Excerpt

Let’s Not Do That Again

Grant Ginder

April 4, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Grant Ginder's new novel, Let's Not Do That Again. Ginder is the author of five previous novels, including The People We Hate at the Wedding (which has been adapted into a major motion picture starring Allison Janney, Kristen Bell, and Ben Platt). Originally from Southern California, Ginder received his MFA from New York University, where he teaches writing.

Nick chews a pen cap and reads the list of words he’s spent the past hour writing. He’s in his office in the Critical Thinking and Writing Department, which is housed on the second floor of a cast-iron building on Lafayette Street, four blocks east of Washington Square. Above him is NYU’s Center for Residential Life, and below him is Me, Myself, and Thai, a pan-Asian restaurant that sells noodles by the pound. The office itself is small, and square, and has a single window—a rectangle of drafty glass that lets in not only the chilly autumn air but also the scent of frying garlic and fish sauce, ginger and tamarind. His pen still lodged between his molars, Nick bites down. His physical with Dr. Franklin required blood work, which meant that he had to fast; instead of breakfast this morning, he got a needle prick and a Flintstones Band-Aid, stuck to the crux of his left arm. Now his stomach rumbles.

“I can’t figure out how to end this thing,” he says.

Lisa, his office mate, turns in her chair.

“End what?’”

“This musical. I’ve written everything but the last scene, and now I can’t figure out how to end it.”

Curling her lips in, Lisa thinks.

“I’ve got it,” she says. “Joan holds up the Federal Reserve, robs it blind, and redistributes the cash to solve systemic wealth inequality.”

From downstairs: oyster sauce, and the earthy smell of mushrooms. The relentless seduction of pad see ew.

Nick says, “It’s not really that kind of show.”

Lisa shakes her head.

“Then I don’t know what to tell you,” she says, and turns back to her computer. On the screen, Nick catches a glimpse of a layered stack of home pages: the Washington Post and the New York Times. CNN, MSNBC, and the Daily Beast. Lisa is a news junkie, a tragedy addict. She begins conversations with reports of explosions in the West Bank, droughts in South Sudan. One morning two weeks ago, Nick unlocked the office’s door to find her sitting in the dark, watching a video on YouTube—a montage of walruses tumbling down a cliff, their dead bodies piling up among the gently lapping waves.

“It’s in Russia,” she said, her voice quiet and small. “They aren’t supposed to be up that high, but the sea ice has melted. They’ve got nowhere to go.”

A bull teetered over a precipice, its fins outstretched as if, in a fairer world, it might fly. Right before it collided with the rocks, Nick’s brain went zap and he turned away. With his one hand he squeezed Lisa’s shoulder, and with the other he turned on the light.

He does not blame her. He tells her he does not want to engage, but he does not blame her, he understands. There was a time, back when his life was measured in media cycles, that he acted the same way. He reached for his phone before he opened his eyes in the morning. He subsided on cycles of information and analysis; he traded in an economy of Knowing First, of Hot Takes. If something happened—a vote, a pandemic, a series finale—he sent messages to his friends, his colleagues that were devoid of context. “Italy, geez,” or “Who knew she had it in her.” When, seconds later, his phone buzzed with their responses (“Lombardy!” and “I did”) he felt comforted. He told himself that when The End finally came, at least they’d have these, their dress rehearsals for the apocalypse. At least they’d be able to say they saw it coming.

And then, when he left politics, he unplugged himself. Or—not entirely, but mostly. He downloaded an app that locked him out of all his favorite sites until eight o’clock each evening. At first it was difficult—not knowing what calamities were currently befalling humanity made him feel marooned—but quickly that changed. The world, he learned, couldn’t make sense of what it had endured that day until around dinnertime, anyway, so all the stuff that came before it rarely amounted to anything more than hand-wringing. Meanwhile, in the elongating spaces between articles—between the shrinking ice caps and the outbreaks and the crashing markets—he began to notice things he hadn’t realized he’d missed. The pleasant daze of a wandering mind; the pricelessness of boredom. The way that, instead of racing, his thoughts now settled, blanketing his mind like silt.

