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A psychiatrist friend once pointed out to me that one of the definitions of psychosis is a fixed belief in an imaginary world lasting months or years, which no one but the patient himself is able to perceive. He wondered aloud if this wasn’t also a decent definition of a novelist. Having recently emerged from five years of concentration on my own imaginary world of my latest book, I think he has a point. Which has left me considering the disposition that leads people to write in the first place, and the relationship between their actual and imaginary lives.
One of the paradoxes of writing is that in order to fulfill the urge to communicate something to others, you end up spending huge amounts of time on your own. In the case of a book, it adds up to years of solitude, some of it satisfying, even pleasurable, much of it wretched and menaced by doubt. The irony being that one of the reasons many writers have the urge to communicate to begin with is that they’ve experienced loneliness earlier in life and writing seems like a means to overcome it, to connect with others. A solitude imposed in youth becomes chosen in adulthood. What was a source of shame becomes a condition of work. You remove yourself from the world in order to get closer to it.
The most obvious cause of my own loneliness as a kid was that my father, whom at fourteen I suppose I was still a little in love with, committed suicide. Because he’d suffered from depression it never occurred to me to blame him or to be angry at him. In my young mind, he died a martyr to an invisible cause.
The loss of a parent is a common enough thing and I did what most kids do when their world feels destroyed. I tried to care less about what remained. I can remember how proud I was of the analogy I developed to explain my situation: I had been burned, I told my friends, and the effect was that I could feel nothing that didn’t achieve the white hot temperature of my father’s death. In other words, I was immune to the petty cares and disappointments that most people suffered because they simply didn’t register on my cauterized spirit.
This was untrue, of course. I needed people’s attention and love more than ever. I needed it to an intolerable degree. My dramatic, Romantic metaphor was what I used to try to conceal this fact. It was an early lesson in the value of a story as a place to hide. Because that’s what I was doing—beginning to make a narrative out of my life, spoken internally at first and then, when I began writing in a journal, committed to the page.
A particular mood might bite, but writing a well wrought sentence about that same mood contained satisfaction, and a hint of control. With this small, private power came a bit of pleasure, something I had practically none of at that point in my life, other than the release of drugs. Creating the music of a good phrase, one that echoed the best of what I’d read, was an escape that could be returned to over and over.
Elegy, then, was safe. To envision myself and those around me as characters whose fate was already sealed let the abstraction of sadness in, while keeping the stuff itself at bay. It would be years before I read the line in Russell Banks’s novel Affliction, about two brothers “whose best hope for a connection to other human beings lay in elaborating for themselves an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over,” but when I did I had one of those uncanny experiences of being recognized by a book.
In college I studied English and was taught the then-standard narrative of literary historical progress. It went something like this: for all its descriptive power and social scope, 19th-century realism partook of the bourgeois ideology of a discreet, coherent and usually marriageable self. It was this ideology, under the pressure of urban life, that 20th-century modernism bravely exploded, pressing the pathos of a divided, modern consciousness down into the syntax of the sentence. But then, in due time, modernism itself was shown to be committed to a “master narrative” of western culture, a grand progression through a series of artistic monuments, which modernism had ingeniously reinterpreted, and in the process provided the glorious, concluding chapters of a plot line that ran from Plato to Joyce. And thus we arrived at contemporary post-modernism, with its undercutting irony, tailor made to disrupt this narrative and upend its pretensions by throwing the possibility of meaning itself into endless question.
As a young person, the lesson I took from this account was that in order to count as a writer you had to be formally innovative. This was what each new generation was supposed to do: debunk the old forms and invent a new grammar befitting the age.
Then something happened. I left the academy. I moved to New York and got a job. And after work I sat at the desk in my tiny bedroom and tried to write stories that would move people, that would make them feel something. Because what I experienced in myself and in those around me wasn’t first and foremost the oppressiveness of modernist aesthetics. It was, rather, a low-grade depression. A sense that nothing much mattered. Whatever stance you took, it had an optional, revocable quality to it. And yet meanwhile, beneath the pose of the slacker, I was teeming with loneliness and hurt and the desire for intimacy. These were subjects that most post-modernist literature had virtually no interest in, other than as objects of parody.
I believe you write the book you want to read. As a reader what I craved was some recognition, however refracted, of the tumult of lived experience, of the pain and absurdity of trying to reach other human beings with some modicum of honesty and openness. And so without quite realizing what I was doing, over the course of the next few years, I wrote a series of stories that eventually became my first book, each of which dramatized in one way or another this struggle: how to find intimacy in a culture that has hollowed out the very language we use to describe it. How to capture the experience of grief when our terms for it have been overrun by the commercialization of confession. The enemy wasn’t New Criticism. It was cliché.
