SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS is commonly declared the enemy of art. The mind catches itself in the lofty act of creation, finds the work-in-progress embarrassing, and complains that it cannot be expected to express itself under this kind of withering scrutiny. David Foster Wallace felt this acutely from an early age, telling a university roommate that he could only write well when he was barely aware of himself and his surroundings: “When I can’t feel my ass in the chair.”
E.L. Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, about a month after Donald J. Trump announced and commenced his run for President of the United States. These events were not related, but they have since become fused in my mind. Doctorow was my favorite living writer, and when Trump began his campaign by riding down the escalator to the gold-plated lobby of his tower, I thought the scene could almost have been composed by that great American mythologist.
PICTURE an iron castle in a ruined garden, where a lonely poet sits in a bare, round room, writing about another lonely poet in a bare, round room, who is writing about another lonely poet … and so on. David Peace draws on this image in Patient X: The Case-Book Of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which he calls “a novel of tales” about the eponymous short story writer. Akutagawa was a major figure in the Japanese literature of the early 20th century, whose tormented personal pathology led to his suicide in 1927, at the age of 35.
AFTER the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, I worked with a post-disaster clean-up crew in a largely obliterated fishing port called Onagawa. We mostly shovelled mud and debris, and did myriad odd jobs for newly homeless locals packed into evacuation shelters. Everyone had lost someone, and the more talkative survivors told us brutally upsetting stories of wives drowned in waterfront factories, elderly parents dragged away by the wave, entire families killed in their cars while trying to outrun it.
AMONG the mini-essays, weather diaries and reminiscences that comprise this book, Karl Ove Knausgaard sketches out a few quick self-portraits in prose. Picture him just before dawn, in the kitchen of his plush-rustic home near the Norwegian coast: smoking, drinking coffee, listening to Bach, denim jacket slung over the chair, long hair tousled like an opium fiend’s, looking past his blank screen and into the retreating darkness beyond the
THE 21st annual Moby-Dick Marathon was the first to take place in a blizzard. Somehow, the event had never coincided with a major snowstorm before, despite being held every January in New Bedford – a squall-prone seaport on the Massachusetts coast, where North Atlantic weather systems spin like sawblades against the edge of the United States.
THE story goes that President Abraham Lincoln walked out of the White House in the middle of the night on February 20, 1862. He crossed Washington D.C. to Oak Hill cemetery, went into the crypt of his late son Willie, and sat there alone at his coffin. Willie had died of typhoid fever earlier that day, at the age of 11. His father, somewhat preoccupied through the boy’s short illness with fundraising for the escalating civil war, was now so possessed by grief and guilt that he may even have cradled the corpse.
CONSIDER Gotham City. A fictional, fanciful place, dark and dirty but not without glamour or grandeur, where threat posed by petty criminals and super-villains is forever set against the hope of protection and salvation symbolised by The Batman.
A former student of Zadie Smith’s recently tweeted a telling anecdote. Some years back, while teaching creative writing at New York’s Columbia University (she’s now tenured at NYU) Smith handed out a laughable, pitiful, woefully sophomoric short story, and had the whole class critique it to pieces before admitting that it was one of her own.
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught The Cervantes Train from Madrid’s Atocha Station. Don Quixote greeted me on the platform. He was dressed pretty much as described in the novel that made him immortal: a lesser nobleman of La Mancha from the early seventeenth century, passing for a knight in flimsy (cardboard) armor, and carrying the (padded foam) lance with which he tilts at windmills.