Over a spate of recent weddings, I’ve had plenty of occasion to realize how out of touch I am. “Is this Taylor Swift? Kanye? The Backstreet Boys?” I ask an increasingly frustrated dance partner. “And who sings this?” I shout while stomping along to a Bruno Mars song that approaches a billion views on YouTube. In spite of my relatively young age, I still pride myself, however foolishly, on being behind the times. It carries some definite advantages: true, my excitement is often tempered by being the last to know, but so too is my agitation. I carry much less hankering to react imprudently. That, and I’ve pretty much avoided all 90s pop.
So it was only on a recent evening that I stumbled upon the latest debate concerning writing and the writer’s life, some weeks after its internet star had brightened and burnt. The argument stemmed from an online article that questioned a) whether there was a surplus of creative writing programs in the country and b) whether these did a service to their students or only sustained their illusions about an unsustainable career. Are there too many of us calling ourselves writers and not enough readers to treat us with the proper care? What does it mean to call oneself a writer, much less to call oneself anything at all?
As is the internet’s nature, backlash sprang up against the original post, soon followed by backlash to the backlash, and so on and so forth. In the spiraling in (or out) of the debate, the original argument proved itself true: there was simply too much to read, especially when it came to posts ruing the overpopulation of writers. It seemed the only conclusion to be made was that the busy reader, given how easy it is to alt-tab or hyperlink away, owed the writer nothing.
Like most arguments, the one arguing a surplus of writers has been made before. It’s a condition I myself celebrate and bemoan several times a day, depending on my mood. As a reader, I take heart in knowing there’s so much to dive into; at the same time I realize there’s so much I won’t read. As a writer, I cheer myself thinking that so many of us sit in the same boat; then again, what if the boat looks like this?
Whatever the case, I was a little down in the dumps that evening when I returned home to find Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks waiting in the mail. I had drunk an ill-advised espresso and so I opened it directly before bed. My eye had been directed to the first essay in the collection, “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half,” about Luiselli’s search for the poet’s grave at the San Michele cemetery in Venice, but given the late hour I figured I’d stick just to Cees Nootebom’s introduction. (A quick side-poll: do you, dear readers, given that there’s so much to read, hew to the introduction before all else? Or do you avoid all possible spoiler alerts, not only to the book’s subject matter but to the author’s style and strategy of thought? Do you fear the introduction will prescribe too much the way you are supposed to read, but do you, like me, read it nonetheless?)
A few pages in and I ran across this (the text is Nootebom’s, the quoted material Luiselli’s):
A romantic element still remains in this city of millions: the moment of the creative void, of the “relingos,” which Luiselli defines in the same breath as “absences in the heart of the city” and “everything we haven’t read.” That should be easy enough to resolve. But the twist is a different one: if there is no writing, there can be no reading. So this is about writing as the creation of emptiness: “A writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces.”
A little out of context, but here was something. In Luiselli’s geography, Nootebom argued, writing serves a different purpose. A relingo—“everything we haven’t read”— and thus the written word become “absences in the heart of a city,” the small patches we have overlooked or left off the map. The writer’s job is to create that emptiness, to distribute silence and empty space. If writing exists so as to be discovered, then it must also exist to remain anonymous and unknown. Too many writers and too much to read? That’s the point. We’re here to be unread as much as read.
I take heart in this. Here was a synchronous response to the worries of my day, late-night serendipity practically airdropped into my lap—evidence that, whatever we happen to read or write, we do so waiting for those reminders that we are always in conversation and that these lines of conversation might be aligned together until they form a radiance of streets capable of piercing a clogged and congested city center.
Luiselli had changed the terms of the debate I was mulling over—now I would go to bed in a state of uncertainty, all the more preferable to falling asleep a cynic. And I hadn’t even begun the book.
One of my favorite moments in an otherwise dismissible film occurs near the end of Kingdom of Heaven. This is Ridley Scott’s take on the Crusades, a long boring bloated movie whose battle scenes are inexplicably overlaid with shredding heavy metal guitars, a soundtrack so anachronistic it woke my friend up who had fallen asleep halfway through. The viewer owes it nothing. There is one relingo, however, a discovery awaiting relish: the scene where Orlando Bloom, the heroic and gentle crusader (I forget the name of his character, though it hardly matters since Orlando Bloom really only ever plays Orlando Bloom), meets Saladin, the Muslim sultan and military commander, to negotiate the fate of Jerusalem.
They stand on the desert battlefield between their two armies. The Crusaders dot the rubble behind Bloom; the besieging Muslims line the horizon, their banners flapping in the wind, lances straight and still, their mass menacing the background scenery. The two men have finally reached a compromise (the Crusaders will abandon the city in return for safe passage out of it) and Saladin, satisfied, walks away.
Orlando Bloom, hand on the helm of his sword, squints after him. “What is Jerusalem worth?” he calls out. Saladin turns around. He is played by the Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud (this is before Ridley Scott footmouthed his views on hiring Middle Eastern actors) and he is the best thing in the movie. “Nothing,” Saladin replies, helmet and chainmail perfectly still. Orlando Bloom flexes his jaw and squints harder. Saladin walks a few paces further only to spin around again. A surprise! The music swells. His cloak rustles ever so gently in the desert breeze as he raises both hands to his chest and balls them into fists. He breaks his face into a mischievous grin. “Everything,” he says, every syllable pure and discrete, as if this is his body’s most natural and yet most articulate form of expression.
I recognize that grin in Luiselli’s work.
I went on to read “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half” the next morning and found an essay that cherishes whimsy and contradiction, an act of writing seemingly so unconcerned with whether you read it or not that it stands as the most persuasive reason to read it in the first place.
Luiselli visits San Michele to find Brodsky’s headstone, but her trip is fueled as much by its lack of direction as its original aim. Brodsky’s headstone proves difficult to find (it has no official directions to it, only the poet’s name written in whiteout as an addendum on the sign pointing towards Ezra Pound’s neighboring grave), yet its very absence fits the essay’s concerns—the absences caused by the Russian’s exile, the absence of information surrounding the majority of anonymous names in the cemetery, the absence of those persons themselves.
These parallels might seem convenient, but Luiselli’s navigates a tricky path through the essay. A cemetery’s graves, like an unread book, contains what we do not know; a less adept essayist could very well lose clarity and precision when presented with that great expanse of information. But Luiselli relishes the unknowns that San Michele contains. She outlines the elegant, eloquent anonymity of a place. “There’s no necessity to be polite to the dead,” she points out while traipsing around the grounds and it’s this acceptance of her own limitations that allows her to see so much. She seems as likely to rub out the name on a grave as to assiduously record every one.
This affinity for the unknown seeps its way into the essay’s structure. Section headers are organized by names of San Michele’s inhabitants, some of them famous (Brodsky, Stravinsky, Luchino Visconti) and others anonymous (Enea Gandolfini, Lidia Tempesta). As an organizational strategy, these headers direct attention to death’s egalitarian nature: the unknown and the well-known rest side by side. But more than that, they serve as relingos to be discovered, in celebration of the names themselves, asking us to pause on what would normally be overlooked. Luiselli’s simple record keeping establishes a momentary connection. We busy readers, for however long we’d like, stand there squinty-eyed and square-jawed, puzzling over a faraway name.
I’d argue it’s these simple acts of connection that Luiselli is most after. If this is an essay and a writer concerned with absence, it’s only so that creative ways might be found to fill that void. