I am sitting in my chair, worrying about writing and worrying about not writing. I don’t think my worrying is productive. Either writing or not writing, I spend almost all my time in my chair. For about fifteen years I have rarely left my chair. And I expect that I shall continue not leaving my chair until I either kick the bucket or am placed in long-term care at a nursing facility. I am content with my life in my chair or I cannot imagine a life lived out of my chair, a life that would be a changed life. I sit in my room, looking out at the rain, my tears are like crystals, they cover my windowpane, I’m thinking of our lost romance, and how it should have been, oh, if we only could start over again. Noticing the simile—“my tears are like crystals”—I am reminded of how nonmetaphorical my writing is. The absence of any examination of my use or nonuse of metaphor, coupled with the absence of any examination of my use or nonuse of semicolons, seems to indicate that I live an unexamined life.…
The day began ordinarily enough. Getting up early for a doctor’s appointment, rushing to finish some freelance gig I’d procrastinated on for a week or three. I had Microsoft Word open on my laptop in the waiting room, even, when Joshua emailed: Would I be interested in writing about David Markson for an issue of the RCF on “Failure”? “Huh, maybe, thanks for asking,” and did Josh know my dad had reviewed Springer’s Progress for the Times in 1977, that blurb “An exuberantly Joycean, yes, Joycean, celebration of carnality and creativity—an everything-goes, risk-taking, maniacally wild and funny and painful novel”? Anyway Markson had called him up and bought him a drink at the Lion’s Head, about which Dad said he remembered nothing.
… On the bookshelves near my chair, I have taped iconic quotes that I have kept for years and years: “JAMES MOODY, YOU CAN COME ON IN, MAN, AND YOU CAN BLOW NOW IF YOU WANT TO, WE’RE THROUGH,” which comes from King Pleasure’s “I’m in the Mood for Love.” “I WAS FORCED BY INCLEMENT MANAGEMENT INTO A YELLOW-DOG CONTRACT WITH BOHEMIA, SUCH AS IT SURVIVES,” from a Grace Paley story. Finally, from Some Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers, published by Johnson Jones Hooper in 1846, a particularly apt quote from the fictional con man Simon Suggs, “IT IS GOOD TO BE SHIFTY IN A NEW COUNTRY,” apt because I admire a good con, and apt because I, like Simon Suggs, have found shiftiness to be a virtue, in certain situations. I consider myself shifty. Let me describe myself. I’m someone you never notice. I am of average height and average weight and wear glasses, though now I always wear shades outside because the pair I have is so durable, but half the time they’re resting on my head, ’cause I’m myopic, and prefer to talk to people without my glasses, as I can see them better that way. I am always dressed in jeans and workshirts and sneakers in the fall and winter, shorts and T-shirts and sneakers in the spring and summer. My hair varies from semi-long to fully shaven. I mumble when I talk. I am not prepossessing. Except when I am. When I’m at the top of my game, I can be someone everybody notices. I can exude charisma. I have a handsome face—though I wish my chin were stronger—a deep, bass voice, and a body that has, as a sculptor friend once observed, Greek ideal proportions. (While a protruding stomach does not alter my fundamentally perfect proportions, it does not enhance my appearance.) I have presence. I can control a room. When I want to. It all depends. [From Sheldon Frank, “Not Writing,” email to author, April 2004]
That afternoon I began rereading Markson, dead eleven days before, June 4, 2010. I’d found Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988) at the Strand sometime in college, between washing out of vector calc & linear algebra and bailing on freshman great books, couldn’t/wouldn’t read Herodotus, 1998, and going crazy senior year as a purported history major. (“The grade, which may disappoint, is no reflection on the intelligence or capacity of the author. It signals rather that the essay fails to conform to the requirement that an essay in the history department must be historical.”) I’d taught myself aesthetics, let’s call them, by reading and writing record reviews, increasingly fictional ones, as I collated more trivia and grew ever more willful, hating the form but relying on it. I could even suppose my catastrophic senior essay on “the historical aesthetics of rock,” whose idiot systematizing combined with my drinking and “personal troubles” to cause a minor but persistent breakdown and depression, might better be read as a horribly failed novella, the structure mock-Hegelian and the protagonist, rock-sound spirit, coming to know itself by way of band names. (Steve Albini, Forced Exposure 7/8, 1985: “I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and the Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.” Sam Frank, 2002: “Total music as the meeting place of rock and sound, known-unknown and unknown-unknown. Rock-as-music-as-sound-as-life-as-world-as-everything-as-nothing. Etc.”) Markson’s approach to fiction—trivia wrapped thinly in form—was one I understood, and in my mania I appreciated his coolness. Reader’s Block (1996) and This Is Not a Novel (2001) confirmed me in all this. Later I’d read Springer’s Progress, an earlier novel and showier about being showy, and guess soon enough why Dad liked it so much, since he didn’t, actually, like James Joyce.
