another novel, and more arguments.
I have a feeling I could have made things a lot easier on myself by simply handing in a manuscript with more pop culture and less rape.
When you’re not yet twenty years old and people who know publishing tell you, “This is how to sell your book,” you really fucking want to believe them. And when what they’re telling you actually means, “Carve up your baby until it looks more like a dog carcass and you could get six figures and a movie deal,” you might actually think about doing it.
The fact that the New York Times says Viswanathan’s original idea was “too dark” for her William Morris handlers makes me feel a little sorry for her. Maybe she had an idea that was actually interesting? (Or maybe, since the Times describes the idea as “in the vein of The Lovely Bones,” she was just going to plagiarize Alice Sebold instead of Megan McCafferty.)
So where are Kaavya’s superior contemporaries? The ones who at least take a stab at producing resonant, lasting fiction? There’s Nathan Sellyn, the talented Princeton alum from Canada who published a story collection with independent Raincoast Books, but as this pre-plagiarism-scandal article from The Crimson notes, the best-known young Ivy novelists apart from Viswanathan are Nick McDonell and Natalie Krinsky—who graduated from Yale a year before I did, and whose novel I did not like at all. McDonell, as Huffington Post contributor Ankush Khardori pointed out to me, may be a unique case because family connections helped him get huge publicity and a movie deal for his debut novel, Twelve, but there’s no denying he tried to write something grave and stylistically distinctive.
But McDonell’s family is publishing world royalty; he didn’t have to fight his way past editorial assistants looking for The Five Da Vincis You Meet in Heaven. The problem is the gatekeepers. They love young Ivy authors, but they want junk like Opal Mehta, and they look for malleable, generically pretty people like Kaavya Viswanathan to produce it—authors who don’t start to see red when they’re told for the tenth time to purge their manuscripts of the “dark stuff.”
Fortunately, not all youthful authors are like that. I met a lot of other fiction writers who are or recently were undergraduates, a few of them stunningly talented and capable of producing strange, unique, sometimes beautiful work; all that I know of are still writing, and none have major book deals yet. They will, though, eventually. Probably around the time Kaavya Viswanathan is beginning her career at Goldman Sachs, I guess. That's the one where they make the real money.
Thursday, April 27, 2006
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Someone told me that the other night. I wasn't sure. I did some research. There appears to be hard science behind it.
So it may be approaching literal truth that, as the rock star said, it's okay to eat fish because they don't have any feelings.
On the other hand.
In the 19th century, certain men of science claimed that dogs did not feel pain. What appeared to be responses to pain (whimpering, crying, struggling while being beaten or punctured) were mechanical reactions of an organism that was simply wired to avoid damage or destruction to itself.
So they would nail conscious dogs to tables and operate on them in surgical theaters.
The struggling and crying, they explained, was purely mechanical.
Dogs aren't fish, of course.
There is, of course, the dogfish, though.
I would eat the dogfish on a bed of rice.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
At the reading I saw Thad Rutkowski, a talented writer with whom I did a reading maybe two years ago. It was good to run into him again.
Monday, April 24, 2006
The smoke jumpers dying...
"By now they were short of breath from the exertion of their climbing and their lungs were being seared by the heat. A world was coming where no organ of the body had consciousness but the lungs."
The burned forest...
"It was a world of still-warm ashes that had incubated once-hot poles. The black poles looked as if they had been born of the gray ashes as the result of some vast effort at sexual intercourse on the edges of the afterlife."
"As you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs..."
Some of my "polishes" are actually intended to rough things up a bit. The book is first-person, present tense, and it should feel sometimes like the narrator's voice is one step behind his gut.
That is, it shouldn't feel like the book's been deliberately polished.
I also added the dedication.
And I changed one of the epigraphs. Originally I had a quote from Heinrich's Boll's The Clown.
I changed that to a quote from Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, a nonfiction book about the Mann Gulch fire, which killed twelve young firefighters (they were mostly teenagers, I recall). Maclean's book was not only enormously helpful when I was doing research for Fires, it is just an absolutely fucking great book.
