Something between a dead language and a hangover


I admire Justin Taylor’s short fiction but haven’t read his novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, because the book I’m still working on is also about religion and takes place largely in Gainesville, and though his sounds different and is set quite a few years later I didn’t want to steal anything or to second-guess myself or my work any more than I already, naturally do.

(One of the curses of being such an incredibly slow fiction writer is that talented novelists invariably end up wandering into territory you’ve mentally — and irrationally — cordoned off as your own. When that happens, you just have to keep going. Or so I tell myself.)

Obviously I can’t speak at all to Paul Elie’s criticisms of The Gospel of Anarchy in “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” this weekend. But I am interested to read Taylor’s book and Elie’s own novel whenever I’m fully, finally finished with mine. Meanwhile, I agree with Elie’s contention that “Christian belief figures into literary fiction in our place and time [primarily] as something between a dead language and a hangover.”

Incredibly fortunate

hurricane sandy

Unlike so many other people in our city, Max and I are fine. Heartbroken, but fine, and fully powered up.

Like everyone else in our situation, I’m looking to volunteer and help out however I can. If I could lift 50 pounds, I’d be signing up for the next possible Red Cross volunteer training class. Instead I’ve signed up with the NYC Public Advocate to assist in South Brooklyn and am waiting to be contacted. I’m also tweeting, of course. And working from home.

That’s a photo of Red Hook flooding, from Sam Sifton’s Twitter feed. It worries me that I haven’t even seen photos of, just for example, the Rockaways or Coney Island, both of which were largely impassable last night, if you can judge from Twitter and FDNY scanner reports.

Updated to say now I have seen the photos of the Breezy Point fire and its aftermath on the Rockaway peninsula. And then there’s the Jersey Shore. Just awful.

Tonight: Raise a glass to Kingsley Amis

kingsleyamisIt’s hard to think of anyone who writes about drinking with more authority, finesse, and psychological sensitivity than the late Kingsley Amis, who could, no surprise, really put it away.

His first editor, Hilary Rubenstein, found it implausible that the protagonist of Lucky Jim could drink ten pints of beer at the pub in a single evening, but that, as John Banville observes in a new introduction to Amis’ The Old Devils, “was before he had met the author in person.”

(For more details, pick up a copy of Everyday Drinking, a collection of Amis’ very smart and very funny newspaper columns and associated miscellany on the subject. Dwight Garner’s review four years ago was so entertaining, I delayed reading the book lest it disappoint.

When I finally did get my hands on a copy, though, I tore right through it, and soon was reading aloud to friends and saluting the out-of-doors with Amis’ Salty Dog. Probably a more tolerable phase than when I was obsessed with his language book, The King’s English.)

In his fiction, Amis’ best-known drinking passage is probably this one, from Lucky Jim, which came first on the Guardian’s list of “the ten best fictional hangovers“: “Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way… He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning… His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

If Everyday Drinking makes even the downsides of dipsomania charming, though, and Lucky Jim refracts them through the romantic lens of youth, The Old Devils depicts in terrible, intimate detail the indignities of that way of life, with special attention to the poisonous mornings-after. The book centers on a group of sixty-somethings in small-town Wales who seek to alleviate the tedium of their days and their marriages by consuming copious amounts of liquor (the men) or wine (the women), and who pay dearly in the cold, nauseous light of dawn. It’s hard to think of many literary passages that are a greater deterrent to tying that last one on than the descriptions in this book of elderly drunks struggling to crawl out of bed.

For one extremely overweight alcoholic, Peter, my favorite character in the book, getting up “had stopped being what you hurried heedlessly through before you did anything of interest and had turned into a major event of the day.” What “really took it out of him was the actual donning of clothes, refined as this had been over the years, and its heaviest item was the opener, putting his socks on. At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noticed that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails.” Over the course of a few excruciating pages, Peter dresses and grooms himself, fighting off “gripping, squeezing” chest pain that induced, as usual, by fear of his wife, Muriel, “simple fear of her tongue.” Amis was sometimes called a show-off, accused of excelling at comedy while failing at empathy, but the Old Devils’ travails are as painfully true as they are funny. Those toenails will haunt me for a long, long time.

