Letters To No One In Particular, #1

At some point today I realized I kept checking the news blogs, as I often do, during the day, in a way that was like how I used to read three newspapers in the mornings, when I first lived in New York. Then, it was a kind of ritual before writing. At a certain point my interest in the papers would fade out, and I’d walk back to my apartment, close the door and write. It was done partly, I think, to calm me down. A tremendous anxiety sweeps over me as I drink coffee in the morning, as if the day is this thing I’ve woken up under, and I have to find the strength to push it off me and walk free.

I remember when I first lived there, I had a job cataloging the contents of a warehouse of used gay and lesbian books that A Different Light had acquired. I went out on a train to Queens and worked alone there in the dusty shelves, ticking off collectible copies of Mrs. Dalloway and The Gardener—sometimes it seemed like those were the only books in the whole building. The warehouse had been the stock of a mail-order gay and lesbian book order business, someone who early on would send you a lesbian pulp novel in a brown paper wrapper. The entire stock of the business had been bought at auction. On the train, I remember finding someone’s newspaper, a copy of the Daily News, and it mentioned a shootout at a bar near the warehouse. A man had pulled a gun and seven men in the bar also had guns. A terrible shootout occurred, and many people were killed. I got off the train and thought, that seems like a good thing to know.

So I began to get the Daily News. As well as the Times. And then someone mentioned the Keith Kelly Media Ink column in the Post, so I started to read that as well. I grew to love the rhythm of it: Page 6, Cindy Adams, Liz Smith. I liked how each paper seemed to have its own specialty. I liked the prismatic effect of reading a story covered in all three papers, differently. I read the crime blotters, noting the crimes and the neighborhoods. I remember one particularly grisly day, when I changed trains after reading that in the station where I normally got out, they’d found the remains of a woman in different garbage bags placed inside different garbage cans on the platform.

It was the C, E station in Clinton Hill. I remember I tried to remember, if I’d thrown anything away there as I went by, over the weekend previous.

In those days, it seemed like everything cost a dollar-fifty. A slice of pizza, a bagel with cream cheese, toasted. A subway ride. Sometimes I had to choose between the slice of pizza and the subway ride. I lived in Fort Greene, on Fort Greene Place, between Fulton and DeKalb. It was 1991. There was no internet. I could go home and be alone and if no one called, there was no way to be in touch with anyone except myself, for hours. I sat in the kitchen with a typewriter, and my roommate’s pit mix dog, Hula, slept near my feet, waking up sometimes to placidly eyeball a mouse near the sink.

Last year, a posthumous essay of Susan Sontag’s appeared in the Guardian. She talked about the modern need for the novel. I read her novels and stories during this time. I, Etc., in particular, was a big influence on me. In the essay last summer, she talked about how the novel was a way to correct for the modern problem of knowing too much, of too much connectedness. She saw it begun with the 18th Century. From the essay:

There is an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy (as I was once myself), late one night, who had been struggling through Kant’s abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could be put much more simply.

It goes as follows: “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

By this standard, the novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and of time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn’t happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn’t happen to one person only.

In other words, a novel is the creation not simply of a voice but of a world. It mimics the essential structures by which we experience ourselves as living in time, and inhabiting a world, and attempting to make sense of our experience. But it does what lives (the lives that are lived) cannot offer, except after they are over. It confers – and withdraws – meaning or sense upon a life. This is possible because narration is possible, because there are norms of narration that are as constitutive of thinking and feeling and experiencing as are, in the Kantian account, the mental categories of space and time.

Friends here frequently praise me for being what they think of as technologically advanced, but it feels too often like an affliction. I think about myself that day, choosing which platform to use to exit from the train. Do I use the one where the murder happened, or, another one? Imagine that the three newspapers I read each day then update endlessly in my hand, or are now inside the typewriter in the kitchen, on the backside of the paper where I’m typing? What if anything could just emerge from that space? Not in the same way it could when it was just me typing, when it was a blank page and it represented pure, fictional possibility, but as in, any random thing, sent to me by anyone? I read those papers back then in part to know how to be safe in the city, in the first years I was there—what neighborhoods or streets were dangerous, for example—but now I find I check these newsblogs because in our current age, the body I was trying to avoid that day, which was really the killer I was trying to avoid, is everywhere: each time I turn around, a new danger has emerged, in my tap water, my medicines, the system by which I’m seen by a doctor, the system by which a president is elected. Everything, increasingly, seems to have a death hidden in it, or an irreparable tragedy unless I take action, now. I get email alerts, for example, to participate in letter-writing campaigns, to make calls to candidates, senators, congressmen, television stations—the polar bears in the arctic are under attack, the wolves in the West, the environment, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, rights in general, everything, everywhere, is apparently on fire all the time. until we’re all screaming and screaming for it to stop. Endless, unmediated pain.

