• The Crooked Timber of the Mind: On the Rise of “Autojournalism”

    Robert Moor Reads Matthew J.C. Clark’s “Bjarki, Not Bjarki”

    Featured image: “The Late Great Pine Forests & Death by a Billion Cuts,” two-layer woodcut print by Josh Winkler.


    Out there in the countless Borgesian branchings of alternate futures that never came to be, there is a version of Matthew J.C. Clark’s new book, Bjarki, Not Bjarki: On Floorboards, Love, and Irreconcilable Differences (University of Iowa Press) that begins something like this:

    One summer, a man named Bjarki Thor Gunnarsson arrived at my home in a pickup truck to sell me a floor. It came disassembled and re-packaged, a neat stack of wooden boards, knotless and flawless, marked only by fine, graceful ribbons of grain. The boards were made from eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, the same tree that had provided frames for colonial homes and masts for the British Navy. Bjarki was unique in the state of Maine, unique perhaps in the world, for being able to create white pine floorboards twenty inches wide and without so much as a pin knot, boards seventy-five percent wider than the widest available at Lowes or Home Depot, wider than any pine on the market, wider, in fact, than most of the eastern white pine trees growing in the state of Maine. He was selling, at a high but surprisingly fair price, the white whales of the lumber industry, Maines green gold: American Dream Boards.

    That book would have been an outgrowth (both literally and literarily) of a magazine profile. The book would have taken detours to explore the many cultural meanings of wood, the science of tracheids, and the history of home-building in the Northeast. It would have explored Bjarkis boyhood as well as the authors, and by combining the two, it would have provided a poignant critique of American masculinity.

    By parsing Bjarkis gnomic statements about his craft, the author would have waded ankle-deep into the dark water of universal truths. The prose would have evoked the work of John McPhee, most notably his Survival of the Birch Bark Canoe, which is also about craftsmanship and obsession and masculinity and the (often delusional) American cult of self-sufficiency, but also Peter Matthiessens The Snow Leopard, which is about a widower who goes searching for a snow leopard and never finds it, much as Clark, recently separated from his wife, goes looking for twenty-inch-wide, clear pine floorboards, which prove to be equally elusive

    It would have been bittersweet, quiet, elegant; every sentence would have smelled faintly of pine. It would have been favorably, if not rapturously, reviewed. In the end, it would have been a little bit familiar, a little bit edifying, and a little bit boring.

    The book Clark chose to write is not that book. Not by a Mahoosuc mile.


    Instead, Clark has created a work of literature that does all of the things mentioned above (reportorially, historically, philosophically), but does so in a new, more challenging, and ultimately more rewarding way.

    Clark, who is a carpenter by trade and an experimentalist by inclination, has amassed a great storehouse of information, a mixture of reportage, reading, and memoiristic recollection—what Nicholson Baker calls a mental lumber room.” For at least a decade, the vogue in essay writing has been to split such material into discrete little squares and then arrange them in an alternating pattern, with the white space between the various short sections acting as a kind of narrative glue. Clark, instead, fits his variegated pieces snugly together within the same paragraph, often in the most surprising ways, so that, for example, a riff that begins with the history of crab rangoon will veer, suddenly and inexplicably, into an anecdote about an argument the author once had with his partner in Wyoming. There is often a logic to be found beneath these joinings, if one is patient enough to look for it.

    My every instinct as a reader, and all of my training as a journalist, rebelled against the books radically digressive first chapter.

    Hidden in that weird logic, something fundamental is being said about how narratives are formed out of the chaos of reality. (“Show me what is not non sequitur,” Clark asks. “Define gap.”) The underlying message of this technique is that reality is something we must hammer back together at every moment, a ship of Theseus in acid seas. With this in mind, Clark turns his attention back upon himself, as the teller of the story, creating a two-pronged critique of magazine writing and carpentry as manifestations of the same universal impulse: to make sense of the senseless.

    So this is a book about wood (a “dry” topic, yes), but also about words, and about climate change, and about journalism, about political polarization, about the line between self and other, and about the falseness and perniciousness of all such binaries. It is also, perhaps most prominently, about what it means to be a white man who works with his hands.

    Here, Clarks readers reach a fork in the road: Either the idea of a straight white man interrogating his own social position excites you (because so many white men refuse to do so), or else it exhausts you (because so many white male authors insist upon doing so). The book addresses that question, as well.


