On illness — real and imagined — and art

My appreciation of Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs is up at NPR. If you have health problems, or worry that you have health problems, or both, you should read this book.

People who never get sick might enjoy it, too — if only for the opportunity to feel superior while jogging around the park in the snow — but I wouldn’t know about that.

An excerpt of my reaction:

I spent so much of my childhood sick, worried about getting sick, or pretending to be sick that these three states of being blurred together in my mind. The confusion persists; now a documented sufferer of autoimmune disease — and an undocumented sufferer of a no-doubt-fatal disorder currently manifesting as side pain — I am uncertain when to take a sick day or visit the doctor, and whatever course I decide on is almost always wrong. Yes, I belong to that most exasperating class of neurotics: hypochondriacs with health problems, the subject of Brian Dillon’s sympathetic, perceptive and often absurdly funny The Hypochondriacs.

Until the 19th century, morbid fear of illness was seen as only one symptom of hypochondria, which doctors treated as an organic disease, although scientific explanations varied. In one era, it was a digestive problem, in another an abdominal issue, and later a disorder linked with melancholia and distributed through the entire body. More importantly for Dillon’s purposes, hypochondria, which often has a physical component, provides a reason for those with intellectual or creative temperaments to sequester themselves from the world and pursue their thinking or their art.

Dillon is an unusually dexterous writer. Each of his slim chapters focuses on a different artist or thinker, and each fully evokes the subject’s fears and afflictions, showing how they’re reflected in his or her life’s work.

You can read the rest here, and an excerpt from the book here.

See also Daphne Merkin’s review for Bookforum and Laura Miller’s for Salon, Hermione Lee on bed rest and Virginia Woolf, Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (and her rejection of the idea that suffering begets art), Brian Dillon’s Book Notes for Largehearted Boy, and an old post of mine about being a hypochondriac with health issues.

Nabokov’s The Original of Laura as performance art?

Vladimir Nabokov famously instructed his wife Vera to destroy his final, unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, if he didn’t live to complete it. At his death, the draft consisted of a stack of notecards which he’d shuffled through, added to, and rewritten right up until the end.

Vera, having once saved an early version of Lolita from the incinerator, found herself unable to carry out his wishes. The task fell to their son, Dmitri, who waffled for years — publicly and dramatically but also somewhat understandably so, for not only had Nabokov reaped the benefits of the Lolita rescue, he’d approved of the decision to save Kafka’s drafts against the author’s express commands. While Nabokov may have claimed to believe that every artist should “ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication,” many of his own papers survived him.

All the post-death uncertainty over the fate of the book culminated, finally, in publication last fall. The Original of Laura is a facsimile series of the original index cards, with transcriptions below them, which can be detached along their perforated edges and held in the hand just like Nabokov’s.

The story being unfinished, character development is slight. The most remarkable aspects of the nubile love interest, a young woman with the “frail, docile frame” of a child, are the men who desire her: her mother’s lecherous charmeur, whose name, “no doubt assumed,” is Hubert H. Hubert (Lolita’s Humbert in a new incarnation?); her own novelist lover, who “destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her”; and her husband, Peter Wild, a stingy, obese, and lovelorn neurologist with tiny feet. Despite all that’s missing in The Original of Laura, though, an intensity characteristic of Nabokov’s work (and missing in most of the self-consciously experimental fiction that purports to borrow from his) pervades it.

Wild strives to inflict upon himself the “sweetest death,” to will himself out of being, body part by body part, starting with his toes and working upward, in an act of “self-deletion.” For all their abstraction, these passages are fresh and surprising and sometimes moving. And as many have observed, the final card in the series presents a list of synonyms for annihilation — “efface, expunge, delete, rub out, wipe out, obliterate” — that, inevitably, casts us back to a consideration of its author’s fate.

The Original of Laura is not really a novel. It is a fascinating artifact, an almost-story that thwarts immersion by continually calling attention to its architect. As I made my way through the notes, I kept imagining the author of Pale Fire and Look at the Harlequins!, at his most mischievous and perverse, plotting not just this last book, but the whole publish-or-destroy drama it engendered, from his deathbed.