I was trying to write prose whose rhythm created an atmosphere, a music, that allowed the nuances of human isolation, the desire to overcome it, and what it felt like to fail or sometimes briefly succeed in defying that isolation rise into the consciousness of a reader. What I believed then, and still do, is that in a violent, distracted, media-saturated world the most needed artistic resource is no longer a critique of the possibility of meaning—mass culture itself has become that critique. What is needed, rather, is the production of meaning that resists distraction. Consumer capitalism thrives by simultaneously creating human loneliness and commodifying a thousand cures for it. One form of resistance to it is the experience in art and life of a human intimacy achieved through sustained attention to what lies beyond and outside the sphere of the market.
* * * *
This is all well and good, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Fiction writers aren’t simply producers of a worthy means of fighting the ever deeper penetration of market values. We are—I am—as caught up in the culture as anyone. The fact is that as I reflect on this I realize that the disposition I’m trying to describe here, one that leads people to create imaginary worlds, has allowed me to avoid intimacy as much as experience it. If you spend your life cultivating the ability to invent stories that very capacity can block out what is right in front of you.
A number of years ago, for instance, for reasons I no longer remember, I phoned my old babysitter, Susan. I don’t remember why I was calling, maybe to give her some news of my aunt, whom she’d remained in touch with. Whatever the reason, I hadn’t spoken to her for many years. She had looked after my siblings and me for more than a decade and become like a member of our family. She was in her mid-forties now, living with her mother in the house in Massachusetts where she’d been raised, and working for the town.
When she answered the phone that day and told me she was in the den, I could picture it well—its heavy carpet, the deep, sagging couch covered in a blanket, the window facing up a slope to the road. She was surprised to hear from me after all this time. I had caught her unawares. After I passed on whatever bit of news I had to communicate, she confessed it was strange that I should call on this day of all days.
The reason being that she had just discovered that her mother had neglected to pay their property taxes for many years and that the town was on the verge of taking possession of their home. I probably offered some kind of halting sympathy. What I remember her saying as we were about to hang up is, “I guess you’re the closest I’ll ever come to having a child.” And what I recall most vividly about it isn’t the words she spoke, but how it was that I heard them.
I heard them as a line in a short story. One about a woman in her forties living in the house she’d grown up in, discovering this news that will change her life, and then, in slightly uncanny fashion, receiving a call from the boy she used to babysit, which causes a reckoning of sorts, as she sees clearly she will have no children of her own. I didn’t listen to Susan, and then afterwards consider the fictional potential of what she was saying. That wasn’t the sequence. I metabolized what she said as fiction. Experiencing her in that moment as a character rather than a person, a character whose fate I might control on the page, inoculated me against the reality of what I was hearing: that the woman who had helped raise me, who I had loved in that total and unknowing way of children, and yet seen so little of ever since, still bore love for me.
In his essay on King Lear the philosopher Stanley Cavell offers a compelling explanation for one of the long-standing conundrums of that play. Why does Lear banish his favorite daughter, Cordelia, for refusing to mimic her sisters’ fawning and disingenuous pronouncements of love for him? He banishes her, Cavell writes, because by refusing to falsify her love with showy declarations she brings her actual love for him into the open. And this is what Lear cannot tolerate. He can accept false love because it requires no intimacy, no self-knowledge, and no acknowledgement of his own weakness and mortality. Actual love, on the other hand, requires all of these things. Lear rids himself of Cordelia to avoid knowing himself. That is his tragedy.
Nothing so dramatic was taking place between Susan and me. But one of Cavell’s points is that in certain seasons, we are all Lear. We ward off love because it presents itself to us as a demand: to acknowledge another person’s needs, and thus our own; to glimpse their mortality, and thus ours. We each have our own means of achieving this avoidance. As a lonely kid, and later as a writer, I accomplished it through an “elegiac mode of relatedness,” sealing the present off as something already past.
Such dispositions aren’t easy to shed. We become them, and they are us. But here the paradox of writing reveals itself a kind of gift. Because however much solitude writing requires, it remains an effort to connect.
In these last five years of trying week in and week out to maintain my belief in the parallel world of the book I’ve been writing, I’ve been creating a fictional family, one that bears a good deal of resemblance to my own, but is at the same time invented, made up of my desires, my anguish, and my need to render an open-ended history into a meaningful narrative, something with a purposeful shape. Which is what I think of as the purpose of art. To bridge the divide of our intractable separateness by using our experience to create something that can be shared in common. Artists remove themselves in order to return.
Most of what I do is try to imagine what it is like to be people other than myself. To be, in some instances, the people I have loved. And in ways I couldn’t have known, this has brought me back to them.