    Since one theme of this essay is the question of radical honesty and self-interrogation (its promise, its limitations), I feel obligated to admit that, about a decade ago, Clark and I both served on the editorial staff of a small online magazine called Wags Revue. Though Ive never met him in person, he presumably heard through a mutual friend that I was (and still am) writing a book about trees, so he sent me a .pdf copy of his book and asked me if I might write a blurb for it.

    I was at my husbands parentshouse in Australia at the time. One balmy Saturday afternoon, sitting beside their pool, a glass of iced tea in hand, I sat down to read the book. With my laptop slow-baking my pink thighs, I scrolled through the opening pages, and within moments I found myself baffled, then annoyed, then very nearly enraged.

    My every instinct as a reader, and all of my training as a journalist, rebelled against the books radically digressive first chapter, which describes a restorative trip to the seashore amid the wreckage of Clarks crumbling marriage, and which mentions Bjarki only briefly, in passing. I believed—incorrectly, as it turned out—that it was nothing more than what a professor of mine used to call throat clearing”: all noise and no meaning, a preparation rather than an utterance.

    To my eternal chagrin, I even wrote Clark an email letting him know as much, with suggestions for how he could make the chapter less perplexing.” He wrote back, graciously, that as a reader, he enjoys a little disorientation, a little perplexity.” In short, he advised me to stick with it, dumb dumb. 

    And indeed, as I read on, I found the text plucking deeper, stranger cords in me, in much the same way that, say, the obliqueness of Claire Deniss High Life might re-enliven the cinephile who has grown enervated by the empty tropes of Hollywood sci-fi flicks. The book itself serves as a 160-some-odd page meta-critique of “magazine-style essays,” as Clark calls them. As a some-time writer of such essays, I felt as if I were being x-rayed.

    Though he has, as best I can tell, never worked in the field of magazine journalism—unless you count writing an essay about lobstering for Ecotone Magazine—Clark seems to know all of the tricks used by journalists to make their narratives smooth and easily digestible. By actively refusing to deploy them, he effectively calls attention to them by scribbling them out.

    Narrative is a hook in the cheek of the reader; most journalists, who feel lucky to be able to craft such a hook, are loath to give it up.

    To wit: One overused journalistic trick, especially in book-length works, is to situate a reader in a scene (a walk through a forest with an ecologist, say) and then to segue into some juicy philosophical aperçu with a line like This reminded me of something I had once read by Rousseau.” The reason this device is so overused is that it allows the author to transition into broader subjects without breaking the spell of the scene—one is rooted, epistemologically, in the moment the narrator is currently experiencing. (It doesnt hurt that it also makes it appear as if the author is walking around all the time with verbatim quotes by Rousseau floating on the surface of  his brain, there for the plucking whenever he should need them.)

    Clark inverts this trick: while describing a scene, he will explicitly transition to something that happened later, sometimes years later, or something totally unrelated, or something that never happened but that he could imagine happening or wished had happened. The textuality of the text is suddenly foregrounded, even while its narrative spell is demolished.

    This device often is more commonly deployed by the manic, logorrheic narrators of novels, who dont mind flash-freezing the textual flow to make room for an extraneous aside. Take, for instance, the perfect first sentence of Krazhnahorkais Satantango: One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.” What is this parenthetical doing in this precise place? In part, it immediately situates the narrator as someone who is looking back from the distant future, or perhaps who is omniscient. It foreshadows the book’s famously abstruse, step-forward/step-backward structure. But, more importantly from an authorial perspective, the purpose of the disruption is to be disruptive. It’s a bit of friction, a burst of static. In other words, it’s a flex.

    This technique is very seldom used in journalism, and for good reason: using only the few verifiably factual details at our disposal, it is harder for a journalist to create an engrossing scene that moves swiftly along than it is for the novelist. Narrative is a hook in the cheek of the reader; most journalists, who feel lucky to be able to craft such a hook, are loath to give it up. Clark does not seem to harbor these anxieties. He clips the barbs off all his hooks, and says to the reader: Swim free. I wont stop you. He is confident that the reader will return to his glittering lure. And, in the end, hes correct.