Fans of Kingsley Amis and of gin who live in or near New York City should join NYT Mag drink writer Rosie Schaap, the Book Review’s Parul Seghal, and me at a celebration hosted by Vol. 1 Brooklyn at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe tonight to celebrate the NYRB Classics reissues of The Old Devils and Lucky Jim. The festivities get underway at 7. Drinks will, of course, be served.

Bertrand Russell on the implications of Protestantism

bertrandrussell“The Catholic Church was derived from three sources. Its sacred history was Jewish, its theology was Greek, its government and canon law were, at least indirectly, Roman… In Catholic doctrine, divine revelation did not end with the scriptures, but continued from age to age through the medium of the Church, to which, therefore, it was the duty of the individual to submit his private opinions. Protestants, on the contrary, rejected the Church as a vehicle of revelation; truth was to be sought only in the Bible, which each man could interpret for himself. If men differed in their interpretation, there was no divinely appointed authority to decide the dispute. In practice, the State claimed the right that had formerly belonged to the Church, but this was a usurpation. In Protestant theory, there should be no earthly intermediary between the soul and God.

The effects of this change were momentous. Truth was no longer to be ascertained by consulting authority, but by inward meditation. There was a tendency, quickly developed, toward anarchism in politics, and, in religion, toward mysticism, which had always fitted with difficulty into the framework of Catholic orthodoxy. There came to be not one Protestantism, but a multitude of sects; not one philosophy opposed to scholasticism, but as many as there were philosophers; not, as in the thirteenth century, one Emperor opposed to the Pope, but a large number of heretical kings. The result, as thought in literature, was a continually deepening subjectivism, operating at first as a wholesome liberation from spiritual slavery, but advancing steadily toward a personal isolation inimical to social sanity.

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, whose fundamental certainty is the existence of himself and his thoughts, from which the external world is to be inferred. This was only the first stage in a development, through Berkeley and Kant, to Fichte, for whom everything is only an emanation of the ego. This was insanity, and, from this extreme, philosophy has been attempting, ever since, to escape into the world of everyday common sense.”

— Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

Stories I love, in the mail to you quarterly

MN Quarterly

Putting together my first package for Quarterly Co. feels a lot like assembling the cards and songs and books and other objects I used to send friends and boys in college, except with 100% fewer stickers: Here’s this thing I’ve been reading! Here’s this other, related thing! Here’s a long, gushy letter telling you all the reasons I am sending them to you — and oh, yeah, here’s this other thing that suddenly seemed so important and connected, I had to unseal the package and shove it in there, too. There are even post-it notes.

Jason Kottke described Quarterly — “a subscription service for wonderful things” — as a cross between a store and a magazine. Sasha Frere-Jones called it the future, but with a post office. The Wall Street Journal journal explains how it works, and makes me wish I had a 3D skull of my own design to include.

My shipments, which Quarterly sends out at $25 each, will be all about storytelling. Here’s how I described my focus for the site.

As a child I lived in novels as much as I did in the world, stumbling around hunched and dreamy, tearing through my alloted seven library books and then begging my mother to take me to check out more. Nowadays the challenge isn’t getting my hands on books, it’s finding stories that excite me, as a reader, writer, and critic.

My passion for unusual, well-told stories sends me foraging not just through bookstores — though I do spend a ridiculous amount of time circling the staff recommendations tables at McNally Jackson — but all kinds of media: TV, movies, magazines, blogs, apps, whatever. I still love books best of all, but it took me a while to know that for sure after devouring The Wire.

My Quarterly objects will be books and other great stories that I hope will make you cancel plans or miss your stop or ignore the doorbell. Sometimes they’ll be juicy and suspenseful; other times they’ll be weirder, less about sinking into a story than thinking about the way we tell them. Occasionally they’ll be both, so you can experience them, and ponder them, and then experience them again.

If you’re interested in signing up, I’m told the window for the first shipment closes this Thursday, the 16th.

A young Bertrand Russell guards his time


On September 3, 1894, Bertrand Russell wrote to Alys Pearsall Smith, his wife-to-be, concerning the importance of creating an environment in which he could cultivate his talents. (She was a Quaker, thus the “thee.”)

And (I must confess it) horrible as such a thought is, I do not entirely trust thee to back me up. I have a passion for experience, but if I am to make anything of the talents I have, I must eschew a vast deal of possible experience, shut myself up in my study, and life a quiet life in which I see only people who approve of such a life (as far as possible); I know myself well enough to be sure (though it is a confession of weakness) that if thee insists on my having a lot of experience, on my seeing a heterogeneous society and going out into the world, and perhaps having episodes of an utterly different, worldly sort of life, my nervous force will be unequal to the strain; I shall either have to give up the work my conscience approves of, or I shall be worn out and broken down by the time I’m 30. In short, I know my own needs, much better than thee does; and it is very important to me that thee should back me up in insisting on them. Casual experience of life is of very little use to a specialist, such as I aspire to be; good manners are absolutely useless. Thee has a sort of illogical kindness (not to call it weakness), which prevents thy seeing the application of a general rule to a particular case, if anybody is to derive a little pleasure from its infraction, so that thee is quite capable, while protesting that in general thee wishes me to lead a quiet student’s life, of urging me in every particular case to accept offers, and to go in for practical affairs, which really are a hindrance to me. Both of us, too, are in danger of getting intoxicated by cheap success, which is the most damning thing on earth; if I waste these years, which ought to be given almost entirely to theoretic work and the acquisition of ideas by thought (since that is scarcely possible except when one is young), my conscience will reproach me for the rest of my life.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they later divorced. Russell married three times more.

See also The orangeless childhood of Bertrand Russell and Bertrand Russell’s terror of madness (both based on passages from his autobiography, where the full text of this letter appears), and E.B. White on the tricky valuation of a writer’s time.

Rocking chairs and strokes: the solidity of Texan family

rocking chair

My great-grandfather, Zone, the Texan communist carpenter and lothario, made this rocking chair a hundred years ago, give or take. It was good to sit in something so solid (and so tailored to short people) while visiting my mom for her birthday over the weekend.

I planned the trip several months back. And then, a few weeks ago, my mom had a stroke. She did not allow my stepdad to tell me immediately and wouldn’t want me to dwell on the details, so I’ll just say that she’s recovered with characteristic speed and finesse — by dint of sheer will, as her people do. When caregivers were dispatched by the hospital to check on her, they couldn’t believe she was the one they were coming to see.

I could. It was hard to leave when the time was up, and yet it seems impossible that there would ever come a day when my mother would cease to exist in this world.

Photo by Max, of course.

Laurie Anderson imagines her dog’s life after death

Laurie Anderson imagined her terrier’s adventures in the Tibetan Buddhist afterworld and committed them to paper in “Lolabelle in the Bardo,” a series of enormous drawings showing at the Vito Schnabel Gallery in SoHo through Saturday. Earlier in the year, Anderson talked with Amanda Stern for The Believer about the very specific kind of grief she felt when the dog, her constant physical companion, died.

She was my best friend. When you’re very physically attached to something — not so much mentally, but physically, something that is always at your knee, you know — it’s very different when they evaporate. So in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for forty-nine days you’re in the Bardo, and it describes in a really fascinating way how you lose your senses and how your mind dissolves as you prepare for another cycle. At the end of that forty-nine-day period, you are born in another form, and, in my dog’s case, what was at the end of that forty-ninth day was my birthday. I’m kind of a believer in magic numbers, in a way. So I wanted to study that particular Bardo, and then I found that that’s only one of the many Bardos. The other Bardo that is happening is the Bardo that we’re in right now — in which we both believe we’re having a conversation in a studio by the river when, in fact, we’re not.