Other commentary: Aleksandar Hemon, Why The Original of Laura should never have become a book.; Stoppard, Burn It; Banville, Nabokov’s Laura is “little more than a blurred outline, a preliminary shiver of a novel. And yet“; David Lodge, Shored against his ruins; Jeanette Winterson, “a sane decision.”

Dolen Perkins-Valdez at Girls Write Now’s Chapters

The first installment of Chapters, the Girls Write Now reading series I’m curating, will feature the talented Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the new novel Wench.

She’ll be introduced by my friend and fellow board member Tayari Jones, and after her guest reading, several of the girls will share their own work. The event is this Friday at the Center for Fiction, 6 p.m., and we’d love to see you there.

Below, in the spirit of the evening, Perkins-Valdez reminisces about books she read in her youth. You can also listen to her discussing Wench on NPR with Lynn Neary.

I grew up in a world that predated mega-bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. We did not spend our weekends exploring the library or checking out the new releases shelf.

As a result, when I am asked about books I read growing up, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I never read any classics of children’s literature. Black Beauty? No. Little Women? No. But the one place I did go every week was the supermarket.

My mother spent many hours shopping for the family each week, and she did not mind if I threw a book in the cart. So I grew up reading all kinds of trashy fiction. I devoured the books voraciously, sometimes in a single night. Through them, I developed a love of reading.

Later, I moved on to Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison. That is why when people ask me what I think about “urban fiction” versus “serious fiction,” I hesitate to feed the hierarchical distinction. I know from experience that any kind of fiction can act as a “gateway drug” to another kind. I believe the important thing is that young people read!

I want to introduce my daughter to all kinds of fiction, and through the exposure, let her discover that which speaks to her most.

Many thanks to artist Michael Fusco for the striking Chapters flyer.

Asking the questions: the Walker Percy documentary

Winston Riley has posted a new teaser for his Walker Percy documentary. This one coincidentally relates to my recent post (and your comments) about the interconnectedness of stories and ideas.

While Percy was laid up with tuberculosis, he read Thomas Mann and other “literature of the alienated self.” He also immersed himself in Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and more philosophers who were mulling over the same kind of existential questions that he was. Among other things, his father and grandfather had committed suicide, and increasingly this legacy preoccupied him.

Riley, the filmmaker, left this comment about Percy and the philosophical novel late last week:

… I would argue that all novels (at least the ones I like to read) are philosophical novels, works of ideas.

Here’s Walker Percy’s explanation:

“While it is true that a novel should have an action, it does not suffice for it to be a “good story.” Art tells some home truths about the way things are, the way we are, about the movement or lack of movement of the human heart….So my main assumption is that art is cognitive; that is, it discovers and knows and tells, tells the reader how things are, how we are, in a way that the reader can confirm with as much certitude as a scientist taking a pointer-reading.” For the deconstructionists or literary theorists among us this view of literature may seem dated or quaint. So be it.

A philosophical novel, for me, doesn’t need a “didactic agenda,” and if its ideas overshadow its art, it becomes something else entirely — a textbook, perhaps?

Walker Percy, for instance, wasn’t looking to answer philosophical questions, necessarily, with his novels. Asking the questions was enough.

See, previously: Walker Percy kept his accent, and Percy on bourbon.

NYC public school librarian defends Precious

The formidable Ishmael Reed (Mumbo Jumbo) argues, in “Fade to White,” that responses to Precious (trailer above) break down along racial lines, with white viewers applauding its candor, and black viewers infuriated by its offensive, ham-handed stereotypes.

This stratified response is no surprise, he says, because the film intentionally panders to white audiences: “In guilt-free bits of merchandise like ‘Precious,’ white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help. Never shown as contributing to the oppression of African-Americans. Problems that members of the black underclass encounter are a result of their culture, their lack of personal responsibility.”

I haven’t seen the film, and probably won’t, but below Adalena Kavanagh, a New York City public school librarian, offers a thoughtful defense of Precious — or at least of Push, the novel that inspired it. She says that her students, who are mostly African-American and Latino, request it more than any other book.