I had every intention of strongly disliking Springer’s Progress. Who, I pondered, needs another novel-within-a-novel about a relentlessly womanizing, self-obsessed, middle-aged, married New York writer who hangs out at the Lion’s Head bar and, in the midst of an eternal writer’s block, falls in love, yes, falls in love, with a sensitive, intelligent, spectacularly beautiful young woman? Hadn’t I read this somewhere before? Many, many, many times? [From Sheldon Frank, “Minor Minor and Major Major,” New York Times Book Review, August 7, 1977]
Markson: “Non-linear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.” “Nobody comes. Nobody calls.” “Avicenna read Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times. Mozart was buried in an unmarked grave. Aeschylus fought at Marathon and Salamis and then died when an eagle dropped a turtle on his head. Thomas Lovell Beddoes once tried to set fire to the Drury Lane Theater with a five-pound note. Alexander razed Thebes but left untouched the house that had been Pindar’s. St. Isadora in an urgency to be contemptible subsisted upon swill from the floor of a monastery kitchen. Jules Pascin scrawled a farewell to his mistress in blood after opening his wrists.… The life of man in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Voltaire wrote Candide in three days. Erasmus wrote The Praise of Folly in seven. The grave’s a fine and private place, but none, Springer thinks, do there embrace.” “Old. Sick. Tired. Alone. Broke.”
In rewriting this part of the novel I’ve softened my assault, toned things down. In my first draft I had a section that made fun of Dad’s ignorance, but I took it out, it was a cheap shot. And I’m not interested in cheap shots anymore, I’m not interested in causing trouble. But you and Dad are bigoted and embittered. You gave me a distorted picture of the world that took me years to correct. I am my parents’ child. On second thought, I will tell Dad’s story, it provides the necessary context. At some point in the year after college, when I was living at home and seeing a shrink three times a week, I talked with my father about emotional problems and mental illness. We talked in abstract terms. Then, to exemplify his understanding of such problems, my father told me of an old pool-playing friend who went bananas. As my father described this friend who was convinced that my father would hit him over the head with a poolstick if he turned his back on him, it was clear that this guy was a textbook paranoid. We talked about paranoia, and then my father suggested a possibility for the cause of his lunacy. Despite coming from an extremely Orthodox Jewish family, this guy masturbated a lot. Glib as always, I suggested that the enormous guilt he must have felt about masturbating coupled with the fear of being caught would have been profoundly traumatic. No, said my father, it was the masturbation that made him crazy. When you masturbate you go nuts. I am my parents’ child?…
A few years after Markson I’d read Watt, a superior ur-text for an uncertainty of influence: run aground on the fathoms of logic, exhausting erudition and English, Beckett’s inversion of Joyce soon to come. Something about the final fragment—“no symbols where none intended”—unpunctuated, uncapitalized, unassimilable, indeed an addendum to the novel,1 made it my paper icon of authorial ambivalence, or is it ambiguity. A bit before that I’d try again the water-warped, wine-warped, warped-form Barthelme Sixty Stories I’d stolen from a Yale library, and in one bout of pacing around my apartment while wondering what my problem was, I hate this frightful, inferior, revolting book, read the Wittgenstein’s Nephew I’d bought for its title, before pacing, complaining, with The Lime Works, The Loser, The Voice Imitator, Gathering Evidence, Concrete, Correction, Extinction, the then-complete Bernhard on permanent loan from Dad. Rereading Markson now, I’m struck by how badly his books withstand it, how threadbare their forms are, how little they’ve learned from their exemplars. They’re always well read but only well read: neither deeply (Beckett) nor distractedly (Barthelme) nor distortedly (Bernhard). But I still like Springer’s Progress—a witty lazy book about being a witty lazy book: a minor success of minor failure.
… Didn’t I know it was going to be this way? Well, you do and you don’t. You don’t really step into the same river twice. Stepping into a river at age twenty-three is decidedly different from getting your toes and heart soaked at thirty. More different than I could have ever known. No one could have told me, books didn’t help, not even Heraclitus, you had to be there. And I’ve never been here before. Yes, I know I’ve written about being in the wrong bed many times before, but this time is different. We’re not talking trysts and affairs, we’re talking love with a capital F, we’re talking leaving my wife for another woman. This, I suppose, is known as stupidity.…
Here’s where the details get fuzzy. I must have repressed this in my first draft but I guess revision is a kind of thinking. And my old Yahoo account was wiped so I’m thrown back on memory. It’s a sunny chilly spring day in 2004 and I’m reading Springer’s Progress in Jefferson Market Library before heading to my boss’s house to help him research, reframe, Louise Lawler. The book is sexy and funny and I’m excited. Vanishing Point was just released, the third Markson in a row about a failed writer alone with his books, and again I’ve been reminded of Dad. And somehow I’ve figured out he’d reviewed Springer’s Progress, and I’m sitting reading it and so many things are seeming to connect, and I’m thinking about pitching an essay about all of this to Harper’s or something. I email Dad and ask him if I can finally read his old fiction from the ’70s, and this sets off his mania for emailing and he writes the email “Not Writing” and begins retyping his fiction from his hard copies. Now, I’ve already read his first two, unpublished stories, which aren’t very good but I’m fond of them: “The Son of the Document,” a wannabe Barthelme about “The Document,” and “The Document” itself, which alternates between roman passages about his life at home just back from college and italicized reflections on the Document, a found text that’s the story’s final section. The alternating passages aren’t sharp enough, the Document isn’t alien or human enough, but I remain fond of the story, fond of its form. But then via AOL and Yahoo come “City Games,” about sexual inadequacy and poor Jews speaking black, “Out of Tune,” about intellectual gamesmanship during abortive grad school at Chicago, and the unfinished novel I Can See Clearly Now, done by 1976, the flimsiest possible roman à clef about having a fucked-up life and writer’s block and cheating on Mom: frightful, inferior, revolting. Also derivative, embittered, dreary.2
From top: Videos by Robert Alexander, Madeline Kraft.
… The thing was I had to earn some bread. Such a petty concern. How banal. How demeaning. Tried to do two things at once but couldn’t. So I let things slide on the work-in-progress. It’s been an unusual few months. Don’t regret the hiatus at all, found myself doing things I never expected to do and made some bread, too. The hiatus was made somewhat ironic by my getting a grant to work on a novel—a grant made on the basis of my previous work for a novel which didn’t even exist as an idea, only as a proposed project to fill a grant application. I appreciated the mild absurdity of getting a grant for a novel which didn’t exist when I applied for the grant, but then did exist before I received the grant, but then had temporarily ceased to exist when I received the grant. Friends who had learned of my good fortune would ask, of course, “Workin’ on the novel, genius?” Not right now, too busy with other things, I’ll get back to it. It takes time, you know. As the time stretched into months of not working on it, they started laying guilt trips. “You ever gonna start that thing again?” Lighten up, I’ll take care of business, don’t worry, be cool. [From Sheldon Frank, I Can See Clearly Now, 1974–76]
