In my family, the naming story that gets told most often is the one where my mother is trying to obtain her first passport, and she sees her birth certificate for the first time. She discovers that her legal name is not Laurie Jo, the only name she has ever, EVER been called. It is "Gertrude Greer."
My mom, who is the mother of two babies herself at this point and the wife of an Air Force pilot named Bert, calls home to ask her mother why in the world the name on her birth certificate would be "Gertrude." My grandmother, who has been awakened from a sound sleep, says blandly, "The doctor was drunk, and that was one of the names we were considering."
My mother is shocked. Gertrude? They could look at her and think, Gertrude?
"Oh, well," my unflappable grandmother says, "you could have been Gert and Bert!"
From the very beginning of writing The Practice House it was called The Practice House. It was as if I had decided to get pregnant because I liked the name Henry or Sam. The germ of the novel--the spark, the root, the yeast, the egg--was that name. The existence of a bungalow in my town called The Practice House, and all of the actual and metaphorical and, to me, incredibly rich and ominous meanings of the name and the idea--building a house at a high school where girls would practice--for a grade!--being housewives and mothers!--were the reasons for writing the book. Once we were preparing to write the name on the book's legally binding birth certificate, though, my editor at Little A inquired gently whether I was open to considering other names for my baby.
I really wanted the baby to be an official, legal, recognized citizen because she was, to be honest, about 13 years old. And whether I called her the exact name she'd always been called around the house didn't seem essential. What if she were more of a Gertie than a Laurie Jo? Maybe I needed to look at her with the eyes of a stranger.
So we began a process that was familiar to me from re-naming other babies whose names I thought I knew. The Incident on the Bridge, in particular, had many, many other titles in its childhood and adolescence, including but not limited to:
The Last Flight of the Bean Clam
I Am on Fire and Have Dangerous Cargo
I Have a Diver Down
Crooked went all the way through kindergarten as When All the Good Holidays Are Over. The Decoding of Lana Morris was called The Big If until graduation. Dark Water started life as The Pearl and The Egg. As with those books, I read the entire Untitled Work again with the Title Filter affixed to my brain. Any time I came across a phrase or word that seemed even remotely resonant, I jotted it down, and then I sent the resulting list (see photo below) to my editor, and we tossed the names around, talking about which ones would likely get it teased on the playground, which ones were confusing or hard to spell, which reminded us of people we already knew, and which might be so over-familiar that there were would be four other girls in her class with the same name (a problem that afflicts Dark Water to this day).
The name that was first runner up was The Scottish Girl; second runner up (in my tally, at least) was The Sound of Her. Third runner up: Home by Water. I mention this because now that The Practice House has started going to school a little bit and making friends and hanging out with people, there are some readers who think her name is all wrong for her and can't even understand how anyone could name her that. One Amazon reviewer has even asked why the book isn't called something like The Scottish Girl.
The long answer is offered by Emily St. John Mandel in The Daily Mail, but I'll summarize in case you're in a hurry: we did not want to seem to be copying the papers of the writers next to us just to be popular. We did not want to seem to be calling our baby The Scottish Girl just because The Girl on the Train and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Danish Girl and Gone Girl were getting asked to all the big parties. We wanted her to be liked for who she is, and the original name still fit best, in our opinion. Although only one character ultimately teaches home ec in a place called the practice house, all of the women practice house-keeping and homemaking in an attempt to make themselves and others feel at home and happy. The Practice House is both a literal place in the novel and an idea that every female character has to reckon with. Is it the best title? I think so, but maybe I'm not the best person to say. I'm still fond of the name F. Scott Fitzgerald started out calling his famous baby, The Great Gatsby. But Trimalchio in West Egg would have been hard for high school students to spell on their exams.
I don't know why we always do this but we do. We go looking for the true story behind the novel we just read & enjoyed precisely because it felt true. What we like is believing in a whole and contained world with solid walls and living people. And yet we ask: where'd you get the idea? And the author can't just say, "Well, it all happened."
As a reader of literary biographies and interviews with writers and the acknowledgment pages at the backs of novels, I confess that I'm always picking apart the story to find the true parts and the made-up parts and the Terrible Childhood Events that inspired fiction. Even that isn't enough. I go on pilgrimage to the very places where the transformation from life to fiction occurred--to Key West or Chawton or Rome--so I can stare at the holy typewriter or handwritten manuscript page.
When you're writing historical fiction, the sacred moments are the ones when you come across a photograph, artifact, or place that feels inhabited--haunted, really--and you hope somehow to hold out a wick to that still-burning candle and use it to light your book. That's what these pictures show: the candle flames.
You do it. I do it. We all do it. We judge books by their covers. That's what covers are for.
No lie: I spend more time dreaming/worrying about the cover of a book accepted for publication (and sometimes one that I'm just writing the first 50 pages of) than I spent planning my wedding. Picking names for our children. Reading about childbirth when I was pregnant the first time. (Okay, maybe not that last thing. I was really, really scared of childbirth.) And yet I had more control over all of those events than I've normally had over the way our books present themselves.
When I talk about being a writer, formally or informally, people always ask if I get to choose my covers, and I think that's because they picture it more or less like a wedding: you get to choose your own dress, right? I mean, wouldn't you?
The short answer is no, and there's a good reason for that: the publisher is paying for the wedding, not you. The medium-length answer is what I once said to Tom after a book I had written got a cover I didn't like and I said so and my editor (whom I love and respect) said they really liked it. The marketing team liked it. All of them. Everyone except me. I hung up the phone and said, "It's like you spend years going to college and studying for a career and then you go through a whole bunch of interviews and you finally, finally get the job, and you're so happy, and then on the first day you show up for work, the boss says, "This is what we want you to wear. Every day. This is who we want people to think you are."
This sounds ungrateful, I know. But it might be a clown suit, and you pictured yourself in Chanel with these very sleek, very tasteful pumps that show just a tiny amount of toe cleavage. I'm going to be a little academically obnoxious right now and talk about the semiotics of covers. I've thought about this a lot (see above, under More Time Than Planning Own Wedding) and there's a clear set of signifiers, symbols, what-have-you in play:
Children's and young adult books follow similar rules. Illustrations on textured cotton paper signify Seriousness and Artistic Intent and Good for You while Glossy Color Photos in the above-mentioned hues signify Fun Thing You Would Pick Yourself Not What the Librarians Give Prizes To.
Obviously, there are exceptions, as there are exceptions to everything, but this is generally and broadly true. So when I finally sold my first Adult Book (as opposed to Young Adult) after I'm not even going to tell you how many years of rejection, I began to plan my book wedding dress (the one it would wear until it died) even though I knew, from long experience, that the publisher was going to pick my book's wedding-every-day-until-it-dies dress.
And the loveliest thing happened. Little A, my publisher, sent me a questionnaire in which I was allowed to do on the page what I had been doing all of these years in my head. The questionnaire asked what kind of cover I thought my book should have in order to convey to readers the kind of book it is. The questionnaire asked (I'm talking very high and loud now and slapping the table with both hands) what symbolic objects from the book might be featured on the cover, which was like asking if I wanted to fly to Paris and try on some dresses there? And then--feel free to jump up and down with me on the carpet of the wedding-gown store!--I was told that sometimes authors make a Pinterest page of the kinds of images they think the book would like to wear.
Are you JUMPING with me, people???
I had already, at this point, actually started a Pinterest page of covers for The Practice House, but I was kind of embarrassed about it, and I knew it was just a thing I was doing for myself, like the Pinterest page I have of things I might knit but definitely never will.
That Pinterest page, called "Ansel and Aldine" is right here, if you want to see it, but it's okay if you don't. I'm just putting it there to show you that the wedding-and-forevermore dress my book will be wearing on April 1st is not that different from some of the wedding dresses I let it try on in my head, and it incorporates a lot of the things I described at length in my questionnaire. The cover Rachel Adam designed signifies, I think, the very things I hoped so much it would signify, and it also does something Little A pointed out is crucial in the Internet Age: when the picture is smaller than a postage stamp on your screen, it's still recognizable and intriguing.
So please, I hope you will all come to my wedding on April 1st and buy the book and read about Aldine and Ansel and Ellie and Charlotte and Clare and Lavinia and Neva, or at least look at the picture of the cover the book is wearing until death do us part and know that there is happiness sometimes.
Publication is supposed to be the highlight of writing, where you feel all your hard work has come to glorious fruition, where you dance lightly on the steps in Philadelphia to the theme from Rocky.
For six years, Thisbe Locke, the 17-year-old girl in this story, was my imaginary daughter, and her sister Ted was, too, and boys named Fenimore and Jerome were my imaginary sons and also my imaginary former selves, and a novel about them was, for that space of time, this imaginary perfect thing I could achieve if I just worked hard enough. For six years, I ran through the streets of Philadelphia/Coronado telling myself I MUST WRITE A BOOK THAT WILL SAY EVERYTHING I FEEL IN A BEAUTIFUL WAY THAT WILL DO JUSTICE TO ALL THE PAIN EVERYONE FEELS AND MAKE THEM FEEL BETTER.
Which made light dancing on the steps hard to achieve.
This novel, for what it's worth, is a re-telling of the Pyramus and Thisbe myth. Pyramus and Thisbe fall in love but are forbidden by their parents to see each other. They try to make do with talking through a crack in the wall between their two houses, but that isn’t enough, so they make a plan to meet somewhere, in a quiet little cemetery, at the Tomb of Ninus. Thisbe gets there first, and she encounters a lion that has just killed and eaten something. In terror, she runs away, dropping her scarf, which the blood-smeared lion gnaws on for a while, then drops. Pyramus thinks she’s dead, and he stabs himself. Thisbe finds his body, thinks her life is ruined, and stabs herself.
I always found this story to be even more unsatisfying than Romeo and Juliet. One of the worst myths of all time. You can’t really even feel bad for them, they’re so impulsive.
But now I live on the far side of a 2-mile-long, 215-foot-tall bridge from which 360 people have killed themselves in the last 47 years. Some of them went to the high school our sons attend. Sometimes the bridge is closed for hours while a person paces back and forth near the 34-inch-high concrete rail. (There is no pedestrian lane, so to attempt to jump you must stand in a lane meant for cars.) Police used to keep one lane of the Coronado-San Diego Bay Bridge open for cars to pass through while a negotiator was trying to talk a suicidal person out of jumping, but, inevitably, as a trained counselor was earnestly telling the depressed person life was worth living, a driver in a passing car, enraged by the long delay, would shout, "JUMP!" Or, more frequently, "JUMP, A****!" So now all lanes are closed during a suicide intervention.
Sometimes, though, all that is found on the bridge is an empty car. The door may be open, the car still running, as if the driver couldn't wait a second longer, not even to kill the ignition.
Every time this happens, it's somebody's job to come to the Tomb of Ninus. To drive a boat to the base of the bridge and shine light into the water. It's someone's job to reach down for people whose arms have broken in the fall, who are babbling incoherently, whose last gesture before falling was, in an instinct from childhood, to plug the nose. It's the job of others, in more delayed cases, to dive down through silty, opaque water and swim through a concrete forest of poles, hoping to find and retrieve. It's someone's job, before or after the finding and retrieving, to go to the front door of the next of kin and say, "Your daughter" or "your son."
For this reason, I wanted Thisbe to live in a real world, for cell phones and fortune cookies to be the crack in the wall, and the Tomb of Ninus to be the bridge over which many people are driving this very second in a state of elation, worry, hope, distraction, haste, leisure, boredom, or despair.
Telling you to read this book is like that horrifying time I went to see Wolf of Wall Street with my devout Mormon mother and my 16-year-old son. Guess which two people left after 15 minutes? Only it's not like that, really, because I detested Wolf of Wall Street but I took four pages of envious, nerdy grad-school notes about things I loved in The Haters.
Still, though, a similar flesh-crawling awkwardness. A fear of being pegged a Puritan because I cannot say out loud to you, not even one time, what the central joke of the novel is. And yet it's mostly original and moving and smart. I, a person who cannot discuss bodily functions with anyone unless motivated by fear of my own imminent death, want to give it four, possibly five, stars. So be warned.
This is why: Andrews does what Salinger did 76 years ago, which is to use an achingly real, profanely sweet and sweetly profane voice to hammer away at a problem he fears is unsolvable, namely the finding of the thing that is so good it cannot be made ungood or taken away from you. The Holden Caulfield Conundrum is that success will inevitably lead to pride and self-satisfaction, which would turn you into a phony, and since detecting who is and isn’t a phony is the thing that makes you both miserable and authentic, you're constantly in danger of being loathsome to yourself. In Holden Caulfield’s world, only authentic and sincere impulses and people are worthwhile, and authenticity cannot be faked or bestowed by others.
The Wes Doolittle Conundrum is similar: loving something (in the case of The Haters, loving music by The Shins or Kool and the Gang) is risky because you might discover later that your judgment was flawed. Once you lose your passionate innocent love for that thing, you also lose your sense of confidence in your own judgment of what’s authentically, intrinsically good, which is the only thing you value in your self or anyone else. Hating on something, as experienced by Wes Doolittle, is a defensive reaction to the fear of disillusionment-- a profound existential dilemma that he calls “poisoning the well.” The unpoisonable well that he’s looking for throughout the book is the authentically, indestructibly good thing—a performance, a band, an experience—that is Good in the moment and still Good later on and (most importantly) still Good in the presence of someone you respect. His fear is that such a thing doesn’t exist, that a person is doomed to grow out of everything--to look back on things you loved in childhood and adolescence and see how flawed they were.
Holden and Wes are thus vulnerable in the same way: they both walk the earth in a judgmental frenzy plagued by self-doubt. It’s as though they gain self-respect primarily by acknowledging limitations, which is what makes them authentic, but what good does authenticity do if there really is no unpoisonable well, if there is only “I liked it then, but I was wrong,” or “I thought it was good, but it wasn’t” or, in Holden's case, "she was good and she died."
Besides being a very interesting take on this dilemma, The Haters is stylistically brilliant and full of endlessly witty hyperbole. It takes standard tropes of the young adult genre (the orphan and the road trip) and contemporary dilemmas (how do you get rid of the characters’ cell phones in a natural-seeming way so their parents can’t find them?) in impressively original ways. And even the tediously crude language—oh, the tediously crude language—is arguably a literary necessity (though I genuinely hope I’m wrong). The Holden/Wes narrator is always an outsider. Society poisons the well, so only a subversive can find an unpoisonable way of being, and he or she’s only going to be able to do it in the company of other subversives who reject adult rules about what you can and cannot say or do.
Here’s the problem, though. Catcher in the Rye was published for adults and later adopted as essential high school reading. The Haters is presented as a Young Adult novel. How Subversive-Raunch tolerant can Young Adult literature be? It’s a genre that’s more pleasure-based than angst-based, ultimately intended to be either edifying or blandly escapist, and although the gate-keepers are keen to seek out and celebrate novels that push boundaries of all kinds, this book may have crossed the raunch line while simultaneously crossing the angst line. Cerebral/gross is a hard sell. As some prominent reviewers have noted, it’s not funny the way Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (which I loved) was funny. And yet it’s far more cheerful than, say, A Visit From the Goon Squad. In many ways that’s a good thing to be offering young readers. If Wes doesn’t exactly find an unpoisonable well, he at least finds an unpoisonable way of being.
I would argue that this book, which I suspect will be vociferously banned, is an example of why censors are so bad at judging quality. The authentically true good thing cannot be determined by a list of right words and wrong words or by a list of things the characters do that you wish they wouldn’t do (or at least wouldn’t talk about in such detail). The existential crisis at the heart of this book is as real and probing as anything in Salinger, and it co-exists with a bunch of things I’d rather weren’t necessary. If you took them away, though, would Wes be a convincing Generation Z bass player? And whose fault is that, exactly?
So true, Fidel. So true. As I proofread college application essays and type our credit card number over and over again into sites that send and receive our son's test scores, I find myself wishing, too late, for a chance to do certain things over again.
