SVEN BIRKERTS Varia

Keep in mind that while making selections appears to be a process of saying yes. is a pastiche. I don’t feel that I’ve even begun to exhaust its implications. Each new manuscript pulled from its envelope renews at some level the age-old questions about aesthetics and preference. “This story is wooing me with a regular-guy protagonist. It is—and I harp on this because so much of what I read fits the description—as if the writer were hearing not the prompt of the creative Muse. John Maloney—a name out of literary ‘Central Casting. There is no attempt to welcome her to the Never Before. not part of an actual submission— though a pastiche based on the sentences I read morning after morning). if only briefly. Let me stress that my main impulse is not to poke fun (the sentence.Finding Traction by Sven Birkerts I seem to do most of my thinking about the future of literature on weekday mornings between nine and ten. The piece will be returned to its author. as I work through the most recent accumulation of AGNI submissions.” Of course. a ‘literary. editing is much more realistically an almost continuous search for reasons to say no. vis-à-vis fiction in this case but really relating to the literary in general. and that the writer is responding not to his perceptions or fresh imaginings. Taking from the top of the fiction pile. or maybe gets a dull memory echo from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders she has met with in a lifetime’s reading. I say (putting sentence. but to an idea of what writers sound like. the realization strikes—as sketchily suggested above—that while I seem to be responding on the basis of taste. for instance. to give a better picture of an editor’s mind state.’ The writer is making the enormous assumption that a common world exists and that he need only set John Maloney loose in it. One becomes a philosopher of the art in spite of oneself. But the encounter with the adjective “bitter” takes care of that. but the word—‘hunched’—tells me that he has a secondhand. but a voiceover track. or as if he were somehow already reading himself as he wrote. I know. telegraphing faster than anything that “hunched” was not a fluke. “John Maloney hunched—” That’s the stuff! This is a negative way to begin. and I will—because I voice them to myself and they seem to the point. I read: “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake. For in truth I find it impossible to simply screen for interesting contents and not carry on a secondary meditation at the same time. for after there has been enough of saying no.’ idea of what a story is or might be. or experienced and lazy. but rather. He hits me right off with a trite exaggerated middlebrow verb in order to inject drama. some benefit of the doubt. three words aren’t much of an indicator—anyone can fumble a handshake —and editors as well as readers are likely to extend. by the way. and grumbling head-shakes). When a reader reads those words. that this is not an invented but a received world. Though I have described the process before in this column.thoughts now to what would appear to an outside observer as a sequence of flinches. she sees and feels absolutely nothing. of “I like . sitting in a cloth-covered roller chair in a musty second-floor office that even Bartleby would have thought to spruce up a bit—which is to say.” I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. Why? I could say a number of different things. especially as they apply to the larger literary questions. He is either young and inexperienced. This idea is very likely derived from an uncritical involvement in the middlebrow fiction that is the noise against which any real signal hopes to be heard. grimaces.

The most salient—and to me. I am not the tabula rasa—the fantasied clean slate—that I perhaps ought to be. “Traction” is my code for the way that a sentence or a paragraph or a page of prose lands. hospitable state. a fundamentally receptive. I don’t like this. that I would describe attention. it is absolutely vital that the work. It may seem strange. which may explain why I feel so tired in the afternoons. Most work does not. Not many people will own that in the last decade. This accounts for the fact—miraculous. with whatever degree of success. most interesting— has to do with what I think of as traction. a kind of receptivity. everyone seems to be from Missouri. the digitized mediated world has closed up around us. a besieged reader. when I remove a clump of print-covered pages from their envelope. But if I am honest. screening for thematic value—that is a second-stage deliberation. convince me that this news is different. for me as for most everyone. but a very qualified kind. all of our—situation. but I make it dozens of times most mornings. But rather than dismiss my situation as anomalous. that this is the news I need. which is in turn a thinly veiled way of pronouncing on the outlook for meaning in general. and that in the process the basic nature of our . installing layers of signal between ourselves and the former world. Quite a jump. and I can tell right away when writing does. a near-constant agitation of stimuli. or at least write within the awareness of it. that the situation has changed completely from whatever it was even a decade ago. Because this is the editor’s—and in a way. Keep in mind that I am not. not to mention conferring certain insights not as readily available otherwise. I will grant that I react differently to a piece of writing—and therefore think differently about the outlook for writing—when I’m responding to a great many samples at one go than I might in another context. When it comes to the things that affect us at that level. each one containing some hard-won. using the idea of resistance.” the taste itself is conditioned by deeper aesthetic biases and valuations. To talk about cultural change at the level I need to is very difficult. by degrees but inexorably. to see whether the writer understands that literary culture—culture in general—is no longer what it used to be. In part because there is no obvious independent place to perch. deliberated expression. initially. making the seal complete. I check in to see whether the prose somehow records this primary recognition—if in no other way than by avoiding the myriad approaches and attitudes that no longer work. “anticipate and address” it. if not outright perverse. I am a man of my time. how it does or does not anticipate and then address the resistance of the open attention. but also downright suspicious to many—that I can go through a foot-high pile of submissions as quickly as I do. creating a specific occasion within what is. as you see. day in and day out. from John Maloney to the problem of meaning. is not “Send me more and more new information” but “Reach me. an enfolding environment of aggressively competing signs and mean-ings.” It is. this is exactly how the process feels. When I first run my eyes left to right down a page of prose I am looking. as reader. And my attitude. as editor. I value it as offering a particular kind of intensification. When I sit down with a huge stack of envelopes. but even more because no one believes that anything has changed at a deeper level. and some reflection on these quickly exposes assumptions about what is viable—needed—in the literary culture. No. as I phrased it earlier.this.