    One reason we keep coming back for more is for the pleasures of Clarks prose. Here is the author staring at the bark of a felled pine tree. Notice how closely he peers, how tightly he compacts information, and how easily he makes a familiar science seem strange and marvelous:

    On the larger log, fissures in the bark an inch or so deep separated the blocky scales that were composed of layers and layers of flakes, like books of solid phyllo dough. At first, the bark seemed a uniform gray, but it was not one color at all. There were darker and lighter grays, something close to black, vague violet hints, deep muddy browns, and where the scales had been abraded, there were reds and oranges and rusts. Green lichen hands waved from the bark. Green lichen beards hung from the bark. Bark is armor, a rustproof raincoat and fireproof gear, insulation and skin. It grows continuously, from the inside. The oldest bark is the bark closest to you, unless you are inside the tree. Where are you? At one end of the log, buttresses flared from the trunk. Icy snow clung to the darker, star-shaped whorl at the cuts center. Whorl is pronounced whirl. A pine produces branches annually, radiating from the trunk at a single elevation, often in whorls of five. You can count the number of whorls on a young tree and know its age. You can look at the vertical space between whorls and know how much height a tree gained in a given year. Hammer a nail into the trunk of a pine. Upon your return, seventy-five years later, the nail will appear to have vanished. This will not be because the nail has ascended fifty feet with the growth of the tree, but because the tree, expanding its circumference, has subsumed the nail. Unlike a human, a tree only grows taller at the tips of its branches, the topmost of which is called the leader. The whorl we were looking at was the encased remains of the trees first branches.

    And here is the author describing the anatomy of wood grain, which, through a dazzling emboîtement of parentheticals, meanders into history and then loops back on itself:

    In some very literal ways, wood is produced from thin air, though textbook biology (which is, to an extent, literally true) asserts that wood originates from a single layer of cells located below the trees bark. This is the cambium layer, which, technically, is not wood. (Technically, your mother is not you, but it is from her that you are born.) (Technically, the book is not the author, but . . . ) Wood is created within the cambium layers ever-expanding circumference…and cambium layer of eastern white pine trees, which contain dietary fiber, carbohydrates, vitamin C, and minerals. (Porcupines love phloem.) (Girdling a tree involves cutting through the cambium layer around a trees entire circumference. The tree will die above the girdle.) (The Native (Indigenous) (American (Indian)) people (who did not refer to themselves as the Native (Indigenous) (American (Indian)) people) of the northeast have sometimes been referred to as barkeaters.) (Wabanaki generally refers to the people who have lived since the glaciers receded in The Dawnland, or, The Place of the Dawn. There may once have been as many as twenty tribes residing here: Maliseet, Mikmaq, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot (to name a few (while also acknowledging that the spelling (in English) isnt totally agreed upon)).)… (How often have the worlds Indigenous Peoples been confined to historys parenthesis?) (Have you ever been confined by a parenthesis?)

    This is just the beginning of the passage. From there Clarks gaze rises to the surface of language (A peckerwood is a jerk. A woodpecker is a bird. A group of woodcocks is a fall.”), then plunges down to a murky memoiristic fragment about his partner losing her diamond in the floorboards, then moves on from pines to parasites, to ruined wood, and back to the Wood Mill of Maine, owned by one Bjarki Thor Gunnarsson.


    The very existence of this book feels like something akin to a medical miracle, a sort of literary bubble boy. For every good magazine story that gets published, there are roughly five to ten pieces that are begun and then abandoned, or (worse) are fully written and then killed at the last moment by the magazines editor.

    As a freelancer I know all too well the distinct gut-drop one feels when, in the beginning stages of a story, the internal energy of the piece, which has up until this point been growing steadily as the details of the story accrete, begins inexplicably to dissipate. Perhaps the main character isnt eloquent enough, or has a faulty memory, or is a liar, or is morally execrable (in an uninteresting way). Very often, the topic simply isnt as compelling, when seen up close, as it once seemed from afar. One of the most lethal phrases an editor can say to a writer is that there just isnt much of story here.”

    Without having met him, I can’t diagnose whether Clark has a proclivity for pain, but he certainly seems to delight in difficulty.

    Great essays can be made of such dissipations: Gay Taleses “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” sprang from his inability to interview Old Blue Eyes; Janet Malcolms “Forty-One False Starts” sprang from her inability to finish a profile of the artist David Salle; and John Jeremiah Sullivans audacious “The Violence of the Lambs” sprang from his failure to find a person to explain the science of random animal attacks, which forced him to invent someone (and then to write about how hed invented him). But such triumphs are rare. More commonly, dissipation is death.