And time! Good God, the time he has now. Time to open books and actually read them, and start shows and actually finish them, and play records and actually hear them. Time to write a musical! It was an idea that came to him last fall when, in his Introduction to Thinking course, he asked his students to read “On Self-Respect,” the essay that Didion published in Vogue in 1961, the one that, as he explained to them, really put her on the map. He remembers how, in the minutes before class started, he rolled up his shirtsleeves and smelled the fresh ink on the stack of copies he’d xeroxed. It was his first day on the job—his first day of life free from the incessant demands of Washington, the country, and his mother—and he was excited. Excited to see minds bloom! To help them untangle the mysteries of the world! To learn! As the clock crept closer to nine o’clock, he polished his glasses and checked his teeth; he sat in his chair and then, thinking better of it, leaned on the edge of his desk instead. One by one, the students filed in, unloading their backpacks and taking seats around the seminar table. How young they looked! And how eager! He greeted each of them with a hearty hello; when they asked him if he was Professor Harrison, he laughed and waved the question away. Professor Harrison was someone who wore tweed jackets and said things like indubitably. They could call him Nick.

He didn’t bother with the syllabus, the tedious parsing of due dates and attendance policies, the arithmetic of final grades. Instead, he hit them with a bang—he hit them with the Didion. For the first minute, they approached the text timidly: a group of swimmers, using their toes to test the temperature of the lake. And then slowly, they began to wade in.

“So, let’s start with the big question,” he said once the last student had finished the essay. “What is self-respect?”

At first: crickets. The soft creak of weight being redistributed in chairs. And then—bingo: a hand. The girl across the table, who by now had tucked her pencil into a loose bun of raven hair. A freshman whose name, a quick glance at Nick’s roll sheet revealed, was Vanessa.

“Yes.” He clasped his hands together and pointed at her. “Take it away.”

“I actually find this essay to be really problematic.”

The class stared at Nick; Nick bit his lip.

“Oh. Well—huh.”

“If you check out the fifth-to-last paragraph, for example.” A flurry of turning pages; raindrops alighting on flat-faced leaves. “She says, ‘People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile.’ ”

“Right.”

“Well, first of all, it’s Native Americans.”

“I, uh—okay, that’s a fair point.”

“And second of all, hostile from whose perspective? A bunch of smallpox-infested white guys who have come to steal their land?”

“Oh, I think she was using that as a callback to the paragraph before. Where she quotes from the diary of the young pioneer girl?”

“Okay. So, the daughter of a smallpox-infested white guy who has come to steal their land.”

Nick scratched his head.

“It was 1961,” he offered.

“Meaning . . .”

“Meaning that maybe they didn’t have, uh, the same perspective on that word yet?”

“Or the same perspective on the brutalities of Manifest Destiny, evidently. Because I hardly think that being a foot soldier in the mass genocide of native peoples calls for a celebration of self-respect, even if you”—Vanessa scanned the page, narrowed in on a quote—

“ ‘have the courage of your own mistakes.’ ”

Someone coughed. Outside, a garbage man collected bags on West Eleventh Street, hurling them into the yawning rear of a truck.

“Okay,” Nick said. “So, let’s acknowledge that the use of ‘Indians’ in this paragraph is, uh, as Vanessa said, problematic. Beyond that, though, what is Didion really saying here? What does she mean when she says that ‘We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.’ Why does this ‘compulsion to please’ stand in opposition to self-respect?”

Vanessa’s hand shot up, but Nick pretended he didn’t see it. Instead, he directed his attention to her right, where a boy with a nose ring was drawing circles in the margins of his paper.

“Amir,” he said. “What do you think about this whole idea of a ‘compulsion to please’?”

Setting his pen down, Amir glanced at Vanessa, and then at the rest of the class. He seemed nervous, skittish. His glasses slipped and he reached up to straighten them.

“Um, you said this was published in Vogue?”

“That’s right. In 1961.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” Amir blushed. “I guess I just find that a little weird.”

Vanessa nodded; Nick scratched his neck.

“Why is that?”

“Well, Vogue is a fashion magazine, right?”

“Yes, primarily, but they’ve also published some of the best—”

“And isn’t a fashion magazine mostly concerned with telling women—well, white women, really—how to make themselves appear pleasing to others? Like, isn’t that basically why fashion magazines exist?”

“I—well, I think that the people who work at fashion magazines might say that’s debatable.”

Amir reached up and twisted his nose ring.

“I guess all I’m saying is that it seems a little hypocritical to be writing about self-respect for a magazine that I imagine makes a lot of women question their worth. That’s all.”

And so on, and so forth, and et cetera. For the next hour and fifteen minutes they discussed the essay’s troubling allusions to Jordan Baker, and its misguided admiration of Chinese Gordon in Khartoum; they discussed the name Chinese Gordon. They discussed the intellectual privilege of Phi Beta Kappa, and the shaming of Cathy in Wuthering Heights, and the essay’s “presumptive” and “all-encompassing” use of we. They discussed Julian English and Appointment in Samarra and the nineteenth century and paper Food Fair bags. They never—not even once—discussed self-respect.