what I do and don’t respond to. This writing must. we entered what writer G.” a zone of relativism untethered to the old material world and its various orders. But I can. by noting all the former approaches that no longer seem to work and then wondering why. and if the man on the street won’t acknowledge it. Now. But—never mind the time warp of the high school English class—between . to literature—altered.” The sentence acts as if writing were just a matter of supplying the declarative sentence in the old straightforward manner of Hemingway. ~ Obviously I’ve gotten onto an enormous topic now. Which is not to say that most Americans don’t still believe in God-the-Father. Trow years ago dubbed “the context of no context. nor can it be cashed in as if it were a treasury bond from the literature of a former era. not as it could in former times. That’s another problem with “John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake. But postmodernism is gone. But we have to believe that artistic necessity evolves. maybe. the artist has to. I can’t go into all the reasons why things have come to such a pass. in effect. I don’t feel smart enough to think the whole business through— the totality of the situation is too daunting. one that a short editor’s introduction can only brush up alongside. camera placement. or dissected. in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual.experience has altered. It cannot begin. more in a “God is dead” kind of way—at the level of the transparent ground of things. For my part. coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop. Basically—short version—a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity. this last is a tricky assertion and it will be very hard to make clear. I measure the transformation of culture by zeroing in on what can and can’t be said—rather. nor can I prove that they have (if what I have written so far makes no sense. not to mention binding. subtly but absolutely. touch a little more on this question of “address” and the ways that I think about it. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case. But it cannot be taken simply on faith. And our situation? As data and image supplanted the authority of the actual. or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. Of course it can. I don’t mean for a moment that the world as we know it cannot be invoked. All interactions and transactions now take place in a different gravitational field. or used. or unfold. and a great deal of writing seems to be working in the spirit of the status quo ante—as if there were any going back from such re-castings of reality. Postmodernism had the inkling and offered the first conspicuous response— postmodernism with its manifold ironies and its endless play with recycled narratives. I measure the extent and nature of change by monitoring my responses to things on (and off ) the page. treated as a natural signifier. tone. S. and the writing needs to embody this—through sentence rhythm. create its own world and terms from the threshold. And with that change our relation to the former world—to history. as unproblematic. Like a man tracking an eclipse through a cardboard pinhole. then what follows will not bring you around). nor can I enumerate which strategies are in my view now defunct. Not in a point-to-it obvious way. foreground and background collapsed into each other.

“John Maloney shrugged” cannot make a place for itself. for nonfiction. The phrase has not used language to cut into the world. We are back to the blizzard conditions of the white page. of course. and there is no more “shrugging”—if there ever was to begin with. I exaggerate. I cannot propose what will. The old naively asserting sentence is on the endangered species list. Writing that works in our day finds ways to indicate that the writer gets it that from now on creative verbal expression is understood as problematic. and see if you do not agree: that no matter the setting. in a world that no longer assumes automatic correspondence between word and correlative object or action. the continuity of the venture (as do the poems. The job can be done. seeing reality refracted in ways I’d never imagined—is what continues to make editing a job to wake up for. with all of its encoded assumptions about the world. This—coming across some unexpected new thing. that it is understood as a gesture undertaken in the face of saturation. it more than redeems the seenbetter-days atmosphere of my immediate surroundings.Hemingway and ourselves falls the shadow. if a benevolent one. these pieces have connived to bring to life the world they invoke and use. Keep these critical musings—this declaration of literary emergency—in mind as you read. and if you want to get a heartening sense of ongoing possibility. Bear with me. but the assertion is also not enough. for me. though that is another subject. There is no plain reality such as the one John has been placed in. is a lie. Poor John Maloney has done nothing but shrug his beefy shoulders. and the pressure to mark the self on the world. I can shill for it freely because it is not my own work. nor does it indicate in any way that it knows what it is trying to slip past us. We should be alert. but not despairing. That sentence. the premise). planting us in the illusion of an old continuity. and I’m already declaring a literary crisis. and for that writer to then pass it off as a representation of human action in our world is a compounding of that lie. though it’s done all the time. and the writer’s terrible anxiety about what might hold fast on that page. to scratch the resistance. must now create its terms before it can be put to work. They confirm. it can no longer be used with simple reference to a common reality. Of the transformation of the world. Writers are ingenious. is very great. another introductory essay) and give evidence that the new order of things can still allow for complex responsive art. I’m quite serious. I invite you to take a close look at the work assembled here. It’s not just that John Maloney’s shrugging is wrong. Fresh good work breaks through again and again—I can testify—each piece finding purchase and launch in its own way. must create a context for itself in the context of no context. At least not of the hammer-hits-the-knee-and-the-leg-goes-up variety. I can only say that the acute recognition of what cannot determines my sorting morning after morning. Of the transformation of our consciousness of the world and of the language structures that reflect that consciousness. But I can also ask it to help make my argument for me. or characters (or. For a writer to create the coordinates of a reality with these markers. . except as an obvious parody of a former mode. how ever inhospitable that world has become to such marking. is being done. that the writer recognizes that expression must in one way or another muscle against the data stream. situation.

But there were a few that were humbler. then. and that if they don’t add up to a clearly defined aesthetic. I was more or less ignorant when I took the AGNI helm from my predecessor. But I have come to see that I do have a very acute set of preferences. when I read language that connects me to the world. Squint at the list how I will. is a late-game activity. and the editor here needs to edit himself. If I believed they were merely personal I would not have taken on the position. if I scratch away at it. I cannot find—stylistically or thematically—anything that . where my readerly instincts have taken me. and the work that repositions the self. What’s more. I had allowed the word to become a kind of synonym for ‘putting together. the all-important truth that is the first part of this sentence. I only hope I can grow my biases outward with the same confidence he did. all-thumbsfeeling. self-reflexively.” Wrong. Instead of thinking in terms of what I would like to do. figuratively speaking. and that if I can identify the work that honestly reaches me. A good sentence describing piece of gummy candy can telegraph this as certainly as any high-flown rhetoric on the soul or the fate of nations. very much a business of cutting away the less essential in order to expose the more essential. and now again in the throes of my self-interrogation. Looking over the contents of this first issue.On Becoming an Editor by Sven Birkerts (Editor's Note) My early literary life was powered by fantasies. But this is far too abstract. I react. at root. I certainly didn’t imagine that fairly suddenly. Is this vanity or public service? Probably both. that it has reach. In other words. Whatever I may have imagined and projected when I set out to edit my first issue. though. This winnowing of inessentials would seem to presuppose that one has a clear sense of what the essential is. is the search for signal in a sea of noise. before readying manuscripts for publication. creating a needed intensification where it counts. with the belief that my longings. which. that other people feel enough the same—or can be made to feel enough the same—about life. the phrase that can break through the fatigue of inundation. I will confess I am confounded. then the broader dissemination of that work may have some value. I discovered. they nonetheless do describe a bias. Words arranged in a way that declares: here is a living mind. and my reaction has an outward fling: I want to carry the news to others. if not universal. moved and heartened when I find what strike me as the best words in the best order. and full of thoughts about what has felt like a dauntingly steep learning curve. Reading literature attends as much to the saying as to the said. here is a spirit. are at least not just mine. except. What I am trying to say is that I am. of what was meant by editing. I discovered quickly (and self-contradictorily) that I both do and don’t have such a sense. Askold’s thirty-year experiment showed me that this could happen in larger political and social ways as well. at the age of fifty—in the middle of the cliché-ridden period of male self-reckoning—I would find myself emerging from the keyed-up isolation that is writing to take on. Askold Melnyczuk. my allegiances. never mind the ostensible subject. No. worth promoting. was really much more about being in the thick of literary life than it was about doing the work of taste-making. Before. I have to trust that many of us go about in search of the quickening word. and I still know nothing. There’s no getting around it: Putting out a journal asks me to believe that my opinion stands for more than itself. It took only a few days on site (and taking instruction from the maestro. I start out. that I have preferences I feel are worth fighting for. It is on behalf of this bias—and because of the beliefs and assumptions that underlie it—that I decided to try my hand at editing AGNI. I can ask myself what I have already done. Editing. Language used with high artistic consciousness. I knew nothing. however slightly—as almost every good book did when we were younger. Managing Editor Eric Grunwald) to see that a magazine is. Here I am. then. most of them the standard ‘grandiose’ kind having to do with landing brilliant pieces in glamorous places and winning the esteem of fa-mous and beautiful people. and of these one was the fantasy of editing a literary magazine. and here the business gets interesting. both formally and in terms of content. But the special attraction of editing a magazine is that rather than waiting for others to package the news for me to evaluate. I have found. dazedly emerged. for love or money. I have done this by writing essays and reviews. I have a chance—neat reversal—to evaluate and put out the news myself. in the self of the reader. a receiving dock for the products of our collective dream-life—those “pure products” that Williams invoked— and that editing is. To begin with. I mean this both in practical and philosophical terms. are too widely flung—I have no jihad to prosecute. set out anything like a firm prescriptive aesthetic: this is what the best writing ought to be. I discovered long ago as a critic and reviewer.’ as in “Let’s put together a literary magazine. the keyed-up quasi-public life that is editing. the fact is that as I write this I have the contents of my debut issue more or less in place. I almost wrote ‘personal preferences’ but checked myself. this is what AGNIwill promote. and I’m sure that will continue. Assemblage. I certainly could not.

Nick Klebaum. I will only add that I hope you agree and that you take the time to ponder how it is that so many universes can be collected in such a small place. Adam Fagin. Jenna Blum. But then the answer. Susanna Lamey. almost abruptly. William Giraldi (fiction reader). Renee Nichols. And now. Katie Krell. Associate Editors Jenna Blum (fiction) and Rachel DeWoskin (poetry). but in fact the most vital realization of all has been of the importance—and pleasure—of the plural pronoun.looks like the figure in the carpet. At least enough to make it this moment’s platform. completely unlike any other. Managing Editor Eric Grunwald. it felt right. So when my associate fiction editor.” As soon as I said that. I like that. I answered. I offer my special thanks here to Editor Emeritus Askold Melnyczuk. Difference—uniqueness—as a basis of commonality. Brian Staveley (poetry reader). . the “we” that makes everything happen. If I had less faith in my responses—if I doubted that they were somehow organic and integral—I would be more nervous. the justification. and our spirited group of interns and volunteers: John Daniels. asked me these same questions yesterday. I start and end this reflection in the first person singular. I have been looking for commonality in too narrowly defined a sense. Enjoy. Heather HeckmanMcKenna. with my own space running out. comes: I see that what I need in this inspection is a change in the frame of reference. Tom Sleigh (ombudsman). and Avi Yulish. Elisabeth Donnelly. “Each of these pieces is completely unique.

We agreed on a street corner near the Pamplona Café. these two. an unassimilated subversive. over and over. No tennis ace would smoke—at all. fairly representative. Unthinkingly placed there. (143) . we imagine that their authors do as well. meetings. yet Wallace tilted against Updike in the pages of The New York Observer some years ago (and I tilted with him.What Remains by Sven Birkerts Possibly because the best words in the best order lay claim to a larger life. They made a music that went against the familiar melos. time and space. both inhabited their language. but also order and chaos. novels. They represented different. I’ve joined them in my mind somehow. were wringing the oft-wrung neck of eloquence. with his deepest suffering. that his father was a philosopher who’d insisted on reading philosophy. by cancer— drove home the fact that they had been. for my sense is that we were perfectly matched in our anal scrupulousness about promises. that) in which he said he was living nearby in Cambridge. simply by refusing to associate them with my idea of normal actuarial mortality. flesh-and-blooding it among us. which is somehow different from nervous. I was deeply struck by Girl With Curious Hair. but by that strange twist of survivor logic less immune than we who remain. I forget who arrived first. for their deaths—by suicide. of course. and the like. of that idea of style. that I met back in 1989 or early 1990. too ready to come forward into print with whatever his pen produced). were both writers of fiction. The laces on his talking shoes were all tangled up. those styles. Those sentences. He was all lanky kid. this was a big part of the shock. not only not immune. this notion that the maker of art that lasts partakes of a power. Possibly we both did. though their styles and visions unfolded in registers not remotely adjacent. Wallace was. with some excitement in a short-lived magazine called Wigwag. No matter what revising impressions our later contacts brought. was the vast entrenched order. the orangish corns and the little hairs between the joints and the nails translucent like the thin sheets in furnace peepholes.” Well. but addressed. its lightly ironized acceptance of things as they are? The bemused Updike smile endorses a reality. of course. What do I mean exactly? Let me try to illustrate. not every bit. he proposed coffee. however. yes: fresh-faced. his outlaw fugues. Indeed. a failure that was bound up. Not an immortality—I’m not that credulous. studying philosophy at Harvard. nervous. He was trying to say too many different things at once. though. As he sits on the bed to put on fresh socks a red ray of late sun slices through a gap in the pines and falls knifelike across his toes. writing a parallel piece that claimed that the Master was too prolix. A kid. in some ways opposing worlds. some strengthening of the self ’s endurance odds by whatever it is that insists on being said. The prose had raised ungainliness to a kind of lyricism of its own—it was clearly achieved sentence by sentence by a writer who knew exactly how to manage his effects. every bit the tennis ace he self-deprecatingly describes in his great essay “Derivative sport in Tornado Alley. though they could not have been more different. anyway—always have. It’s pure superstition. I imagine it. and soft Levi’s all washed and tumble-dried at the Laundromat behind the little Acme in the village. prevent him from working to establish his “serious”-credentials. Girl With Curious Hair. yes. Fathers and sons. certainly eloquence of the Updike stripe. Though in later years when I saw him he did not appear to tower over me physically. style: the sentence. in his exacerbated scenarios. though I don’t think nervous about talking to me —I won’t flatter myself—but about the terms of existence. I think: He goes into the bedroom he and Janice have here and dresses himself in Jockey shorts. Here is a small cutting from Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich. so completely that it was hard to imagine much left over for mere living. who. and what he subverted. This past year. To call it a father/son dynamic would be simplistic. At the same time he was keyed up. and he had written a thank-you letter (very Wallace. First impressions are funny. sending my praises of his work right back over the net. Is it farfetched to think of Wallace’s prose pitching itself in sustained defiance against the philosophical ground of Updike’s. He made it a point—this I remember—to score and underscore that even his childhood exposures had been intense. and who. His modesty did not. that Wallace could not fit himself to. but there are certain elements of that conventional agon. including the son’s will not just to repudiate but to outdo the father. in a core part of his being. deadlines. an outlook. with—I’m positive—short light-brown hair. Updike celebrated an assumption about reality that Wallace was in some defining way at odds with. I mean David Foster Wallace and John Updike. the kid. He was also modest. But a kind of grace. never mind with the shell-game dexterity that had me checking again and again exactly how many cigarettes he had going at once and where they all were. or honey. that day he did. Dave Wallace will always be for me first the young man. the what is that Updike chronicled with calm Flemish exactitude. not Pooh. I suspect. an alligator shirt. Each crisp item seems another tile of his well-being he is fitting into place. Which is to say the how of language. I had reviewed his first collection of stories. not accepted. and essays. to David at bedtime. Considering the divergence in their aesthetics— Wallace’s complete lack of interest in the realism that takes surfaces as the outer manifestation of interior forces—the field of engagement would have to be the how as opposed to the what. brought a double jolt: the deaths of two writers I had placed in the quasi-eternity they had cleared around them with the abundance of their brilliant prose. a metaphysical clearance. though I don’t know that I thought it at the time.

the former world.Though this looks restrained when set alongside other Updike passages. That. he also was open about his admirations. my notecards. curled stiff on his side. Though he appeared to carry the patrician entitlement. I couldn’t let the impression go. extracting aesthetic pleasure from what might be considered the trivial-domestic. He is not. But no rebel son will admit to finding his father’s worldview an object of simple admiration. was no Updike-hater. This is all psychological guesswork on my part. And even since 1981’s Rabbit is Rich—as his characters seemed to become more and more repellent. tired. maybe classics. in the way he frames his point. green. a decade of stenography to Lyndon—lay my lover. or less syntactically ambitious. partly. he was in his sixties and exudedliterary paternity. What I think Wallace responded to in Updike’s writing was not so much the gorgeousness of the procession of words on the page as the perceived absoluteness of the investment in language. Though I almost never find myself questioning the thrust or psychological accuracy of Wallace’s assertions. the confident rhythmic pacing. He did not want to wear the mantle most of us had him wearing. Not that Updike’s descriptive prose isn’t manifestly gorgeous. . from his story “Lyndon”: I saw the big white Bufferin of the President’s personal master bed. say. by the process of ingesting the world and spinning it out as words. of course. I suggest it was the deeper affinity that he was in fact acknowledging. even in recent years remaining the puer aeternus. but all adults were older—they wore suits and sat decorously on panels and took honorary degrees and got themselves pictured in Life magazine . In a sense. the ruins. For Wallace’s whole enterprise can be seen. moving in Cheever’s great shadow. not as rage or stark bitter repudiation. to have internalized it deeply. and presumably plot. and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellent—I’ve continued to read Updike’s novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose. On the stripped bed— neatly littered with papers and cards. no whit less precise. that “sheer gorgeousness” rings false for me. and The New Yorkerpages. since Updike is hardly to be accused of great inventiveness or sophistication on that score. “The fact is. But something nags here. Of the Farm. His renderings expose the starkness of the present through juxtaposition to memory-sweetened evocations of how it was. as nostalgia. fuzzily bearded. And I proceed by way of a perverse triangulation. to recognitions of plasticity and horror— and in this a kind of harbinger. the bed flanked by two servicemen who slumped. a world shorthanded as belonging to “the greatest generation.” he wrote. And I made kid-Wallace a son figure. motionless. I should make clear. but there is something too straightforward. as an artist. and The Centaur are