The short introduction, called "Black Ghost," is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. Like the rest of the book it is nonfiction, and in about ten pages, it contains two moments that I remember always.
Part of the introduction is about when Maclean himself was fifteen years old, fighting a massive forest fire that chased him up the side of a mountain and nearly killed him (when he was finally out of danger, he remembers, he had to put out the fires smoldering on his shoelaces). While he fled the fire - which was throwing spot fires in front of him, setting his escape route ablaze - he suddenly encountered another man, also fleeing, and what that man did says something very blunt about human beings.
The second stunning moment is years later, when Maclean and another man drive into the wasteland left behind by the Mann Gulch fire and they encounter a deer. I don't want to describe what makes this scene so memorable.
The story of Mann Gulch is incredible. One firefighter survived by setting a new fire in tall grass as the almost unimaginable main blaze got close to him and he realized he couldn't outrun it. Then he lay down in the ashes of the fire he'd made and let the inferno pass over him.
Just think about that for a second.
Others were burned so badly that before they died they were flooded with endorphins, and seemed cheerful ("I feel fine!" said one), eating oranges as their faces and bodies peeled. They were very thirsty, and then they died.
For my epigraph to Fires I chose a quote about one of the survivors of Mann Gulch, what happened to him and to his mind afterward.
There are so many quotes from Maclean's book, though, so many sentences that raise the hair. Maybe I will reprint a few of them when I am home and have the book in front of me.
Her book's title is something about "Got Kissed" and "Got Wild," meaning that I would probably not like this book or under normal circumstances care about it except to be sad that its author got a quarter of a million dollars for writing something with "Got Kissed" and "Got Wild" in the title.
However, I was interviewed about this a couple weeks ago. A reporter at Harvard somehow found my site or something I had written, or heard about Fires. He thought I might have something to say about being relatively young and having a book deal. I didn't, really.
The interview was for this article.
My quotes were never used, and for several good reasons.
One, I was unnecessarily rude to the reporter, since I do not trust reporters.
Also, the reporter, Leon Neyfakh, seemed to be under the impression that I had actually gotten a bunch of money, like the other people in the article. Sadly, no. I hadn't even heard of Kaavya Viswanathan. So nothing I had to say was very relevant. And some of the things I said weren't pleasant.
Now I wish my quotes had been used.
Neyfakh's final article, without my quotes, is fascinating. You can almost feel him gritting his teeth because he knows the Viswanathan book is not good, but he has to write something not-vicious.
Then, later, he got a chance to say exactly what he thought of it.
I like the second article better than the first one. Neyfakh is a good reviewer.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
Friday evening began with an interesting reading involving a new anthology about jealousy that features Ned V. and Marty Beckerman. Marty and I became friends a very long time ago, had a falling out some years back, and recently made peace.
Later on Friday, a beautiful woman said she didn't trust me anymore, and that was that: it's over.
She was wrong about what I did but she was right not to trust me.
Then I took the train home, and at 2 a.m. the trains run slow, so I had a lot of time to think about what kind of person I am.
On Saturday I lay in bed for a while and watched horror movies. Then I met up with Ned and Marty. We tried to go to the Holocaust Museum in Battery Park City but it was closed, so we went to see the movie Hard Candy, a tedious and terribly-executed thing, and then we played pool for a while, and then Marty came to my apartment for a while, and after he left I just went to sleep.
If I drank, which I don't, this would be a Lost Weekend.
Friday, April 21, 2006
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
One story is called "Invasion of the Geoducks."
It's about neoconservatives.
Another story is called "I Am Taken Care Of."
My face feels hollowed out and dry on the inside. I took too much cough medicine last night, then fell asleep unexpectedly on the couch of a very good friend, who was nice enough to take care of me and tolerate my odd questions/statements (then recite them to me in the morning). I slept nine hours or so. I dreamed I was drooling on everything.
Monday, April 17, 2006
Not much, no, I don't think so.
Well, yeah, I guess they do, but not in recent memory.
My throat is slowly recovering, at least.
I ate 44 cough drops today.