DEAR INNOCENT, MISGUIDED LAURA OF YORE,
Four Great Novels with Painfully Realistic College Scenes
1. Intuition by Allegra Goodman, 2006
College featured: Philpott Institute, Harvard
Number of freshman applicants to Harvard in 2015: 35,023
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,626,725
Percentage of Applicants Accepted: 6
Did my child apply there? HAHAHAHAHAHA. I am aspirational; not insane.
Opening paragraph: "All day the snow had been falling. Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks. The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks. The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee. Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people. Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual. In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working."
2. The Group by Mary McCarthy, 1963
College featured: Vassar
Number of freshman applicants to Vassar in 2015: 7,597
Application fee: $70
Amount earned through application fees: $531,790
Percentage accepted: 24
Child applied there? No. Poughkeepsie is too cold for him (see Note to Self #5).
Okay, so this breathless, engrossing ancestor of the Elena Ferrante novels is not actually set in college. The action begins three months after commencement, but because it concerns eight women from the same class at Vassar, it qualifies both as a full-body immersion in collegial intrigues and a cautionary tale about how snarky poets will be if you write a little too successfully (and sexily) after graduation. The book was #1 on the bestseller list for five months in the U.S. but banned in Italy, Australia, and Ireland. Louise Bogan sniffingly called it "women's secrets clinically told" and Robert Lowell said, “No one in the know likes the book” to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s. So if you don't get into Vassar or any of the Ivies, maybe you can go to a nice midwestern college and make friends with people who will send you Christmas cards and knit hats for your babies and buy your book and pretend to like it even if they don't.
3. After This by Alice McDermott, 2006
Colleges featured: Michael Keane goes to a university in upstate New York and his sister Annie Keane goes to study literature in England for her year abroad.
Number of freshman applicants to Syracuse University in 2015: 28,269
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,120,175
Percentage accepted: 49
Child applied there? No because, again, COLD. (I tried to get him to apply to a school in Ireland but he rolled his eyes.)
Do not pay attention to the negative reviews on Goodreads that suggest nothing happens in After This. Everything that matters in life happens in this book. The inner life of a whole family unfurls. The chapter where Michael Keane goes to a college bar on Halloween is as real to me as any freezing cold autumn day I passed as an unfinished person in Syracuse. The evening Annie spends at a professor's house in England is as full of rueful epiphanies as a Chekhov story.
4. Brideshead, Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
College featured: Oxford
Number of freshman applicants: Unclear, but see this discouraging comment on College Confidential
Child applied there? No. My Anglophilia did not get passed down, fortunately, nor did the deep desire to leave the material world and live exclusively in an Evelyn Waugh novel.
The best way to persuade you to read this book is to start typing it into the blog word for word, but once I begin doing that, we'll fall under its spell and we'll be here all night, and then we'll miss the New Year's Eve turkey burgers I plan to make, which will feature homemade buns (we're an elegant family). So trust me that this is the book you want to read when all the applications are finished, or when you get your first acceptance, or when you get rejected from your top choice and you feel the world is ruined, because this book will remind you that the most wistful, gorgeous, searing novels are written by those who feel like outsiders, so if you are one, at least for now, you're in the best possible company.
Children's books are full of passageways. Armoires, rabbit holes, train stations. They lead to a world more wonderful in the literal sense--talking lions, talking rabbits, invisibility, dragons, time travel, and flight. In a certain kind of delectable fantasy, the only thing more wonderful than having magical powers and meeting friendly beasts is the discovery that the ordinary, unhappy, misfitting child is actually the savior of the world.
The other kind of children's book, the type where you can't fly or talk to animals, where you have to go to school and you hate the way you look (or are) and you can't fly and you can only talk to stuffed animals (and you'd better not do that in front of any of your friends), is full of passageways, too, but they're emotional. The child goes from innocence to experience. From ignorance (sometimes blissful, always dangerous) to knowing the score.
I used to be the world's most earnest missionary for the second kind of book. Realism was the cause I could take door to door. Epiphany and empathy, I believed, could save anyone. Get down on your knees with me and read.
You have to be a true believer to say that over and over again, and I still believe, but doubt has crept in. It's become clear to me, all of a sudden, in the most painful way, why reluctant readers are reluctant; more specifically, why a person in my house, born to me and deeply beloved, does not want to be saved by literature. He doesn't want to go through that passageway. Why would he voluntarily make that journey from innocence to experience? Why would he want to give up hours or even minutes of his day to suffer someone else's mistakes, inflict harm, acknowledge that harm, and try to atone for it? Where's the joy in that? I'll stay right here, he's basically saying, planting his feet at the entrance to that passageway. I don't want to go through it.
There's a certain kind of reader who doesn't care when you say, "But it's so beautifully written. It's so cathartic. It's so true." And that kind of reader, my live-in non-reader, is the living incarnation of the report-card phrase a brilliant, sardonic teacher I used to know always pretended he was going to write in his progress reports to parents: "Nature or nurture, it's your fault." Believe me when I say that I used to think it was a matter of the right books and persistence. It's like teaching kids to eat well! They'll develop a taste for true goodness if you keep offering it! Did we read aloud to him as often as we read to his older brother, who does, in fact, like to read? On our laps? Every day and every night? Did made-up stories unspool from our mouths on command for years and years? Did we listen to audiobooks on road trips? Have thousands of books in the house? Read our own books in front of him? Yes, yes, yes, yes. I swear to you that if I had one wish--I don't need three--I would go back in time and hold both boys on my lap again and read one picture book after another the way we used to do, forever and ever.