all great books. the recognition that here was a fellow language-captive. By the time I finally set eyes on Updike at some New York ceremonial event. is to have been affected by it. And though it was often felt to be fast disappearing. to late-modern angst. the big white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets. Is the difference clear? The Updike passage pushing its nuanced observations toward an idea of beauty. he refracted his vision not viscerally. And it is not in Wallace’s grain to be glib. we nonetheless catch the signature mode: his details. stripped to sheets. Wallace. for many. for Wallace. a man completely consumed. to allow a tone that was on the whole accepting. If Wallace was. approving the world.” was always his subject. the impulse a fundamental valorizing of creation and the adequacy of language for its representation. through his narrator. then Bellow’s. makes a picture that is slightly garish. and in the process struck off not a few more broadly applicable criticisms. his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover. . a frozen skeleton X ray. Even after the lanky kid had been outgrown. But—here’s the point—his determined refusal of lyricism in his own work makes his professed admiration sound a bit glib. I remember thinking of Updike as a consummate senior insider as far back as high school. “that I am probably classifiable as one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans. red. I don’t believe that he would have pretended to an admiration he did not feel. a writer keyed to disaffection. Though possibly no less attuned to decline. dominating the Knopf catalogues. but I do believe that The Poorhouse Fair. the white face beside him. and he never seemed at ease with it. as a tilting at that very quality. I made him a father. . Wallace. deducing a perceived affinity on Wallace’s part from the fact that the two writers have become conjoined in my thoughts. . And Wallace made that preservation easy. impossibly thin. Wallace is not owning up to what I think would have to be the complexly conflicted character of that admiration. Of course. enfolded in a greater girth and the aura of his stunning attainments. and The New York Review of Books. He would have been in his thirties then. variously shadow-colored by the changing traffic light at the Washington and Kennedy Streets’ intersection below and just outside. The father . an early-warning system for a world in accelerated decline—Updike was a figure looking from the other side. leached of any softness of light. to tilt at something in that way. but registering it in a way that is highly attuned to its menace. in the way of a son absorbing a father’s presence. meanwhile. Not that I think Wallace was at all insensible to the lyric end of the spectrum—his precise ways of defying it show that he registered it keenly. What has . For so many years he had been seen as the heir-pending. Though he excoriated the excesses—the turgidities—of Updike’s novelToward the End of Time. Updike had only recently begun to accept that public role. something insufficiently questioning. nor that Wallace could not admire it. as he himself was. there was also a way in which he held back. his supple and often striking analogies. Not as rabid a fan as. but elegiacally. he found enough poetic meat in the remnants. acted happiest playing the part of the newcomer delighted to have been included. and though he was unstinting in his output. Nicholson Baker. at one level. Now Wallace.” The language. front and back. trumps character.

though. but when I read this I had an impulse to check the dates and signs of both writers. but no less important is the sense we have. And this fucks everything up. The air feels thinner. some writing-related business—I did do that human thing. by their specific books. Wallace. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. a sustained lyrical address of self to world. . Here is the sorrow of reality untransformed. But I did find one paragraph on the first page that resonates with what I have been trying to express here: I’ll tell you why I dislike writing on a computer. and the effort at modesty. It is less the heady meditation on fiction I thought. with the fact that he—they both—were fellow writers profoundly committed to the arduous ordeal of creating a voice for the times.” I was inspired by his all-out tenaciousness and used his example to spur myself to more and better. in our midst. each in its way. of their respective imaginings—so completely unlike. Updike: two Pisces. their salient quality mutability. because I had the feeling while writing about him. I cared less for his characters than for the things they carried. and far more Wallace worrying the issue of postmodern irony. his flashes of inspired absurdity. never to be subjected to those specific powerful idiosyncrasies. of course—we have them—but the loss of their authors forces us to imagine all the features of our world that will escape being seen and served up. their overwrought longings and their losses. his vision of the existential stress of contemporary life. Finally. Also by his fiercely dark comedy. the big—the more abstract—bereavement: the loss to the language of these makers. but the disposition of reality. Like Wallace. When they die we feel a terrible diminution. engaged. I am not a particularly smart or imaginative man. their element water. I have no truck with astrology. that there was something there for me to find. more cumbersome. ~ CODA: I have spent the better part of an hour just now fishing through various ad-hoc containers of letters. I had a strong impression of his character. though I knew him only slightly. There’s none of the pressure to perfect a line before moving on to the next that script and typewriter enforce. his recognition of the predatory corporate ethos against which the private self was so utterly vulnerable. more facilely—I literally think out loud onto the screen. so long as they are alive. Although our contacts were sparse and fleeting—a few meetings. that they are with us. a finely managed convergence of the inseparable responses to beauty: exaltation and sorrow. In Wallace’s case. a suction of available energies withdrawn. taken up with seeing and thinking and processing—with writing. these forces of generation. The man touched me and interested me. and in the other would ask me to see the President’s bed as a large Bufferin tablet. And so on a p. Illinois. I like to write not to ejaculate thoughts but to transfigure them through labor and care and the pressure of putting them down on paper where they can’t be taken back. It’s just as you say: it makes each line too easy. but so insistent. We are fortified by the work of our writers. November 10. which makes editing too arbitrary and spatial a business.joined them is my very real sense of loss. With Wallace. I register first the loss of the person. Updike—in his work I found. the evacuation from our common life. This is not entirely separable from the next echelon of loss. having worked my way slowly through two pages of handwritten prose—small capital letters on lined paper—I realize that I have these last few years misremembered the import. but what I value especially is the emphasis on transfiguration. Writing by hand and typewriter not only brings out the best in me—it brings out stuff I never would have dreamed was there. salient whether in the stories or the grand world-system that was Infinite Jest or in essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. hoping against odds to find a letter that Wallace once wrote to me. and I gave him a good deal of affectionate thought. It is this—not improvement but transfiguration of the contents of my head that I am addicted to. Not just the characters and situations. It is astonishing when it happens— magical—and it simply doesn’t happen on a computer. though groomed and dressed-up. but I find that after much suffering [here Wallace draws one of his signature smiley-faces] and several drafts I’m sometimes capable of producing smart and imaginative prose. I find myself writing way faster. though now.c. especially. because I can write better than I can think. a few thoughtful letters. 1993) I respond to the pressure. The accumulation of all those sightings and presentations is not lost. (posted from Bloomington. Then there is the disappearance. exactly? It’s complex. in the face of which he was so disposable. and our gestures of thought feel heavier. And I found it. I was moved by his urgency. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. his presence and use of language. Of what. too provisional. which has to do with the idea of the person. when I start to bear down on it. the seriousness. I projected and extrapolated. the visualization that—to refer to my examples—in one case would map a beam of light to its destination on the almost cruelly rendered toe. less part of a common purpose. the filter of his terrible ironies.

But no. looking for god knows what. I can hear the sound of that drawer rolling open. So I had to imagine everything there was a possible clue. only more careful. At least some of them did. the writing teacher who quotes to his students the line from Flaubert: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.The theater. I am. A dented little tin taken down from the cluttered top shelf of the bookcase behind my attic desk. And I know that when I later read Chekhov’s “Lady With a Lapdog. I empty my pockets at the end of the day and leave them on the nearest surface. as Lowell did. Benson & Hedges. Herr Schimmelpenninck? Or is this the king of Holland offering his imprimatur on the product? It could just as well be Goethe. then carefully replaced it. Well. When I picked it up from the shelf of course I gave it a shake. there’s that same projection of entitled nobility. But so is everything I read of Russian literature somehow embellished by my . How did they know to be yelling ‘batterbatterbatter’ so confidently at our recess games. maybe the concealed document testifying to my true origins. though there is a secondary sensory memory. my tin. but I know it was not from my father. were soaked in significance. The fact that I have things in it. peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance. a few a day. The Schimmelpenninck is just another container with stray pennies. also there in the drawer. a bookcase that has become one of my default reliquaries. I mouthed the syllables but felt completely exposed… Finally. Coins. the very same thing I remember feeling on the playground when kids used tags and phrases I hadn’t learned yet.” when Gurov travels to the provinces to find Anna and attends the theater—where he first sees her again—it is this place I picture. a European friend. But really he smoked cigarettes. and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassembling—that I broke—and that my father confronted me with in a fury. The point is that I was right! These things of theirs. And there was the tin of Schimmelpennincks. Stamped for October 10. The button I place right away—a small souvenir from a trip I took to Latvia. I can’t remember how I came by it. I can picture—or imagine—my father lighting one in the late evening. with a whisky drink. How dare I—? Did I have any idea what that meant? This was a lighter he had found during the war. But I wasn’t holding my breath with any thought of treasure. And I know where this thread—it is fine and twisty—leads. only that I keep alive the feeling that there was something to be found. and Aptauja—here is one of the many words that marks the line of my outsiderness. in the early 1980s— was it 1981? Mikrofons refers to a pop radio station in Riga. They had that feeling. Back to the drawer of my father’s desk. while he was making his way from one place to another. throughout the house. Doesn’t matter. my reward for restraint. a small cloud of feeling: the space was plush. There are other things about the tin. I think I may have bought it during one of my attempts to quit smoking. But this tin here. almost a bib. as close as we can. And: a neatly folded scrap of thin beigesalmon paper that I recognize instantly as Latvian. Nothing unique here. I never found it. Schimmelpenninck. and would have now—compounded by time and loss—if I were suddenly to find them now. interest being the discovery of connections that feel as if they are leadingsomewhere. not a hint of anything that might have transpired on stage. its top right drawer I realize now also a reliquary. and probably the reason I kept the thing. that I just don’t know. Look! Look closer! What do you see? Start with the eye and see what happens. And maybe something else. A little choo-choo train of m’s and n’s. Pray. and older Latvians often remark with surprise how well I speak for someone who doesn’t use the language regularly. was a regular stop for me as I made my way through the rooms. That desk. A word that means absolutely nothing to me. As if in the scattered stuff of my parents’ lives lay the secret. Much as a girl might try out just a bit of her mother’s lipstick. but in this drawer. I have never seen paper of this color and consistency anywhere else. kind of like the mesh sieve in the kitchen drain that catches everything left from the wash-up of a family meal. looking for confirmation of something. Enough about that. I remember being taken to a play. except that the sieve then gets emptied into the kitchen trash while the sentimental refuse of living just accumulates. the kind you clip to your lapel. If I bought them—I’m pretty sure I did. is very haute-European. But the whole effect. once I had the tin on the desk in front of me. Just above it on the tin a small inset image of a high-browed and peruked gentleman with a stiff collar and a formal-looking flow of white cloth. knowing as I did that I would be back. escaping—He wouldn’t tell me the story— he added it to the pile of things he would one day explain about his life. I picked it up in the spirit of ‘you have to start somewhere. It is the product of attention. with a rainbow design and the words Mikrofons and Aptauja and the number 81. I see that it’s a ticket: Andreja Upisa LPSR Valsts Akademiskais Dramas Teatris. Pennies. the missing card that completed the deck. figuring I could allow myself one cigarillo a day. bored—it seems I was both for years at a stretch— I snooped and sifted through every cranny of my parents’ lives. And I nodded solemnly and promised to leave his things alone. I grew up speaking Latvian at home. the little tin is there to be looked at. pennies…and a button. like a tiny elephant figurine. We want to pretend. Aptauja. just under the stiff waxy paper. but there must be thousands of words like this one. that folded scrap of paper. How to know which? Without the stories I couldn’t. Not like that little box—and where on the crowded planet is it now?—that I had all through my later childhood with my Indianhead pennies. I think. after all.’ but also with a certain confidence. but it would be nothing to me—sentimentally. With real cigarillos in it. yes. but really we want to get in close. A brand of cigarillos. associatively—if it weren’t for the sound and look of that word. bundled letters. but the charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of things—I mean literal things. Maybe a few missing. I opened to confirm.” And I do believe it.Bits by Sven Birkerts Schimmelpenninck: Made in Holland. lacking some secret password. 1982. where a tie would ordinarily go. and then the clutter gets to me and I sweep them in to jars and tins. And because of those words I feel at a permanent remove. The Schimmelpennincks must have been a gift. Unfolding it. I don’t remember what it was. by myself. upstairs in our old house in Michigan. I remain moderately fluent. Such aura they had. they held clues. From a client. Alone. I probably took one out and put it between my lips. marking a path. baroque-feeling. is not that. from Leavitt & Pierce in Harvard Square—I would have done so both for the association and for the fact that the cigarillos themselves were the length and basic shape of cigarettes. Pennies flock to me. I have little gangs of pennies everywhere. I don’t think it mattered what. the lights were warm. for the grace of accuracy.

to go along on their outings. Set against those stories of Um’s. embossed with my (and his) old high school insignia. sure as if he had cut off and combed his long hair. as with the other photo. I . I can’t focus in on Earl on his own any more. and therefore right in my line of sight day after day. Everything looked the same. “Mag. There was a time when I could look at my father’s face and see signs of his father—momentarily intense traces. just down the street. and now that he is there I can no longer not see him. I am seeing myself. in his 70s. since he has grown up. Lately. And something very similar has happened with a framed portrait of my grandparents. probably the same age as young Earl. safely older. find without spark. A few years back they were my familiar parents. Yesterday I came home from travels to find a belated Christmas present in my mail. I’m catching another kind of haunt. the Slav faces at kiosks—or my own imaginings projected into the stories I heard growing up. wearing suit and tie with a pocket handkerchief. whether memories of being in Riga at different times—the feeling of stairwell. though it’s true I’ve learned to avoid ambush by moving my gaze selectively when I pass through that room. and also the person behind the face. who had such a store of memories from her life. Resemblance. the look of windows and sills. The photo on the living room shelf is safe by comparison. 1982. But now. and more sustained visitations in the mirror. but in that first morning face off. and along the dresser top in the nondescript room that is really more like a wide passage to our bedroom than anything else. “Something I found in my last sweep through the old place. but I know he’ll come again. but historical. And it was much contested by his six daughters which of them was his favorite. Handsome. I always remark how young they look. Those were not the only women—and one other in particular nearly broke up his marriage—but the young man in the frame knows none of that. loaded with change. and also the sense that he was a favorite. on finding. Mike and Emilia. at which point I am habituated to myself. They are so familiar that I rarely look closely. and not just by virtue of facial similarity. the grown son of Lynn’s brother Gary.” He was referring to the visit he and Alison had made to see my parents right before they sold the house and moved East. a bulky soft bundle from my brother and his wife. Um. His hair is nicely combed. Every time I glance at Earl’s face I can’t now not see the face of Matt Focht. with joking familiarity. Found things and the stir they make in memory—that’s one ecology. the two of them took a full step forward and took up their same pose. when I step into the downstairs bathroom with its big. but from a whole other era. over Lynn’s desk. like people unpacked from a battered old steamer trunk before the world found color. One of the photos on the dresser outside of our room. and I’d say far too often. My grandmother’s face has been taken over by that of my niece Olivia—she is absolutely there. is of my father-in-law Earl Focht as a young man. Earl was often called. The tag catches something of the pretty-boy quality in the photo. soldiers.various Latvian exposures. of trains. really. twenty or so. we do. unsmiling. For I knew this photo of Earl for some time before Matt leapt into it. as if someone had turned up the volume on resemblance—and that does still happen. 1982 was around the corner. This would have been taken ten or fifteen years ago. and he is staring steadily out of the frame. which is of course part of the reason these innocent images can overwhelm us. A classic portrait: they seem to me to be looking out not just from the past. You can only have so many full-strength visitations in any given period. which I have just now refolded along its creases and replaced in its Schimmelpenninck tin. “Earl-the-Pearl” by members of Lynn’s family. her daughter. much liked by the many women in the extended family and beyond. and stay longer as time goes on. but more richly from my grandmother. We have framed photographs of parents and grandparents from both sides of the family in various parts of the house—on the downstairs bookshelves. tightlywrapped packet tucked in. But there’s another. all that we simply lose. or lose and then. He meets me and takes me in for a second or two before withdrawing. So familiar and strange at the same time. But right now it is far away as a lit auditorium in Riga in what was still the Soviet era. and suited up. But then suddenly—I don’t know what happened—it stopped being that. But more commonly. from my parents. 1982 is nothing at all. to the point of pestering Earl and Delores. Looking out is a young man. the reach they offered into what felt like the timeless time when things had weight and the world was the way it had been forever—an illusion!—not changing every minute and becoming wispylight. and with it a note from Erik. Her presence itself feels like a feature of the resemblance. Formal. and for the longest time I thought of it as a recent picture. I’ve maybe seen Matt five times in my life. though. marked for me now by that offtextured paper with its date and place. Lighter. well-lit mirror and flip the wall switch. and only twice. the one closest to the door. as hair always was. that we have downstairs. That used to be the main thing that struck me when I would study their faces. If the photo doesn’t change. That face. sure—why make a thing of it? But it nags at me. It’s like breaking into a different zone—you actually feel what that person was like when you were with them. He vanishes. so young.” adored him. and who trumped other tellers just by reaching farther back—her tales of the farm. And for a long time it wasn’t. It’s all so unsettling. But wait—something else! There was also a small. all I see is resemblance. right here. At some moment when I was not paying attention. though when I do it’s like a porthole suddenly opening onto some very deep business. His mother-in-law. They stand. eager to please. And when I pass by it now and have it in me to stop. there was the real redolence. Photo: Father-in-Law. As are the flashes—at this point they are nothing more than that—that I get when I look at that picture of my parents standing together. except now photo felt archival. They are closing in on me. but now it’s like I can reach right over. when you look and really grasp someone’s likeness in its place and time. Little glimpses in the photo. not during the day. As if to say we are as much about our deletions as our accumulations. It was a thick fleecy sweatshirt they had specialordered. But it never happens the same way twice. But he is there. but in that way the young once had of seeming old. Take the small framed color shot of my parents standing together on the bookshelf downstairs. describing the shadow world. no less important. I knew Earl for several years—he died some years ago. Not that there is any known similarity between her personality and what we remember of Um. shaved.