But then I shut the laptop, the email program, and it’s just my apartment, cluttered, mail unopened. Coffee cups on the counter to wash. In the old days of regular mail, I rarely answered it. I rarely opened it. But for some reason with email, I have to open it all.

To solve for this problem, I set up a desktop computer with no access to the internet, in my office. It’s behind me as I type this. When I write, I keep the laptop near, in case I need to do research, but I also keep it shut. In order to write in these times, I find I need to invent new ways of being alone, amid all the new ways of connectedness.

My friend Shauna Seliy sent me this essay over the summer. It came up again, somewhat, when I was trying to describe for her the exact quality of my misery and burnout last winter, after she visited me here. She wrote:

But the thing is, there is ALWAYS something, right? So, why not just drop the idea that at some point you’ll not feel overwhelmed and at that point you’ll be happy and present. Why not just be present? Or try to. Because – I mean, let’s think about this in kind of stark terms – there will always be a book that should be worked on, or a student to write an email to, or a paper to grade, or something not quite right somewhere that maybe you can make right. Let’s assume there is no time in the future when those things won’t be true. So, then, just accept it. That’s how it is. Maybe there’s a way to make peace with that and be happy anyway.

And I wrote back:

I’ve asked myself this before—why do I imagine there’s a time when all the trouble stops? And then act hurt sometimes, as if something is wrong. There never is such a time.

To think otherwise is to reject the world, and my place in it.

I think about this Sontag essay a lot, I find, and my thoughts were drawn back to it today—it was taken down, when the copyright expired, so I can’t link to it here, but I had the text of it in the email from when Shauna sent it to me. It’s from Sontag’s book, At The Same Time. This essay was a rallying cry, and made a case for the novel that I reach for, in this age of fuzzy thinking around fiction and nonfiction we are living through now, the argument about fake memoirists. I find something like comfort in remembering this:

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate – the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading – offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always – as I have argued – an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution – which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and un-truthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once … space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

The rain is constant and steady, so the air is cool and damp. There’s a little bit of snow, still. Tomorrow I drive to Maine, to see my mother and ski. From this little piece of space and time to the one where you’re reading this, good night.


  1. Limitless, non-stopped stories. . . . you and Sontag are onto something, Alex. It would be worthwhile, I think, to account for their allure as well as to decry their interruption or violation of the novel’s ethical commitment to finitude. . . . I love how your post captures new media’s disruption of both reading and writing. And how one has to undo media convergence sometimes just to get work done. Though I must say I’m happy to have the opportunity to read this post this morning, over coffee. . . .

  2. Great sh*t. For fiction writers who are stressed out by the magnitude of how fucked up this world is, and have to grapple with the difficulty of addressing those issues in fiction without sounding trite/propagandistic, I think Susan Sontag is so important. “On Photography” is an endlessly challenging text to me as a writer, because so much of her critique of the photographer’s role is also applicable to the role of the writer in Western(ish) economies. There’s probably a really brilliant essay/investigation to be mounted, into her relevance to writers and the way we write now…

    “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit the natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivise reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrialized society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.”
    –Susan Sontag, On Photography

  3. I think of you and your mother, David and his mother, and me and my mother who is scheduled for a triple by-pass (I just learned next Tuesday). I hate this shit. I missed her– Susan– at Skidmore and got the son instead and wasn’t particularly impressed, though this was years ago.

    I guess I am going to have to fly. It’s not what I want to do, but what is my duty.

    I feel useless.

  4. DB: Thanks. I’d love to know why you come with a parental advisory sticker. Just, whenever you have a moment.

    Meredith: Thanks. We’ve discussed our need to check out of the linkedin life and for some reason the other night this all came together for me. This is a preliminary take on these things.

    Sam: Great quote. And thanks.

  5. I’ve always liked the idea of (re)creating life’s time lines, though I’ve never felt up to what I perceive is the leviathan task of the Novel. I did that to myself early on, I’m afraid.

    It’s hard to turn off, isn’t it?

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