    Clark describes the moment he begins to sense that Bjarki will not be a fitting subject for a magazine-style essay, because Bjarki is incapable of enlightening the author in the way the author would like him to. The author begins to feel superior to his subject, because, he realizes, Bjarki has deplorable political beliefs, an adolescent sense of humor, and a deeply flawed understanding of how the world works. (And because, it turns out, the man who is famous for making twenty-inch-wide clear pine floorboards doesnt actually make that many of them.)

    At this point, most writers would have given up and moved on. Clark, however, does the opposite. He decides to dig deeper, spending years with his subject—a person he admits to not liking very much most of the time—in part because he wants to explore the ever-fluctuating power dynamics that exist between a journalist and his subject. Who, other than a complete masochist, would set himself such a task?

    Without having met him, I can’t diagnose whether Clark has a proclivity for pain, but he certainly seems to delight in difficulty. Often, a scene he has been building will suddenly dissolve into a spray of quotations, thoughts, and remembrances, all swirled together—a befuddlement that, upon deeper reflection, mirrors the workings of the readers own mind.

    This move is not wholly new. (Indeed, didnt Joyce, using the same technique, jolt us into the same realization a century earlier?) What makes it remarkable is that Clark is doing so within a genre where such disruptions are rarely seen. Journalists tend to draw in ligne claire; Clark is a cubist. Taking these risks allows him to attain the immersive, destabilizing capabilities of literature—what Tom Wolfe called a cortical fever”—without lapsing into purple lyricism or showy minimalism. Following Wolfes exhortation, Clark is creating nonfiction that vies for artistic merit with fiction without sacrificing journalisms noumenal power.

    There is, of course, a third genre in between journalism and fiction, that nebulous form sometimes called creative nonfiction, which is where Clarks affinities clearly lie. His work most reminds me of another excellent—and oddly, similarly named—writer, Matthew Gavin Frank, the author of Flight of the Diamond Smugglers, but its slanted approach also vaguely resembles that of Lucas Manns Class A (about a minor league baseball team), Kerry Howleys Thrown (about MMA fighters), Hali Felts Soundings (about efforts to map the sea floor), and Jen Percys Demon Camp (about modern-day exorcisms). It seems no coincidence to me that all of these writers are products of Creative Nonfiction MFA programs (and that five of the six were, as far as I can tell, students of John DAgatas program at the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program).

    The archetypal MFA style of writing—slightly fractured, blindingly vivid, frequently self-indulgent—is often applied to memoir, but seldom to journalism. Less and less so, in fact, if Americas major magazines are any indication; perhaps DAgata, with his insistence upon radical subjectivity and his mulish resistance to fact-checking, blew up that particular pipeline. Or perhaps nonfiction readers, with their ever-withering attention spans and ever-growing hunger for “urgency” have begun to tire of slow slogs through dense verbiage. Or perhaps it has always been the case, with periodic aberrations—presided over, most recently, by Wolfe and Wallace, respectively—that readers expect their journalism, as Orwell once advised, to resemble a window: the glass can glint, but it shouldnt obscure (interesting though its smudges may be).


    Because journalists have erased themselves from their own stories for so long, it is easy to forget how profoundly weird—in the old sense of that word—it feels to actually be a journalist: to sit in a room and ask probing questions of strangers; to follow them around and dig through their (real and metaphorical) dustbins; to collect details, like so many stray hairs and nail clippings; and then to use that sparse and disconnected material to try, via a kind of magic incantation, to create something living (or at least, life-like). Deep down, it’s a creepy, witchy business.

    One might call this emerging form of writing—which marries the inward-looking gaze of autofiction with the outward-looking task of journalism—autojournalism.

    Here, a fourth genre (far smaller than the rest) hoves hazily into view—one where the journalist refuses to hide just how uncanny and uncomfortable his job is, on a moment-to-moment basis. Only this genre is peopled not by professional journalists, but by novelists who have been bribed into writing magazine stories, writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, and Emmanuel Carrère. As one might expect, their attempts at reportage often take on the texture of fiction—the perspective (usually) embodied and temporalized rather than abstract and authoritative; the language (always) polished to a high gloss—with the main character being the hapless novelist-turned-journalist. Though their voices vary, what they all have in common is the way they treat the thoughts (and, more pointedly, the insecurities) of their narrators with equal weight to the things they observe happening in the world around them. In fiction (especially autofiction), this is the norm; in journalism, it is anathema.