They caught the fucking bear that killed my second cousin. Poor stupid creature. I wish everyone involved, human and bear alike, was unharmed.
Tonight I also ate several soft shell crabs, part of a duck, three eggs, ten to fifteen handfuls of cereal, and a box of Chessmen cookies.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Friday, April 14, 2006
Clouds of steam are moving past my window and I have no idea why.
Last night I dreamed that all the teeth on my lower jaw were extracted by a dentist, in his home, while a birthday party was going on in another room of the house. The roots of the teeth were black, but he cleaned them and put them back in and told me not to bite too hard if I could help myself. All this was somehow taking place while I was on vacation to Atlantic City.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
You can buy it in Barnes and Noble, at least at the one in Astor Place.
It's a small thing, like a little paperback book, but it's there.
I just started reading it this evening but the Rebecca Curtis story is terrific. It's called "Someone Like Sue." Today has been a really good day for short stories, for me. I don't like most short stories. Tao interviewed Rebecca Curtis once. I didn't really care then, but later I read her wolf story which he reprinted, and I read "Someone Like Sue," and now I think Rebecca Curtis is fucking great.
I think Rebecca Curtis's stories are always sad, and they're about people who are miserable and trapped, and still they are hilarious.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
The party was in a hotel that has an indoor pool surrounded by backlit liquor bottles, or something, with a DJ above the pool in a sort of lookout spot, and a steam room and sauna behind him. Above the pool there was a big projection screen playing a movie with the sound off. That's where the launch party was. It was a book party and a pool party. I have never heard of this before. Apparently before I arrived they even had a reading.
By the time I left, furious guards had pulled everyone out of the pool because nudity is not allowed, or something, then opened it again after a lawyer argued with them, and the hysterical DJ was shouting to the guards that someone had hit him in the face "over and over again" with a shoe.
It was kind of amazing.
Usually I feel some level of awkwardness at parties.
This was really fun.
I wore my tie into the water.
Someone named "Reverend Phil" was causing lots of commotion in the pool.
Fred, one of my freshman roommates from college, now a film major at Tisch, stopped by. It was good to see him, although he didn't get in the pool. He just drank.
I felt a little bad for the people who organized the thing. They looked alarmed by the end. But they knew everyone had an interesting time.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
Here is the first one, prompted by the review below.
It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini. (IKOAFS, for short.)
I met Ned a couple years ago at Barbes, a bar in Brooklyn, or maybe at the Living Room, a bar in Manhattan. I can't remember. We've done quite a few readings together. It is sort of surprising that we hit it off so well, because our reading/writing tastes are quite different, but we do. He is obsessive in a way that I like and he is extremely talented.
IKOAFS was a manuscript when I read it about a year ago. Maybe a week or two after Ned wrote the first draft. It was good then; it is good now. I remember being really impressed. It is a "young adult" novel but not in the same way as his earlier stuff; it's much more nuanced and assured.
The plot is about a suicidal teenager, Craig, who ends up in the adult ward of a mental hospital. I don't like summarizing plots.
It's 400+ pages but you can read it in an afternoon.
I believed the kid's depression.
He says things like, "Every time I spend a dollar, it feels like I'm being raped." Not an exact quote; I don't have the book here with me. But I thought that part was great.
And when Nia, a sweet girl with a "lucrative body" who is dating his best friend, tells Craig that if he'd only made a move first, she'd probably be dating him...his brain sort of shuts down and everything goes clammy and he thinks: Death. This is one of the best moments in the book. It's perfectly set up. Ned's specialty is writing things that his readership will be able to identify with. This is perfect. I'm not exactly part of his target audience, but it worked on me, too.
There were two things a little bit sad that happened in the editing process, I think. The first draft contained a great scene involving the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone" that had to be cut due to rights issues. This is a shame because it was a "money scene" - when the book is made into a movie, this could be one one of those moments Billy Wilder talked about. I would never be able to write a scene like this. I wouldn't know how. Some people (like Wilder) have a preternatural talent for telling robustly-structured stories with moments like this. Ned has this.