Barthelme, “A Manual for Sons”: “Patricide: Patricide is a bad idea, first because it is contrary to law and custom and secondly because it proves, beyond a doubt, that the father’s every fluted accusation against you was correct. You are a thoroughly bad individual, a patricide!—member of a class of persons universally ill-regarded. It is all right to feel this hot emotion, but not to act upon it. And it is not necessary. It is not necessary to slay your father, time will slay him, that is a virtual certainty. Your true task lies elsewhere. Your true task, as a son, is to reproduce every one of the enormities touched upon in this manual, but in attenuated form. You must become your father, but a paler, weaker version of him.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Secretary, I’m a new student in the Department of Transhistorical Ideas and Ultimate Verities. I’d like to make some appointments with my new intellectual mentors.” “Easier said than done. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” “Cut the literary crap and lay some professors on me, lady.” “Thought I’d test your intellectual reflexes. You’re no Calvin Murphy.” “I hope you get asbestos poisoning from your vaginal spray.” “Not bad. A tad vulgar, but not bad.” “Let’s try it from the beginning. I’m a new student in the and so on. I’d like to and so on.” “Well, Professor A. is in Majorca recuperating from the rigors of having taught a full course last semester. Think of it, a man of his eminence having to show up twice a week for a full three months. Unconscionable demands. Professor B. is still on his farm in Cornwall. He promises to return as soon as the harvest is completed. Very late harvests in Cornwall, you know. Professor C. is on campus, but students give him the whillies. Or do you spell that willies? They exacerbate his dyspepsia. Professor D. is more than willing to talk at excessive length to anybody who walks into his office. But he’s so nervously and obviously avoiding his scholarly responsibilities he tends to give students the willys. He exacerbates their dyspepsia. Or is it dyspepsias? Professor E. can’t be bothered, Professor F. can’t be hassled, Professor G. can’t be found. I can give you the names of your fellow students, but they’re pretty much out-to-lunch. I do hope you enjoy it here.”…
Bernhard, Extinction: “At about two o’clock I received the telegram informing me that my parents and my brother, Johannes, had died. Parents and Johannes killed in accident. Caecilia, Amalia, it read. Holding the telegram, I kept a clear head, walked calmly to my study window, and looked down on the Piazza Minerva, where there was not a soul in sight. I had given Gambetti five books that I thought would be useful and necessary to him in the next few weeks, telling him to read them slowly and carefully: Jean Paul’s Siebenkäs, Kafka’s The Trial, Thomas Bernhard’s Amras, Musil’s The Portuguese Woman, and Broch’s Esch or Anarchy. I opened the window so that I could breathe more easily and reflected that I had been right to give Gambetti those five books rather than any others, since he would find them increasingly important in the course of our lessons.”
… “Well, in the first place, the language is delicious.” “Thank you. That’s what I cared about most.” “In the second place, many of the pieces have a marvelous daytime nightmare quality.” “That’s a good phrase. I’ll use it from now on. Thank you again. But I’m waiting for the but. I know a but is coming and I’m pretty sure I know the content of the but, so tell me already.” “But, they are still, like everything else you have ever written, only elegant confections.” “But they are elegant.” “Indeed. Perhaps someday you will progress to making strudel.” “And you, on the other hand, would prefer a nice pot roast.” [From Sheldon Frank, “Out of Tune,” 1973; excerpted in Chicago Review 25, no. 3, Winter 1974]
The point isn’t to kill the father. The point’s to become a father and fail to kill yourself, slowly, till you die. Beckett managed this, Barthelme and Bernhard nearly so. Others fail at failing, loving their fathers, themselves, too much and too little.
Roscoe, Sonny, and Lionel were playing three-on-three against Garnett, Leroy, and Maurice. They played together every afternoon in the schoolyard. The sides would regularly change, but the games were always close. This game was tied at 18 when three fine foxes, Sandra, Jarlene, and Juanita, stopped by to check it out. Roscoe took the ball in and passed to Sonny who tried a twenty-foot Dick Barnett jump shot. The ball bounced off the rim to Garnett who threw out to Leroy who tossed an Earl Monroe pass which bounced off the knees of Maurice into the arms of Lionel who took a Dave Bing jumper which hit the backboard into the hands of Leroy who missed a Kareem Jabbar hook shot which rebounded to Garnett who lofted a Howard Porter jump shot which bounced to Sonny who threw up a Wally Jones jump which ricocheted to Roscoe who tried an Elvin Hayes dunk which twisted to Lionel who missed a Joe Caldwell drive which fell to Garnett who threw a Norm Van Lier pass which bounced off the head of Maurice into the hands of Roscoe whose cakes were being grabbed by Leroy. Roscoe missed a Lucius Allen, Leroy missed a Jimmy Walker, Sonny a Nate Archibald, Maurice a Fred Carter, Garnett an Archie Clark, Lionel a Jo Jo White. Sonny did a Calvin Murphy dribble between his legs which hit the back of his left calf and rolled out of bounds. The three fine foxes thought they were the lamest dudes they had ever seen. They split. Roscoe, Sonny, Lionel, Garnett, Leroy, and Maurice checked it out and went back to playing basketball. [From Sheldon Frank, “City Games,” 1972; published in Fiction Midwest 1, no. 1, Spring 1973]
In July, word spread that Markson’s library had been sold to the Strand and disbursed among the shelves: the Strand’s own avant-gardist, let’s call him, back where he belonged. In April 2009, Dad sent me and my sister yet another email, this one titled “Deaccessioning”: “As you know, I’m a pathological book-buyer. And I am also a completist—a difficult task, no buying online, just searching the Strand and all the now-departed used-book stores near the original Barnes & Noble, plus new books from Barnes & Noble, Walden Books, Borders, Shakespeare and Company, and from the now-departed stores on Madison Avenue, Books and Company in particular. I know what books I’ll never get around to reading, and if you’re interested, they’re yours: Complete or almost complete Compton-Burnett, Gaddis, Green, Spackman, John Hawkes, Elkin, Sorrentino, Kafka, Nabokov, Hermann Broch, Firbank, DeLillo, Nathaniel Mackey, Antrim, Lethem, Homes, Whitehead, Franzen, Richard Powers, Martin Amis. Complete Beckett, but so old they fall apart upon reading. Lots of Vollmann, but since he writes so much, who knows how complete my Vollmann library is. Plus every volume of Gass’s criticism. Plus some more, I’m sure. And, knowing that I refuse to read translations, almost all novels in English.” Two months later, he hospitalized himself, as his hands had lost the feeling and strength to read or to write (it was degenerative spondylolisthesis with cervical spinal stenosis). On September 14, 2010, he died from a C. difficile infection contracted during follow-up surgery, and three days later my mom, my sister, and I began packing his library.
One day Jonathan wrote a story. One day clever, likable, mildly Alexandrian Jonathan wrote a clever, likable, mildly Alexandrian story. So what. Who cares? Big deal. Well, Jonathan had always had potential. Jonathan showed his story to Buckminster and Sylvia. Their home was a sanitarium of activity. The macramé was entangled in the looms which were bumping into the succulents which were dripping water onto the needlework which was mistakenly served as a Pakistani delicacy. The lathes, polishers, saws, and small fission devices were downstairs. The bookshelves held the collected works of Yasunari Kawabata, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, and Stevie Smith. “Dynamite story, Jonathan,” said Sylvia. “It has the pedantry of Borges, the lucidity of Barthelme, the surreality of Breton. The tension among the outer narrative, the italicized commentary, and the reified text lends an ambiguity to the piece that is delightful.” [From Sheldon Frank, “The Son of the Document,” 1971]
Huh, maybe, thanks for asking. Your true task lies elsewhere. Books that I thought would be useful and necessary. It is good to be shifty. A marvelous daytime nightmare quality. My tears are like crystal. No symbols where none intended.