    Listen for the echoes of all the aforementioned authors’ voices in this passage from Clarks book, as he describes listening back to the audio recording of his interview with Bjarki at a Thai restaurant:

    I had reverted to that compulsive-eating thing where you just shovel and chew, shovel and chew, tasting nothing. You can hear my steady masticating on the recording and then my sudden shock about finding cream cheese in what Ive just eaten and then Bjarkis laughing because Thats what crab rangoon is, he says, crab and cream cheese, as if this is something everyone knows, which I didnt at that time know, and immediately I found myself feeling more than slightly insecure about my status as a Rangoon Ignoramus and therefore defensive and also angry.

    Note the banality of the details coupled with the sharpness of the self-mockery. What proper journalist bothers to include this stuff? What new information is being imparted? Nothing much, except (crucially) the sense that the author will hide nothing from us, no matter how trivial and embarrassing.

    One might call this emerging form of writing—which marries the inward-looking gaze of autofiction with the outward-looking task of journalism—autojournalism. The chief thing that distinguishes autojournalism from its immediate stylistic predecessor, New Journalism, is its neurotically self-aware cast of mind. When Mailer or Didion widened the frame of their tales to include themselves, the portrayal was often vaguely self-mythologizing. (One thinks of Didion in The White Album wincing from a migraine on the veranda of a mini-mansion in Maui; or Mailer, in Of A Fire On The Moon, humblebragging that he had received a million dollars to write a book about the moonshot, despite the fact that by his own admission he was not even a good journalist.”)

    By contrast, when autojournalists write about themselves, it is almost invariably in a tone of self-abnegation. One thinks of Saunders, writing about the border crisis for GQ, owning up to the fact that his first thought, upon seeing a migrant teenager held in detention, was Dude, what did you expect?” and then immediately after feeling a little heart-pang” of guilt; or Knausgaard, road-tripping to Newfoundland for the New York Times Magazine, describing how he clogged his hotel toilet and then reached his hand into said toilet in an attempt to rectify the situation; or Wallace, on board a cruise ship for Harpers, admitting that he hides in his room and orders room service each night, and, moreover, that before the food arrives he covers his bed with notebooks so that when the cabin service guy appears at the door he’ll see all this belletristic material and figure I’m working really hard on something belletristic right here in the cabin and have doubtless been too busy to have hit all the public meals and thus am legitimately entitled to the indulgence of even more rich food.”

    Vollmanns recent piece (indeed, a kind of masterpiece) in Harpers, in which he ruthlessly exposes his darkest thoughts while reporting among Nevadas unhoused population (or, as Vollmann calls them, outdoor people”), is so self-aware and self-lacerating that it borders on being a parody of the form. Early on in the piece, he pauses to openly fret, Was I perceiving and writing as I should?” Later, after paying a homeless man $20 for an interview but refusing to buy him the blanket he asked for, Vollmann wonders whether he (Vollmann) is an evil person.” He writes:

    I tried this on to see if I believed it. If that was so, then what about the indoor man at the coffee shop who had long since run out of pity for the homeless? Maybe I was better, because I paid for their stories and tried to raise other indoor peoples so-called awareness; or maybe I was worse, because I knew that the system was against them, yet did not help them more than I did. I considered this matter some more. Then, at least for five minutes, I stopped caring.

    (It should be noted that I have scrounged my memory for a list of female entrants to this tiny canon, because surely it could not be composed solely of middle-aged white dudes. But curiously, of all the female novelists-slash-journalists that I could come up with—Helen Garner, Leslie Jamison, Valeria Luiselli, Elif Batuman, Jennifer Egan, Zadie Smith, Patricia Lockwood, Rachel Kushner, Lauren Oyler, Olivia Laing, Renata Adler, Jamaica Kincaid, and of course Joan Didion—none quite fit the bill. Not because their writing isnt equally brilliant, but because, even in their introspective moments, they always project an air of cool assuredness, while the male writers visibly sweat and twitch. In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm may call herself morally indefensible,” but she never for a moment allows herself to look dorky or incompetent. In “The Raw and the Rawer,” a dispatch from a fruitarian festival—one of my favorite pieces of first-person journalism in the past decade—Alexandra Kleeman devotes an entire paragraph to poop,” namely how the consistency of it changes on a fruit-only diet, but she describes only our” (the conference goers) poop, never her poop. I wonder whether we do not allow our women journalists the same latitude to be performatively neurotic and icky, or whether we increasingly demand that our men be endlessly self-effacing so as to not appear to be flaunting their privilege—or, perhaps, both?)