Also, Craig was 14 instead of 15 in the original draft. I'm guessing this was changed to make the book's sexual episodes slightly less problematic for the squeamish.
The cover of the novel incorporates the "brain map" which is a crucial part of the plot, and which was a rather ingenious literary invention of Ned's for the purpose of the story. That was another thing that really struck me on my first reading. The brain maps were a fucking great idea.
Anyway. A really impressive book. Pick it up.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Friday, April 07, 2006
Having nothing better to do, I went alone and wandered around in it. I ran into people there, people from college and from here and there, around.
There were some fascinating drawings on the walls, tiny intricate things with tied-up, sexually ambiguous, possibly amphibious half-humans. I liked those.
The "sculptures" were sort of not so interesting. I liked one that looked like a couple tons of butter all over the floor. The others were boring and looked flimsy.
I didn't write anything then.
I dreamed my canine teeth turned kind of blackish and broke in half, and also that I was filming a movie where some person with a deep injury in his leg was being pursued through a snowy subdivision at night, near Christmas.
But when I was in a meeting today, I wrote these things:
"I want some fucking apple pie"
"Body invaded by yawns."
Thursday, April 06, 2006
I was living in my old house, my parents' house. From my room upstairs I could see into the second floor of a neighboring house, into a little secret attic room that no one else could see into. They had gone on vacation or something and hired an obese old woman to housesit. She had died in the attic, though, slumped in a chair. I was looking through the window and hour after hour, I would see her sitting there, growing increasingly grey. Soft fuzzy mold was growing on her, sort of like mouse fur.
At the end it turned out that some kids had been sneaking into the house the whole time and um, doing things to the body (although I hadn't seen this through the window). They'd thought she was only asleep, and now they had gotten some disease you only catch from the dead.
This web journal takes the place of real human interaction.
Here's a very short story I liked.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Tuesday, April 04, 2006
Monday, April 03, 2006
According to this story, the professor, Sarah Bilston, has written a chick lit novel called Bed Rest.
I think I would prefer a novel called Red Beast.
I've been meaning to write a story about giant mollusks. Soon, soon.
Sunday, April 02, 2006
It is only two pages but it is one of the few really important revisions.
This makes me happy.
At five I saw several fine poets read. Matthew Zapruder was one - he was good - and after him was the extraordinary Belarussian poet Valzhyna Mort, who I went specifically to see.
To hear Valzhyna is always a pleasure. Her poem "White Apples" is great. (In point of fact, I am not sure that is actually the poem's title - I am not sure the poems have titles - but it is about white apples, so, uh, let's just call it that.)
And she's an incredible reader. Her reading is scary and violent.
I feel like Valzhyna and James Salter are the best readers I have seen.
If you have never read James Salter: fix that.
Then at KGB I saw Suzanne Dottino for the first time in over a month, which was good. And I saw two Scottish writers who were excellent. Alan Bissett (razor-sharp, and a very good reader) and Rodge Glass (clearly an excellent writer, although I missed a few minutes because Valzhyna called). He is also the biographer of Alasdair Gray, author of Lanark. So we know Mr. Glass has superb taste.
If you have never read Alasdair Gray: fix that.
Go on. Now.
Lanark seems, incomprehensibly, to be out of print. What the fuck. I bought a copy on Amazon barely two years ago.
Just buy it used, Alasdair Gray is great. James Salter is, too.
In fact, I have a lot to say about both those authors, particularly Salter (because I need to read more of Gray).
Of course, no one is reading this, so I'm saying it to myself.
That's all right, my most spirited conversations are with myself.
So I will write about James Salter. Soon.
Saturday, April 01, 2006
Mostly because I was sleeping, or eating cereal. I slept over twelve hours last night, though there were interruptions, most notably from the person who was sending me text messages all night, including "Good morning!" at 4 am. You know who you are.
Let's hang out tonight.
I'll call you, maybe.
Dreamed last night that a large blond person standing near me randomly exploded, like the shark at the end of Jaws, except there was no oxygen tank or gun.