It would be most of my life. For of course I would have put it to use. I doubt he would have read it. or simply bit by bit waned. what little dog am I wrestling with on that carpet? Whose house. engraved? Whatever the reason. A wink.” He looks impressed. yes. thinking of people who might have given me this gift. redeemed. And there was the scene later. I stared at the thing. the link will be achieved. glasses that spooned so hugely over my eyes. I’d just a moment ago lifted the thing from its wrapping and was holding it up between thumb and forefinger. And then I’m there. Which means that just like that I’m hedged on all sides with my doubts and fears. Dad?” I smile and hand it over for him to look at. There was—But no.” I say. this merest moment’s shudder of imagining. here. Still. still holding the thing. I never put those rabbit ears over that girl in that crowd. I get nothing. There. Vicky. No way back for me. in passing. then what else? How much of the rest of my living has moved out of reach? Suddenly I can’t help imagining an alternate scenario. Then I gave it another turn in my fingers. Ah…I felt the quick flash of wires making first contact. But now. amen. And though I knew that if I flicked the lighter bar nothing would happen. Wait. shifting my weight from foot to foot in the cafeteria line behind my fourth grade classmates. some Of course! But there was nothing right then and no feeling that anything might be en route. a memory film of all that has fallen away. a little brotherly dig. worse. I realize. right before sleep. this couldn’t be right. each time imagining the clean leaf of a blaze. would possibly have remembered. Mine! Clearly once a gift given. The lighter had been mine. laughing on my end of the telephone at something someone said…Someone—who was it? What did they say? Why did I laugh? I never had pants like that. Sally…Why am I thinking of women? Am I so sure that no male of my acquaintance would think to get the thing. A cigarette lighter. what house. where did he get that? Hadn’t I destroyed the thing—the relic. the little screws and cylinders and laying the whole thing out for study on his drafting table. The paper-c0vered weight in the hand disclosed a dull silver sheen.palmed and hefted the packet. inspecting. The lighter! But then right away was the pause. “Wow—who gave it to you?” I look away. “What is it. and for some reason I looked at the bottom first. an occasion. taking notes year after year in big and small lecture halls as my professors make their points. waiting for some first pulse of recollection. “With my initials engraved on it. and who is she. in the wake of all that first surmising. mystified—and then I slowly worked the tape loose. and Liam is looking on with interest. Most of what has been rustling over the sprockets of the projector and flowering there on the screen. received. Did I? It goes on. or while I’m stirring rice. each person— there are others—asks me to think of a scene. eating sheet-cake at farewell parties for co-workers. having read it. had remembered it. Nothing. twice. . “A lighter. plain as could be on the flat side: S P B. me alone doing irresistible demolition. What room is that. and I do trust myself to read these sensations when I have them—the tiny vacuum flutters that are telling me almost and maybe and allow me to hope that later. a faint waft of conjectural self-flattery: my brother reads me! But then suspicion comes chasing: if he had read me. I had—but had I written about barely. I will swear on a Bible. when my father came home from the office. a place for a missing screw. narrowing my eyes the way I do when I’m thinking hard. again. and when I did the whole investigation fizzled. any thing. then this was a joke. I can’t help but consider the speed of supposition: this all unfolded in a second or two. if this. another tilt of the wrist. Not just what kind of friend am I? But also. I never threw my arm around that fat boy and snickered into his ear. There I saw a hole. and put to use. my father’s old prize from the war? There was an afternoon maybe fifty years back. Maybe it had been reassembled. or my friends’ parents. suffered erasure. My engraved initials.” I tell him. working loose the parts. stomping in my rubber boots past the bus-driver. whose dog? World without end. Andra. Happy birthday! Congratulations! You did it! But no—there’s nothing forthcoming. Standing there by the counter. and those three initials like the breadcrumbs that the woodlad birds had gobbled down. Myself in all of my banished incarnations: shaking hands with my parents’ friends. Except he is not one for winking. Just a blank the size of the lighter. How could Erik know about that? Had I written about it? Well. I did—once. “I’m really not sure. or. I have never said the word ‘corruscate’ out loud in my life. and who are all the others? I never skiied with wooden poles. Though in the nothing I can’t help hurriedly sorting names.