    There is a point in this book when Clark explicitly wonders whether his guilt—about privilege, about class” pushed him to take up carpentry as a profession.

    In the years since Wallaces sudden demise and the magazine industrys slow collapse, among both readers and writers, aesthetic preoccupations seem to have largely turned to ethical ones. Following this shift, the tone of self-castigation among autojournalists has increasingly taken on a structural edge. Today, an introspective white male writer is expected not only to poke fun at himself, but to actively dissect himself; any trace of privilege should be excised and then examined like a tumor.

    Emmanuel Carrère, the Parisian master of autojournalism—he is the only person I can think of, other than Vollmann, who routinely produces book-length works of it—continually takes sly digs at himself for his own good fortune: a child of an aristocratic family who grew up to be a famous author, with neither love nor family nor professional nor material problems,” whose only real struggle in life, aside from his periodic bouts of suicidal depression, was his own over-sized ego. He is the first to admit that this is a privileged persons problem.”

    This shift—from gentle self-mockery to structural self-scrutiny—is one that Clark addresses head-on. There is a point in this book when Clark explicitly wonders whether his guilt—about privilege, about class” pushed him (the holder of a Masters degree) to take up carpentry as a profession. He wonders: Is he writing this book in order to interrogate his own privilege? Or, he goes on, maybe Im not trying to expose and indict privilege at all but attempting personal absolution in order to more guiltlessly enjoy the fruits of my privilege, and if thats the case, then wouldnt that delegitimize what Im writing here? And isnt the desire to make the world a better place really just the Most Privileged Desire, a divine impulse born from exploitation and gluttony?” Again, there are echoes of Wallace here: the way that the minds eye, once attuned to its own failings, can begin to spiral in endless involutions. As a reader, you can never quite jab such a narrator for his failings, because he always beats you to the punch.

    If I have a major criticism of Clarks book, it centers on these moments of whirlpooling self-doubt. Obsessing over ones own social status and hidden intentions, the naked anxiety about how ones words will be received, and the subsequent magnifying of that question to philosophical proportions, all of which result in a state of aporia that ultimately prompts no meaningful action—this is a textbook form of liberal navel-gazing. In order to peer into ones own umbilicus, one must first stoop ones head. The navel-gazer thus appears to be humble and respectful, when in fact he is merely self-absorbed.

    In a friend or lover, self-absorption is an immensely irritating trait. In a person advocating for social change, it is downright dangerous. But in a writer, it is not always such a bad thing. The best novelists, philosophers, and, indeed, autojournalists show that if one gazes at ones navel closely enough (with a microscope, say) one can discover an entire cosmos of micro-organisms and ghostly electrons in there. Knausgaard, reflecting upon his inability to describe what Cleveland looks like, slips unannounced into the realm of phenomenology: To be able to describe something, you have to feel some kind of emotional attachment to it, however faint. The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described. Cleveland meant nothing to me.”

    Clark has a gift for exactly this, for zooming-all-the-way-in. At one point, while dining with Bjarki, he stops the narrative cold to take stock of the situation from a molecular perspective:

    I mean, we were just two white dudes in a Thai restaurant in central Maine, a whole bunch of water in very specific form, our invisible respiration mingling, carrying all the bits of DNA and deep fry and feeling and fact that exhales contain, passing back and forth between us, in and out of us, becoming more of us and less of us, for better or for worse or for neither or for both.

    From a readers point of view, the trouble with Deep Navel Gazing is that, if one zooms out slightly from that incredibly-close-and-yet-cosmically-distant vantage, the navel now resembles nothing so much as an anus; the author is now, as my Aussie husband likes to say, a bit up his own ass.” The degree to which Clarks book resembles one or another of these things—a galaxy; a butthole—will depend upon the patience, generosity, and curiosity of its reader. The book implicitly challenges us to rise above the meaner interpretation.

    It is clear from his writing that Clark wants to be not just a better writer—for he is already a gifted writer, that much is manifest—but a better human being. He wants to grow. And he wants that for his readers, as well. Or rather: he wants us to grow and to dissolve, all at the same time. For better or for worse or for neither or for both.

    Robert Moor
    Robert Moor
    Robert Moor is the author of On Trails: An Exploration, which was a New York Times bestseller and the recipient of the Saroyan prize. He is currently at work on a new book, entitled In Trees. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, GQ, Harper’s, GrantaOutside, and n+1among other publications.

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