Here's the problem, and I don't see how it can be fixed, really. The first books we offer to children are full of joy. Fun. Delight. Wonder. You go to a picture book or a children's story to feel good and powerful and safe. But that is not why you go to literature, if you go to literature, when you grow up. Literature (as distinct from genre fiction) is about making mistakes, inflicting harm, acknowledging that harm, and atoning for it, sometimes only by telling the story, not by actually being able to fix anything. It's about not finding all the answers, not getting what we want, and articulating all the inchoate longing we feel. There's always joy and wonder and grace in a great book, but it's mixed with sadness and limitation. There's a certain kind of reader who says no to that, and he used to sit on my lap. I understand his reluctance, finally. I see his point.
And yet I'm standing on this street corner beside the Salvation Army man, and I'm handing you seven books for young people that were published this year. Individually and collectively, they offer wisdom, surprise, and exaltation, but they also ask the reader to suffer varying degrees of vicarious pain. One (and only one) of the following books was read in its entirety by the Boy Who Wants Never to Grow Up, so I will put that one first in case you know and love someone who sees with unusual clarity what we all know to be true: childhood is another country, and once we leave it, the tunnel vanishes, the door closes, the back of the armoire becomes solid wood. The only way back is for another child, your own or someone else's, to take you by the hand and lead you there temporarily, or for an author to do the same thing. May at least one of these titles bring you that joy.
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas
Age category: written for children but has an Alice in Wonderland-Little Prince appeal for adults
Source of pain: discovering you are imaginary
Source of joy: being imaginary
The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Age category: written for children but has an ageless quality, like really good pudding or layer cake on a rainy afternoon
Source of pain: Abusive mother, birth defect
Source of joy: a very satisfying pony and a bunch of believable, smart, not-abusive adults and kids
The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Age category: written for children but I dare you to read it aloud and not be impressed and moved
Source of pain: death of a sibling
Source of joy: getting to know a previously severe and unknowable parent; helping someone you love to recover from grief
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
Age category: younger side of adolescence
Source of pain: being an adolescent; interacting with friends and family
Source of joy: realistic, rewarding connections with friends and family
Whippoorwill by Joseph Monninger
Age category: adolescence
Source of pain: an abusive parent once removed (this one lives next door, not in the narrator's house)
Source of joy: saving a dog and being saved by friendship, a loving parent, and a dog
A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern
Age category: adolescence
Source of pain: assault of a developmentally disabled high school girl named Belinda
Source of joy: being Belinda (trust me on this) as she recovers from this with the help of a loving family and her own moxie
Calvin by Martine Leavitt
Age category: adolescence and beyond, especially if you loved Calvin and Hobbes
Source of pain: diagnosis of schizophrenia
Source of joy: surreal journey across a metaphysical and literal Lake Erie in hopes of recovering a childhood state of bliss
Extra note: This is a great love story that is also an existentialist play that is also a deeply moving homage to a comic strip hero. And it's very short.
We Should Hang Out Sometime (Embarrassingly, a True Story)
by Josh Sundquist
When I went to graduate school, I left Earth for Mars. What I actually did was leave Mars for Earth, but that’s not how it seemed at the time. I assumed, as I think most young people do, that everyone in my culture did things in an objectively normal way, so I could leave Brigham Young University wearing my Martian clothes and go on being my 21-year-old celibate, non-drinking Martian self in a Writing Program. (Feel free to laugh hysterically if you’ve been to any writing programs or any colleges where people drink alcohol at parties and sleep together.)
It’s true that I ran into a few tiny problems right off, one of them being that it’s not normal on Planet Graduate School to believe any of the things I believed about mating rituals. During week one of a class in literary theory, the instructor wanted all of us to write down four synonyms for “male.”
SO EASY! I wrote down my four words and waited while everyone else wrote his or her words, and around the room we went, saying them aloud.
Honestly, a lot of those words could not be spoken on the planet where I grew up. A pretty popular choice rhymed with mucker. There were a lot of bastards and sons-of-bitches. Who have these poor women been hanging out with? I thought.
Then it was my turn, so I said, “Um . . . Dude. Fellow. Gentleman. Boy.”
Based on the discussion that followed, none of these women thought, Wow, I would really like to date an alien from your planet! Instead, a good number of them thought, O how deluded Long-haired Martian Woman is from her lifetime of brainwashing by the patriarchy.
I’ve been on Earth a long time now, and it's only possible to detect that I'm a Martian by birth in six or seven ways, such as my impulse to bring baked goods instead of wine to a party, but sometimes I meet a person or read a book that reminds me fondly of the years I spent in high school and college among men like Josh Sundquist--courtly, sweet, self-deprecating, and intensely honorable in their search for the kind of love that could never be called hooking up.
This is Josh's book:
And this is his author photo:
Sundquist begins his memoir with the paragraph, “When I was twenty-five years old, it came to my attention that I had never had a girlfriend. At the time, I was actually under the impression that I was in a relationship, so as you can imagine, this bit of news came as something of a shock.”
Are you noting Sundquist’s age in this statement? Twenty-five? I think we can agree that this is similar to what someone approximately ten years younger than Sundquist would say on Earth, so you may think, as I did, What planet is this person from where he can still talk about girlfriends in this virginal way at 25? Is it perchance in the Christian Galaxy?
Yes, but please stay on the line even if you hate that galaxy. Stay on the line even if you especially hate and cannot imagine being born upon Planet Christian Homeschool. There is one more factor you must know, and it’s large. “Josh Sundquist,” says the jacket flap, “is a Paralympic ski racer and cancer survivor.”