The day began ordinarily enough. Getting up later than I wished, cursing my indolence, promising to do better, knowing I wouldn’t. A year had passed since college. Going home to put things together. Going home to establish routines. Where was the Document when I was viewing myself with characteristic self-contempt? Was it still in its author’s hands or was it resting on the Professor’s desk? I had halted my backsliding, now I merely wasted time. Why me? Why now? I had gotten away from books and words recently. Perhaps the Document is a way of bringing me home again. The old problems of explication du texte, ambiguity, etc., seem inescapable. And now a text to fill a lifetime. Walking to the library. Always walk with my head down. Pick up stray pieces of paper. A way of getting in touch with people. Sheets of paper across the street from the school. Pick them up. The Document. It changed my life. [From Sheldon Frank, “The Document,” ca. 1970–71]
My parents, though very intelligent, knew nothing and read nothing except the newspapers. I would read novels with a dictionary by my side—I distinctly remember doing it for Silas Marner. I used double negatives until my senior year. I was accepted by Harvard in 1961 as a mathematician/physicist from a Philadelphia Stuyvesant, and after that notion crashed and burned my freshman year, I became an American History & Lit major my sophomore year (I had been an English major for a week until a friend told me about the History & Lit program). And I found myself swimming upstream big-time. My colleagues were all bright, glib, and well educated. They had a two-year head start on me. So I worked my ass off, foregoing any life outside my studies, and succeeded quite spectacularly. Even before college, I had begun reading avant-garde fiction—Breton, Robbe-Grillet, Céline, Beckett, etc., etc. In college I read almost everything by all the canonical American novelists, from Charles Brockden Brown to Faulkner. And in my two independent-study courses—second half of my junior year, first half of my senior—I read a ton of then-contemporary literature, knocked out by Naked Lunch and Barthelme, among a few others. A professor raved about Pynchon’s V., which I read and didn’t like all that much, and which I think I didn’t get. My nervous breakdown during my junior year (early 1964) I attribute to having to constantly deal with ever-heightening expectations. The rational thing to do as I approached serious academic competition—a seminar notorious for its brutality—was to go crazy. So I did. But even after my breakdown I attempted to compete, and, despite everyone telling me not to take them, did exceptionally well in my Junior Generals, which led me to my senior year where I did a ho-hum thesis and took my orals completely drunk. Competing had become just too hard. Living had become too hard. Every day, and I do not exaggerate, from the time of my breakdown until my accidental discovery of Valium in 1975, was an adventure in surviving. I was consumed by anxiety, sleeping with the lights on, afraid to be alone with my thoughts. When I staggered home to my parents’ house after graduation in June 1965, all I wanted was to be left alone with my books and my music. I wanted no demands placed on me by anyone. After college, I read a ton of nonfiction, beginning with a history of the world, and proceeding apace, guided in part by a temporarily lost mnemonic—Paul Goodman, Lévi-Strauss, McLuhan, Canetti, Queneau, and a
couple others. I also continued to read my Beckett, Harry Mathews, Barthelme, Borges, Nabokov—I could traverse my library to remember the many others. Starting in 1967 or so, my focus was on politics—these were the ’60s, after all—and I read a ton of Old Left and New Left stuff. I wrote my first book review in 1970 or so, and continued writing a ton of them until 1981, so I read a ton of then-contemporary fiction for a decade or so. I met Mom in 1966, and, after I stalled for six months in asking her out after I met her in the library, we became wildly infatuated lovers in June on what was, for all purposes, our first date. She worked and I read and listened to music. I was a genius, how could anything crass and material be expected of me? I applied to graduate school because Mom was getting fed up with my bullshit, and went because I wanted marital harmony (1968). I never wanted to go to graduate school. I was too fucked up to go to graduate school. Things changed in 1972 when I wrote my first stories, to wild approbation. At age twenty-nine, never having written fiction before, I became a writer. Writers told me I was a writer. I won an NEA Fellowship. I wrote a hundred reviews. Valium enabled me to function within bearable limits of anxiety. In 1970, ’71, I write these quasi-Barthelme-esque stories, and they’re not very good. And then the next spring I get this inspiration, because I was still ostensibly a graduate student, and I write this thing “City Games.” What was remarkable was, people’s reactions were over the top. “Dick” Stern was the one who read it and welcomed me as a writer, not as a young writer, as a writer. It got published as a fluke, and I know Leonard Michaels for example was floored. I developed this peculiar relationship with Bellow. Bellow hated competition, no matter who it was. I guess it was