What attracts her to Buddhism, she said, “is probably what attracts every artist to being an artist — that it’s a godlike thing. You are the ultimate authority. There is no other ultimate authority.”

Max took this photo at the gallery yesterday.

Talking with Kate Christensen at McNally, June 12

astralTomorrow night at McNally Jackson, I’ll have the great pleasure of interviewing Kate Christensen, a friend whose writing I loved even before I came to love her, about her latest novel, The Astral. We spoke about the book (and male muses and inner dicks) last year at The Awl. This will be a continuation of that conversation.

“It’s been two years since I finished The Astral,” Kate says. “The things that strike me as relevant and interesting about the book now are the paramount importance of place to a novel, the creepy, borderline-incestuous relationship between characters and novelist, and the intensity of writing about a disintegrating marriage while in the midst of a disintegrating and totally different marriage.”

Practical city living #13: U-Bahn versus NYC subway

U-Bahn with Jordan

In Berlin the week before last, my friend Jessa mentioned that people on public transit there are completely okay with staring. It’s not just fine to stare, she said; it’s expected. If you don’t look at people, you’re the weird one.

For me, longtime rider of the New York City subway that I am, this idea was hard to wrap the mind around. Even making eye contact more than once on the train here is practically an aggressive act.

On the U-Bahn with her the next day, I remembered what she said, but couldn’t bring myself to look around at fellow passengers long enough to confirm it. It felt too intrusive. I kept glancing away.

“Oh, but they were staring at you,” she told me, when I mentioned this later.

“So what do people think when a New Yorker stares at the floor?” I asked her. “Are they just like, oh, she’s not from here?”

“No.” She smiled the excellent smile she breaks into when appreciating the unintentionally ironic. “They think you’re evasive,” she said, and recommended sunglasses.

I followed her advice. Max snapped this shot of my sort-of-but-not-really brother Jordan and me riding the U-Bahn to Karl-Marx-Allee. As Anna Wiener said when she recommended we stroll along it, “the changes in architecture so starkly reflect the political shifts in Berlin’s history, and it’s wild to imagine people moving into this showpiece promenade.” It was my favorite walk in Berlin.

Prior practical city living posts are here.

Join authors, the public, at the 24-Hour Read-In

[Untitled] (Brooklyn Public Library), ca. 1938.

As a rule I don’t duplicate posts from my Tumblr, but this is important enough to make an exception. If you’re able, I hope you’ll come out this Saturday to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the Read-In to protest the Mayor’s enormous proposed library budget cuts, which if enacted would effectively dismantle the New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Library systems as we know them.

Most of the protest in support of New York City libraries these days seems to revolve around pending changes at the NYPL’s flagship Schwarzman branch, where the research and circulating libraries are under threat. It’s a very unfortunate and arguably outrageous plan that could hobble one very important library in the wealthiest borough of our fair city, and I’m as concerned about it as anyone who’s ever done research there.

But let’s not let our opposition to (or acceptance of) that proposal distract us from the Mayor’s even greater, and far, far more wide-reaching, threat to literacy and to everything else our libraries help provide. As novelist (and friend of mine) Alexander Chee said when he signed on to the Read-In, “This is reprehensible — no library recovers from acquisitions cuts.”

And we’re not just talking reduced hours and fewer books in circulation. According to a 2010 New York Times story, the Queens system alone is  “the largest public library in the country, measured by circulation volume,” an innovative institution that has shown other libraries how to operate as “community hubs for job seekers, teenagers who are looking for a safe and comfortable place to study after school, students of English and people who cannot afford to own a computer but want to use the Internet.” All of the “city’s public libraries  are increasingly serving as makeshift employment centers,” part of a “surge in demand for libraries’ free goods and services that is typical during economic downturns.”