When Josh was nine, he got cancer, which he survived, but his leg was amputated from the hip down. This meant that he did not become the type of amputee who could run and play sports with a prosthesis on. He became a hip disartic, which means the leg doesn’t swing through fast enough to permit running.
“For most types of athletic activities, I would take my leg off and run with my crutches, or set my crutches down and hop. I was faster and more agile without the leg. But I was also more self-conscious, and with the crutches, I didn’t have my hands free to, say, carry a plate of food. Which is why I would wear my leg to the dining hall for dinner, and why I planned to wear it to all nonathletic social activities during the retreat.”
That’s how Josh spent his time at camp and in the public high school he had to beg his conservative parents to let him attend: trying to figure out, in the most recessive way possible, when to wear his leg, how to carry a cafeteria tray, how to talk to girls, how to make new friends, all the while following his personal rules:
It’s no surprise to me that this would make dating, which is one of the hardest things anyone does on any planet, even more complicated, but what's endearing about Josh is that he was surprised. The memoir has a quirky, comic, and somewhat excruciating aim: Josh will find all his old girlfriends and/or crushes and see what they remember about dating him. He'll describe what he thinks went wrong, and ask what they think. Sprinkled throughout these cheerfully painful examinations are a series of droll graphs:
I can’t overstate how much I love the graphs in this book, which takes the reader from Josh’s eighth grade crush, Sarah Stevens, to a Miss America contestant named Sasha.
Funny as it is, the book takes the reader deep into the heart of a question that's relevant on all planets, whether or not you are disabled, whether or not your parents tried to keep you from seeing any movies or drinking or sleeping with someone before you were joined at the altar, and that question never quite goes away:
Can anyone love me the way that I am?
Although Josh makes fun of his predicament from the very beginning, in graph after charming graph, this is a man who lost his leg at the hip when he was nine. He is so doggedly optimistic as he lives through and reports on his years of romantic forays--never be a burden, never be different—that he never admits to himself until the very end the insecurity behind the book's "investigation." His real question is the big one: fate or self-determination? Specifically, in his case, can I be a normal guy, not an object of pity, despite losing a leg to cancer? If I pretend it’s no big deal, will it not be a big deal?
“I would have considered my investigation successful,” he says, “if one or two of the girls had told me they didn’t want to date me because I was an amputee.” He’s 25, and this has been his condition for all of the years when he and everyone else on Mars and Earth were lusting and were lusted after. “I was insecure,” he admits. “It made me feel inferior. I had not wanted to admit that there was an element of my disability I had yet to overcome, so I concocted this investigation to find some other explanation.”
At this point in Josh’s book, the whole larky, madcap aspect to it, the oh, ha ha this is how nerdy and sheltered I was in middle school, so I’m going to hold the microphone up to these girls and ask why didn’t they didn’t like me! vaporizes. Josh’s plight becomes: can anyone just think I'm normal?
I don’t want to ruin the book for you, but would it ruin the book for you if I told you that of course someone could? This is a comic memoir, after all, and I think you should read it right now.
I finished it. Let me stipulate a few things first.
1) If you love and/or respect this book, rest assured that the Nobel Prize committee, Lionel Trilling, and Stephen King are on your side.
2) The idea of marooning kids on an island is a fantastic and fruitful idea for a novel.
3) The prose in this book is complex and often beautiful.
I stand, however, on the following ground: Lord of the Flies is a flawed novel with a flawed premise, but we’ve made it compulsory reading for 60 years because it’s an adventure story, because it’s about boys (rather than girls), because it’s short, and because the violence and cruelty make it seem important.
I can tell you’re already thinking, Laura, this is a bloooooooog. Do you have anything funny to offer me?
Yes: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.
You can buy it now or when we’re done, but if you or your offspring has ever been asked to discuss Original Sin in Lord of the Flies, you should hang with me a sec.
Here's what William Golding says in his introduction to an unabridged reading of the book:
There have been a great many things said about how it came to be written, and I don’t know whether any of them are true or not, but as far as I’m concerned it happened because one day I was sitting to one side of my fireplace and my wife was sitting on the other, and I suddenly said to her, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” And she said, “That’s a first class idea. You write it.” So I went ahead and wrote it.
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, "Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?" my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.
Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.
The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
Everybody okay? Anyone need to beat up a pillow or do what a good friend of mine used to do when she was a teenager and her parents were going through a messy divorce, which was to climb up on the water tower and hit tennis balls as hard and as far as she could?
Please join me as I race to the top of this water tower with my bucket of balls.
Forehand stroke to the east: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books?”
William Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911, so he would have been a child during World War I and its aftermath. I know you don’t want to sit here on the water tower while we discuss the history of children’s publishing, so let’s just stipulate that children’s books of that era probably contained more idealistic role models than might be found in YA literature of the present time. All I want to emphasize here is that Golding’s stated purpose is to show us how real boys really behave.
Forehand stroke to the west:
Golding: “. . . if you, as it were, scaled-down human beings, scaled-down society, if you landed with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.”
Watch your head. I’m going to have to really wail on this one.
Society, according to Golding, can be replicated with a group of one gender, but not with the other, but don’t worry, you crazy feminists! You are the superior sex!
And yet you have no place in a fable about civilization.
Forehand stroke to Florida: “I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.”
Hold that thought about sex, which actually does raise its lovely head on Golding’s island, though William and I use the word “lovely” ironically.