low self-esteem, his need to have his ego stroked. And he was seeing the handwriting on the wall in terms of the end of the great period of his quasi-realist enterprise. He said I was writing soufflés or something. I said, elegant soufflés, I agree, but you prefer brisket or something like that. The motherfucker was jealous of the gifts I had, and we had this wonderful sort of antagonistic thing. He’s the kind of guy who sets up his office so that when you see him, you’re staring directly into the sun, I mean it’s set up perfectly, you can’t see a goddamn thing, the sun’s right in your fucking eyes, and Bellow, this pseudoaristocrat, this dapper guy, and pretty short, he was supposed to have imperious presence. Well, I’m never afraid of anybody, I’m not cowed by anybody. I would make wisecracks with him. “City Games” gets published and it gets a phenomenal reaction. So, thereafter, Bellow knew that I was a fiction writer, which immediately meant that I was a
rival. This paranoid guy. And I was the literary hotshot on campus. Bellow was street smart, he figured out I was street smart. He would try to run his numbers on me, and I wasn’t buying it. At one time he said, “You’re the most promising writer of your generation.” He said that to you? Oh yeah, Bellow told me I was the most promising writer of my generation. He believed it. “City Games,” the first thing, the basketball thing, a professor of English literature, who I was doing clerical work for, said, “That page is perfect, I’ve never read a better page in my entire life.” I’m getting comments like this, I’m saying, it’s crazy. But Bellow was aghast at the whole world of Barthelme and metafiction, whatever. He read “City Games,” he went through a series of laudatory expressions, and I said, “Now we come to the but, OK, Saul, what’s the but?” “But Sheldon, all in all, they’re only elegant confections.” And I said to him, “I suppose you on the other hand would prefer a brisket.” Bellow had enormous respect for me. I was therefore a competitor. We were on each other’s case, it was the big lion and the little lion. I’d figured I could kill two birds with one stone by writing my dissertation on what was a version of Wayne Booth, take ten disparate novels and try to figure out why they work, and because it was a literary dissertation, Bellow had to be my adviser. I saw this as a great chance to read the fiction that was important to me, try to figure out things, and at the same time get my PhD. I go in there and I realize I’ve walked into the middle of a power trip. Because here was Saul Bellow, thesis adviser, therefore the person who controls your life, who tells you what to do. In Bellow’s case, Bellow loved the idea of being my thesis adviser, because he could just go on a power trip and have control over my life. When he said the person you’d have to read would be Huizinga on Homo Ludens, it was clear from the get-go that it would be impossible to write my dissertation with Bellow as my adviser, that he was going to be my boss and make it very clear to me he was boss. But roughly around the same time, he said to me, “Sheldon, what the fuck are you doing in graduate school? You’re a writer. Move to New York, get some gigs writing book reviews, and write.” We had this strange relationship. I was, at heart, a metafictionist, and so I started the famous novel I Can See Clearly Now. And see, my problem is that I’ve never been a good storyteller, plus I had at this point gotten fed up with the conventions of traditional novels. So when I was starting work on this novel, are we talking ’74 or what, I was going crazy to find a sort of armature, not a plot, but an intellectual armature on which a novel could hang, so there would be a certain degree of coherence. Well, I wrote seventy-nine pages, and it was very
much writing and commenting about writing, but to my total surprise Stern, I have to give him the prize for generosity, through his good offices got it read by the three most, five most important editors in New York, none of whom thought it had any commercial viability. I never had the drive—writing long fiction is just nothing I—I don’t even know what fiction consists of. The degree that the Barthelme short stories can be categorized as fiction, the word doesn’t really have much meaning. It’s probably fair to say that I’m not sure what fiction entails. I’m not clear whether I ever wrote fiction. Sam, whatever else I do, when it works, I love—the important thing about my prose is its rhythm, and I really like the rhythm of my prose, and every sentence has to be right, whether that’s evident in my writing that’s not for me to say. Then, in 1976, Mom and I having moved to New York, my novel-in-progress was rejected by everybody of consequence. So I stopped writing. I continued to review until 1981, earning a living at Parsons until I quit in late 1979, then we moved to Hoboken in early 1980. Didn’t read much fiction from 1982 to 1987. I was hooked on Hoboken politics, and read deeply about New Jersey municipal and state issues, becoming expert in rent control, property taxation, municipal laws and court cases, land use, regulatory takings, the Port Authority, city planning, the panoply. It was here that I got my legal training. Then, beginning in 1983 with my job with Accountants for the Public