Ishmael Reed writes, “Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father.’ While this may be Mr. Reed’s experience, his statement runs counter to my own experience with Push, by Sapphire, the book that the movie Precious is based on. I am a teacher and a librarian who has worked in the New York City public school system since 2003. There hasn’t been a more sought-after, talked-about, or frequently-read book among my students than Push. My students are, and have been, predominantly African-American and Latino. The students who demand Push have been predominantly African-American and Latino. These students live in Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

As a librarian, when students demand a book, I am inclined to give it to them. We struggle every day to make literacy important to our students, so when they find something that actually speaks to them we can’t ignore it, or wish it would go away, no matter how controversial it is, or how uncomfortable it makes us feel. To call Precious a stereotype is to believe that readers cannot distinguish between a character’s experience and a racial group’s reality, and that is giving readers and Sapphire very little credit. Continue reading…

Breaking news: The secret history of Cracker Barrel

Last year I wrote a story about the secret history of Cracker Barrel, Sodom and Gomorrah, and, possibly, the Illuminati. I did this for the Significant Objects project, which invites writers to infuse an otherwise worthless object with value through fiction. In so doing, I raised a little (very little) bit of money for Girls Write Now.

Obviously any artificially valuable item needs advertising. Our entire economy rests on that principle, right? So, many thanks to Kathryn Clendinin, a student at Savannah College of Art & Design, who, for a class assignment, created a news ticker campaign for my Cracker Barrel ornament. Click over to see the whole thing. It’s perfect, don’t you think?

Ms. Clendinin, next time you’re in New York, I’d like to buy you a drink and introduce you to my favorite SCAD alum.

On the interconnectedness of stories and ideas

Iris Murdoch’s novels were deeply informed — if not consciously shaped — by her readings in philosophy. Walker Percy found a theoretical framework for his fiction in Kierkegaard, who also influenced Kafka.

And Donald Barthelme urged his students to choose their “literary fathers” carefully, and to be well-versed in philosophy. Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty’s biography, suggests that reading Beckett and the existentialists gave Barthelme confidence that the kind of stories he wanted to write were possible.

Don dropped by Guy’s Newsstand…. and found a copy of Theatre Arts. In it was Waiting for Godot. He stood there and read the whole thing.

That evening, when he took Helen out to dinner, he brought the magazine with him. She had already read the play. “I found it exciting but did not see the implications for Don,” she says. “He was deeply moved and ecstatic about the language…. Each time we were in a bookstore after this, Don looked for work by Beckett and immediately read whatever he found. It seemed that from the day he discovered Godot, Don believed he could write the fiction he imagined.” It would be heavily ironic, and he could “use his wit and intellect in a way that would satisfy him.”

Of course, Don’s breakthrough wasn’t that easy. “The problem is … to do something that’s credible after Beckett, as Beckett had to do something that was credible after Joyce,” he said years later.

Initially, though, the excitement! Waiting for Godot showed Don that philosophy could become drama, almost directly, without the interference of plot, setting, and so on. By stripping away fiction’s stock devices, Beckett focused on consciousness. He could animate the intentionality at the heart of awareness….

[H]is discovery of Beckett and his philosophical studies were guiding him away from vague attempts at an “unlove” story. He was forming a firmer aesthetic. He grounded his magazine editing in philosophy, too, especially in existentialism as it evolved under John Paul Sartre.

I’m fascinated and inspired by this interconnectedness, but also a little wary of it. Whenever I notice philosophy or politics creeping too overtly into my fiction, I think of Jimmy Chen’s succinct dismissal of novels whose didactic agendas overshadow their artistic ones (though I do love Brave New World — or did, the last time I read it. 1984 too, but it doesn’t hold up as well in my memory). Your comments are welcome.

See also Murdoch’s Existentialists and Mystics, in which she imagines Socrates saying “In philosophy, if you aren’t moving at a snail’s pace, you aren’t moving at all”; In defense of Big Ideas in fiction; and Wolcott on Barthelme.