This was invigorating (the energy of young minds!) but also disappointing. Nick’s lesson plan for the next three classes depended upon their reaching at least a vague consensus of what the essay meant. Beyond that, he was curious, and genuinely so: what was self-respect, and—a subquestion—how does a person know that he has it? Joan said that it was about “taking one’s own measure” and “making one’s own peace.” Had Nick done that when he struck out on his own? Had Joan? Is that what she felt when she graduated from Berkeley? Or how about when she won the Prix de Paris and moved to New York?

He often imagined her boarding that plane, her ticket clutched with both hands, her heart going haywire in her chest. He imagined her walking into Vogue and getting homesick for the dry Sacramento summers and writing Run River and meeting John Gregory Dunne. He imagined her falling in love. And as Nick did so—as he relived these memories that were never really his—something else materialized for him. A rainbow, suddenly appearing across a swath of rain-scrubbed sky. An arc, the story of a life. A musical! Joan, singing a lament for California; Joan, belting in the heart of Herald Square. He didn’t know any composers, at least not directly, but this was New York—the land of waiters with Juilliard degrees, the mecca of frustratingly underworked talent. After talking to two friends and sending three emails, he had connected with Celeste, a jazz pianist from the Peabody Institute who had abandoned a life of gigs to write jingles for car commercials.

They met at a pub near Union Square, a happy-hour spot with big, square windows through which Nick could see snow gathering on the hoods of cars. He wore a rumpled button-down and jeans; Celeste dressed in all black. She remained perfectly still as he explained the project, moving only to take slow, long sips from her Syrah. Around them, the bar began to fill: wool slacks and ironed shirts; black coats hanging from the backs of chairs.

“Joan Didion,” she said.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Like, Slouching Toward Bethlehem Joan Didion.”

“That’s the one. SLOUCHING! was actually my original title.”

Celeste ran a finger around the rim of her glass.

“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s not for me.”

Nick took a sip of beer and licked the foam from his lips: this was an outcome for which he had not prepared.

“We could workshop it, of course,” he said. “Share a creative vision, and all that. We could—”

“Listen.” Celeste raised a hand to stop him. “I don’t think it’s the most compelling subject matter. No offense.”

Nick looked down. Snow melted on the tips of his shoes.

“There was literally a musical called Chess,” he said.

He reached out to other composers. A pianist from Oberlin who was tied up with a one-act about Gettysburg; a rocker with gray hair and a CBGB shirt who said she’d be more interested in the project if it were about Joan Jett. At the end of each of these meetings, as Nick ventured out alone into the frozen city, he forbade himself to get discouraged. He had a dream of his own—he couldn’t remember the last time he was able to say that—and now he was committed to seeing it through. The songs would come, he told himself, it was only a matter of time, and as he waited he would continue to work feverishly, rereading Joan’s essays and novels, trying to get a sense of the woman behind the page. His story—Joan’s story—would be one of intimacy, and candor; a journey, as it were, toward self-respect. With it, Nick would finally—

“Nick.” Lisa is speaking to her computer screen. Lisa is always speaking to her computer screen. “Have you seen this?”

“If it’s the news, then no. It’s not eight o’clock at night yet.”

“I think you might want to.”

“I think I probably don’t.” Nick drums a pen against his forehead. “How about a fade to black? For Hello to All That! I mean.”

“Do they do that in musicals?”

“Sure, why not?”

Lisa turns, considers the idea, then shakes her head.

“You know, I think it’s just really hard to write the ending for something as sentimental as a musical that’s about someone famously unsentimental. Also, you’re buzzing.”

“I’m what?”

“You’re buzzing. Like, you’re vibrating. Someone’s calling you.”

Nick glances at the corner of his desk, where his iPhone dances next to a stack of ungraded essays. Picking it up, he says, “Huh.”

“Who is it?”

“My mother.”

He stares at the phone, feeling it rattle against his palm.

Oooooh. The senator. Aren’t you going to answer it?”

“She’s not a senator yet. And no—I don’t think so. I need to come up with an ending.”

“I bet you’ll answer it.”

“Lisa, I won’t.”

“Ten bucks says you will.”

“Lisa, I swear to God, I won’t.”

“Okay, fine. You won’t.”

“Hi, Mom.”

Lisa holds up ten fingers; Nick sits back down and cradles the phone against his shoulder.

“Nick, we need to talk.”

“I’m sort of busy right now.”

Mouth agape, Lisa lifts an eyebrow. Nick shrugs and whispers, “What?”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, put a pin in it,” Nancy says. “Because I’m at the Thai place downstairs.”

____________________________________

Excerpted from Let’s Not Do That Again by Grant Ginder. Copyright © 2022 by Grant Ginder. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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