Over the past few years, Urban Librarians Unite and others have put up such fierce resistance to threatened cuts that money has quietly been restored, giving readers and employment seekers citywide a false sense of security. If we don’t protest, the Mayor and City Council don’t know what’s important to us, and the next time you show up at your library to pick up books on a random weekday afternoon, you just might find its doors locked. 

Anyone can sign up to read, and I hope you’ll join a wide range of writers, some of whom will actually be reading, some of whom are away and can only be with us in spirit, by signing up for a slot to read at this year’s protest, or just by stopping by.

Those participating and supporting so far include Megan Abbott (The End of Everything and Dare Me), Eric Banks (President, National Book Critics Circle), Josh Bazell (Beat the Reaper and Wild Thing), Phil Campbell (Zioncheck for President), Alexander Chee (Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night), A.N. Devers (, Jason Diamond (Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Flavorpill), Lauren Grodstein (A Friend of the Family), Will Hermes (Love Goes to Buildings on Fire), Evan Hughes (Literary Brooklyn), Jesse and Zoe Karp (Those That Wake), Julie Klam (Please Excuse My Daughter and You Had Me at Woof), Victor LaValle (Big Machine and The Ecstatic), Michelle Legro (Lapham’s Quarterly), Andrew Losowsky (Huffington Post), Ann Napolitano (A Good, Hard Look), Anna North (America Pacifica), Austin Ratner (The Jump Artist and In the Land of the Living), Rosie Schaap (Drinking with Men, and Drink columnist, New York Times Magazine), Elissa Schappell (Use Me), Lizzie Skurnick (Shelf Discovery), Amanda Stern (The Long Haul), Sadie Stein (The Paris Review), Emma Straub (Other People We Married and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures), and Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief and One-Story magazine). And especially for kids on Sunday morning: Melanie Hope Greenberg (Mermaids on Parade), Ryan Sias (Zoe & Robot), Javaka Steptoe (In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall), Charlotte Jones Volkiss (Madeline L’Engle’s granddaughter), and Paul Zelinsky (The Wheels on the Bus).

The 24-Hour Read-In gets underway Saturday, June 9, at 4 p.m. and runs through Sunday, the 10th, at 3:59 p.m. You can read your own work or (except during family time on Sunday morning) whatever you like. If you’re interested in signing up, email

If you don’t feel like reading, you can just join us for a little while to show your support. I’ll be there Saturday until at least midnight and again early Sunday morning. Please introduce yourself so I can shake your hand. 

Travel and other journals and happenings

I leave for Berlin and Amsterdam a week from today and meanwhile am slammed at work-work and with other work, so I keep not being able to post any of the things I intend to write here.

But for the first time since my college days, I’ve been keeping a journal. Actually, I’ve been keeping journals, as in many, on my iPad, using the Paper app, which I wrote about last month at The Chimerist and have been turning to more and more often since then. I still scrawl longhand drafts and quick notes in my hardbound composition notebook, and my penmanship on the iPad screen leaves something to be desired (see below), but I like the way Paper allows me to categorize my thoughts and musings, and to delete them when they’re no longer useful by pressing a button.

In mid-June I go back into hibernation on my novel, which I haven’t focused on in months. Here are some events I’m involved in before then. On May 30, at the invitation of the ever-inspiring Austin Kleon, I’ll be speaking with two of my Internet crushes, Maris Kreizman and Maria Popova, about creativity in the digital age, at McNally Jackson.

On June 9-10 I’ll be participating with a lot of great writers in Urban Librarian Unite’s 24-Hour Read-In to protest proposed NYC library budget cuts. And on June 12 I’ll be talking with the amazing Kate Christensen about her latest novel, The Astral, which you know I love. Details for all of these events are here.