Interest, I became expert in the Administrative Procedures Act, the Federal Register, the US Code, and everything else about the procedures that govern both state and federal policies. I learned that almost everything is, in fact, procedural. After a couple of years of temp jobs, I got the Hoboken Reporter gig in mid-1983 and became a political demon (after getting fired from the Reporter because my copy was always late and because I tried to organize a union) until I became homeless in early 1985. Began reading fiction again in 1989—I spent 1987 to 1988 focusing on my separation and divorce, becoming expert in family and domestic law. I started by reading the big books I had long owned, but had never read—The Recognitions, JR, Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat and An Adultery, all of Conrad Aiken’s novels, the Burroughs trilogy—Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands—Parade’s End—the Ford Madox Ford tetralogy—the twelve books of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and others I could find by checking out my library. These were big books, after all. Almost completely guided by the lists of authors in The Reader’s Catalog (published in 1989) I began reading those contemporary authors I had missed. I
read the then-contemporary Brits—Martin Amis and Julian Barnes—but not much McEwan. I liked neither Amis nor Barnes, found McEwan intriguing. But I went bonkers with the then-contemporary American novelists. I should note that I had never read a mystery/crime/thriller novel until 1989, and have been a junkie of those genres ever since, but read very little now, since I have read everything. Following the Catalog I read Walter Abish, Kathy Acker, Max Apple, Paul Auster, John Barth, Frederick Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Michael Chabon, Andrei Codrescu, Laurie Colwin, Evan Connell, Robert Coover, Coleman Dowell, Deborah Eisenberg, Stanley Elkin, Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Gaitskill, Kenneth Gangemi, William Gass, Donald Goines, Barry Hannah, Jim Harrison, Janet Hobhouse, William Kotzwinkle, Cormac McCarthy, Joseph McElroy, Jay McInerney, Leonard Michaels, Steven Millhauser, Kem Nunn, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Walker Percy, Richard Price, James Purdy, Ishmael Reed, Philip Roth, Gilbert Sorrentino, Richard Stern, James Wilcox, Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Al Young. I read a lot of some, one of many others, own a lot. Read all of Waugh, Compton-Burnett, De Vries, Henry Green, Spackman, Colwin, Elkin, Colin MacInnes, Gaddis, Sorrentino (kinda), Frederick Barthelme (kinda), Beattie (kinda), Hobhouse, Mathews, Paley, Eric Kraft, Beckett, and Barthelme. I know I am leaving a lot out, alas. Own, but haven’t read, Donald Antrim, Mark Costello, Susan Daitch, Jeffrey Eugenides, A. M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Colson Whitehead. Have read all of Lorrie Moore, The Corrections by Franzen. I suppose that my generation’s writers consist of those who first published in the late ’50s or early ’60s, or published major work at those times—Gaddis, Burroughs, De Vries. It is the Barth and Barthelme generation. It doesn’t really include the writers of the 1940s and ’50s—although I have read a lot of most of them, and have forgotten almost everything about them, having read them so long ago (we’re talking about forty-five years ago, guys)—James Baldwin, Bellow, Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Herbert Gold, Mark Harris, Chester Himes, John Clellon Holmes, Shirley Jackson, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Wright Morris, Flannery O’Connor, Salinger, Jean Stafford, William Styron, Gore Vidal, and Eudora Welty. Then there is the transgeneration John Hawkes—own all, read some—and the rediscovered Dawn Powell—own some, read almost all. There is a third writer who belongs in either the Hawkes or Powell mode, but I can’t remember right now. “Why is he writing this?” you
wonder. To give you a sense of why I’ve read who I’ve read. To put my contemporary and quasi-contemporary hit-and-miss literary erudition in perspective. And because it is now 5:00 a.m. Every night I take my sedating antidepressant at 10:00 p.m., my vodka and antihistamine sedative nightcap at 11:00 p.m., and feel sleepy by 11:45 p.m. Tonight I had my antidepressant at 10:00 p.m., felt sleepy at midnight, had my vodka and antihistamine nightcap at a minute after midnight, watched television for two hours (I almost always fall asleep in my chair watching television at night), felt groggy at 2:00 a.m., and still a bit groggy, but thinking about the books I gave you and the roles they played in my life, I felt too wired to fall asleep, got out of bed, and began writing this at 2:30 a.m. I found my current home in October 1986, and since then, with a few minor exceptions, I have lived a hermit’s life, content to be alone with my books and my music and my email. No one comes to see me and I don’t go out to see anyone. My phone never rings. I go days without speaking to anyone. A trip to Washington Street is a major ordeal. I retired from life at age forty-three. Whatever ambition I ever had has been drained from my soul. Disability was my salvation—it permitted me to do nothing, it made no demands. It is now 5:40 a.m.