Setting aside a few obvious questions (Is sex trivial? Is it disconnected from the problem of evil?) I want to ask (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) this story about the problem of evil came to be such a central part of the education of American children, and how a group of English school boys stuck on an island for what must be a few weeks or months at most can accurately represent the rise of Nazism, which was foremost in Golding’s mind when he wrote it:
“It was simply what seemed sensible for me to write after the war when everyone was thanking God they weren’t Nazis. I’d seen enough to realize that every single one of us could be Nazis.”
Presumably, the “sensible” part is the value of seeing one’s own capacity to be evil. Since it’s Jack’s group that likes to kill weaklings and dissenters, Jack’s group represents the Nazis. But how many readers identify with Jack and thus see their inner Nazis? Jack, for one thing, is innately cruel. His transformation into a brute is swift and obvious—hardly a transformation at all, and it cannot be avoided or undone. It's more likely that the reader identifies with Piggy and Ralph, and that the book is thus read as a lesson about how you are never more than five feet from a person who could turn into a Nazi for no reason you could possibly understand and flatten the least popular person in your village with a giant rock and then hunt you with a stick that’s been sharpened at both ends (which is what many middle school kids already have on their minds as they exit English class for lunch).
It’s thus really a horror story, not a revelation about the self. In the horror genre, the monster can neither be understood nor killed.
Let’s travel now to a review in the Guardian of John Carey’s 2009 biography: William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. I’ll hit a few tennis balls to Switzerland while you’re reading it, or you can just read the parts I’m going to quote here.
The author of the review is Peter Conrad, an Australian professor of English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, and the author of 19 books, and this is what he says: “As a set text for schools, Lord of the Flies went on to sell millions of copies, introducing adolescents worldwide to the idea of original sin and the knowledge of their own barbarity.”
“My innocence came to an end when I opened Lord of the Flies.”
Knowledge of their own barbarity. The end of innocence. Is he possibly being ironic? There is no sign of that. Perhaps I’m mistaken about the number of readers who are willing to see themselves in Jack. Perhaps many accept this notion of barbarity within, and their innocence, in some sense of believing in the goodness of human impulse, is gone.
“Yet the man,” Peter Conrad says, “who wrote Lord of the Flies spent the rest of his life regretting that he had done so. Golding considered the book "boring and crude," its language "O-level stuff.” Its classic status struck him as "a joke" and he disparaged his income from it as "Monopoly money."
“Towards the end of his life, he refused to reread the manuscript (much revised, on Monteith's orders, before publication): he feared he'd be so dismayed he might do himself a mischief. Golding whispered the truth about these protests in his journal.”
I wonder if you could wait a sec while I go buy a new case of tennis balls.
We teach this book as a moral fable, a brilliant and terrifying glimpse into the soul, and yet the author thought the book crudely written, so bad, in fact, that he couldn’t bear to do what children everywhere are doing right now: parsing it line by line, tracking the Biblical allusions, identifying the beast as themselves.
I understand Golding’s self-doubt and recrimination. I understand the fear of finding one’s own book crude and horrible and boring. But I happen to believe his dismay has merit. When a book is used to teach enormous moral lessons, when Piggy and Ralph and Jack and Simon come to symbolize All Boys and all aspects of society, there is some obligation to ask how real, exactly, the boys are, and how symbolic of the rest of us they can be.
The book is, in fact, crudely imagined in the following ways:
1) The boys know they were put on a plane as part of an evacuation but do not seem to know each other or where they were going. How did this come about? What did their parents tell them? Did the parents say, “Look, we’re not sending your sister. She’s not worth it. We’re going to keep her here even if there’s an A-Bomb. Also, we’re staying here. But just go. It’s for the best.”
2) If we can enter the point of view of various boys—Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon—why do they never ruminate on any of the above events, as you would once your parent’s decision to pack you off with a bunch of strange boys goes horribly wrong. I mean, it’s basically what happens at summer camp amplified a couple million times.
3) Why don't the boys ever think about the foods they miss--butter on a hot crumpet served by mother on Sundays, gritty delirium of sugar on a sponge cake on a rainy afternoon--even though this is the number one activity for homesick people everywhere? We get just two paragraphs of nostalgia in the entire book--Ralph's memories of home on page 112--and these paragraphs contain one sentence about food.
4) Why do they talk to one another so little, given that a boy at camp or a new school or stuck on a stranded bus would likely ask, Where did you live before? Where did you go to school? Where do you think we were supposed to be going? Why are you wearing that weird black cape? None of them are bored enough to socialize as you would on any playground of any school in the world?
5) Would boys aged 6-12 who have grown up principally in boarding schools and not in survivalist camps in Montana be this naturally good and enthusiastic about slaughtering a wild animal running around with its babies?
6) Would boys killing only the second pig of their lives (with remarkable precocity) really feel the kind of Oedipal sexual lust described in the book with so much feeling that I find it hard to believe Golding actually thought he had written a sexless fable?
7) I have more, but this is the last one I’ll go into here because I know you have things to do. Why (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) is the only female thing on the island—the sow the bloodthirsty boys hunt and kill as if they are not just killing it but having sex with it—instantly turned into a male beast the minute they cut off its head and it becomes the main symbol of the book: Blood-soaked Head of the Dead Mother on a stick = Lord of the Flies?
I wish I could tell you I’m finished with this bucket of balls, but I’m only warming up.
