I wake up in Jayne Anne Phillips’ house in Glen Ridge after the longest night of sleep I’ve had in a while—10 hours. Waking up here for me is a little like I imagine it might be for someone else to wake up in David Bowie’s house. I walk to the bookshelves and lay down in front of them. In her blue and white guest quarters on the third floor, she has many of my favorite books and many I don’t know. I pick up a few—Under the 82nd Airborne, by Deborah Eisenberg, for example—and then pull out Fiskadoro, by Denis Johnson, to look at it.
I love Denis. I was his student at Iowa. This is a book I’ve never quite understood, and I almost resent it because of that. I think of Doris Lessing, who said something like, Each book has its time when it is open to you, when you can get it. So I open it, and right there it suddenly makes sense, and I sit and read it quietly for a half hour.
A few days ago, a student said to me, of their project, Well, it’s sort of cyberpunk, except cyberpunk is so over. And I said, Because now cyberpunk is just social realism? And he said, Yes, I guess, and we laughed. I think of that as I read this.
The night before, I gave a reading at Jayne Anne’s MFA program in Newark with the poet Tina Chang, on the Rutgers campus. I got the best introduction I have perhaps ever had from my friend Tayari Jones, and read one of the oldest sections of my new manuscript, a section I’d come to question but that I no longer question after this. The reading was one of my better ones, I think—the crowd was warm and enthusiastic, and I was moved to find two former students were there, now students in the program, and they seemed happy and at home there.
When I put down Denis’ book, I take some time to think about the manuscript for the Queen of the Night. There’s something new in it that I’m testing. And my mind goes back to it again and again, pushing on it.
In Paris, the week before this, the novel’s different pieces came together with considerable force in the middle of my week of research. I sat down to dinner with friends, Brandon and Pascal. I’d brought my copy of the Goncourt Journals with me, and I think I read from it. They began having a disagreement over some of the facts about the conditions inside Paris during the siege. And as Pascal rose to look up the facts under dispute, I felt a small click in my mind, concerning something somewhat to the left of these facts.
Like that, I thought. Exactly like that.
Prior to now, the book’s structure felt like it lacked for something, to me, and I would periodically rebel against the lack only to find myself waiting again. I frequently tell my students that writing fiction is an intuitive process, supported by and described by intellectual processes, but not an actual intellectual process of its own. The way this novel began certainly supports that–a voice appeared in my head one morning, speaking lines to me—and the way it resolves in my mind, as it did last week, proves it to me again. I have to laugh at the idea that something as simple as this could have triggered it, but that night, at the dinner, I’m too relieved to be upset at the idea that all of these years of work and struggle could come clean like that, in a friend’s kitchen on the Rue de Richelieu. And so I laugh as they conclude their argument, and the happiness of that also carries me through the rainy parts of what I had left to do that week in Paris. After this, the rain isn’t so terrible, the bags I packed with too many books don’t bother me too much, and I even drive home after the flight, start the semester, and then leave for this reading, moving along on this happiness that is so unexpected, until I am here, reading Fiskadoro, in the house of one of my earliest literary heroes.
I am very happy for this life, and very grateful for it.
Pictures and more, soon.