Storytellers of the world, please consider writing a book that could replace Lord of the Flies in our curricula. Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Tessa Hadley, Julian Barnes, Tobias Wolff, Jane Gardam, Tina Fey, Jason Gay, Harrison Scott Key, and Maria Semple, you could do better than this. You could write a book about real boys or real girls on an island, funny or not funny, and I would believe it. It would still be dark because we’re competitive creatures. I’m not saying no one is going to die or kill something to eat. I’m just saying that it needs to be a lot more real than this before I’m going to look into the eyes of my own boys and say, “This is you. This is the real, innate, barbaric you, and this is society in a microcosm.”
This book is a lot of things, but it isn’t that.
It’s the time of year when I’m forced to acknowledge the innate barbarism of boys.
I don’t mean the way our sons forget to unclot their balled-up, sweaty tennis socks or carry piles of clean, folded shirts five feet to their dresser drawers, barbaric as these things are in their own ways.
I mean that once again a person born to me has, when asked “What is your homework?” produced from his backpack a school-issued copy of Lord of the Flies.
Before I argue that this book is more poison than broth, I will present my credentials as a young reader who appreciated, even relished, a book about the utter destruction of one’s hopes for happiness.
Remember Ethan Frome? Ends with a horrible sledding accident? I actually liked this book.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Beautiful innocent peasant girl is raped by her titled cousin, loses the baby born out of wedlock, finally marries her true love, and is rejected by him when she confesses that she slept with the titled cousin? Ends with the line “The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess?”
A Farewell to Arms? You know, the book Bradley Cooper throws out the window in “The Silver Linings Playbook” in a scene that I truly love even though I've actually been the type of English teacher he's railing against and this was my favorite book for many formative years.
You see where I’m going with this. Sad = okay by me.
Lord of the Flies, mes amis, is another matter. I’ve kept my secret all this time, but I’m telling you now in a low whisper: I have never been able to finish reading this book. I always plan to do it, if not for myself, for the Children. Specifically the ones who live in my house and say, “I have an essay on this book due in 15 minutes. Can you read my rough draft?”
Plus there’s the matter of it being a Modern Classic. As of today, this book has 1,327,932 ratings on Goodreads, where the plot description is truly enticing: “At first, it seems as though it's all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious & life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic & death.”
Help me, Rhonda. The rough draft, I remind you, is due in 15 minutes.
I will report back, I promise you, when I’ve finished reading the book and somebody's rough draft, but first I’m going to say a few words--posit, as we used to say pretentiously in grad school-- about why children read, why teenagers read, why adults read, and what you should put on your bookshelf right now to help you recover from Lord of the Flies.
Children read to be someone and somewhere else. Ditto teens, except here I would add that they also read to learn about sex and to see if other people feel as worried and embarrassed and left out as they do all the livelong day. Adults read for the same reason, if they still read anything at all, having learned that most books make them feel the way Bradley Cooper feels when he throws A Farewell to Arms out the attic window. To be elsewhere, elseone.
But what about books that are published for young people to read on their own (hopefully), and books that are assigned every year, year after year, in school? What are adults up to when they set those gigantic machines in motion?
I would argue that the motive is the same in the marketplace as it is in the curriculum: to teach kids something we really want them to learn. You’re still going to go elsewhere and be elseone, estudiantes, because that’s the nature of a book (or movie or video game) but we want to make sure you learn something we’re trying to teach you right now about justice, sexual identity, loving yourself as you are, and Socialism. (This is also the time of year when someone born to me is likely to bring home 1984 and Animal Farm.) Is this instructional motive bad? No. It’s inevitable. School is for teaching our kids to be exactly like us only nicer and smarter, though not too much better, because we work really, really hard and by God when we were children nobody unclotted our balled-up socks or paid for this many tennis lessons.
If school is for teaching kids to be smarter and nicer than we were at their age and, hopefully, than we are now, it’s important to ask what role pleasure has in reading, even in compulsory reading, and what kids gain from being in the particular elsewhere of a book. I don’t mean we should ask, “Hey, how are you kids liking this book? Should we finish it?” We don’t do that with Calculus or chemistry, and we shouldn’t do it with Macbeth. But the thing is, reading started out differently from those subjects. Stories were fed to us in the beginning because they were, at some level or every level, fun. Books exist as a recreational device, and all of the books that are widely assigned in schools--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby--started out not as a cog in the educational machinery but as novels that were bought voluntarily by adults.
If that’s true, then Lord of the Flies was published because a for-profit company thought adults would willingly pay to immerse themselves in that experience, and it’s now taught in schools because we believe it will teach kids to be smarter and nicer.
Before I read beyond chapter three (the farthest I’ve ever gone) and see how it does or doesn’t do that, I’ll say this: I believe that the reason I have never finished Lord of the Flies is that you can tell in chapter one that you are living in a world where the cruelty of boys is innate and unstoppable, and where you cannot take the supreme and only comfort that art offers when the innocent die or are unjustly destroyed, which is to inhabit the mind of an empathetic character.
Secondly, I suspect that the number one reason we teach Lord of the Flies is that it punctures the fantasy of the young that they would be much better off without us, that if they could go to a tropical island without teachers and parents and coaches they would be FINE. So much happier, in fact. This book says, No. You would not be fine. You need us to keep you safe.
I’m definitely going to admit it if I’m wrong in Part Two of this post, or you can tell me why and how I’m wrong now. But meanwhile, here’s what I would set on the bookshelf or nightstand if you, like me, are about to join Ralph and Piggy on the nightmare island of panic and death for the first time:
Could someone handle the laundry for a while? Make the boys turn their own socks right side out first if you can.
I’m going in.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal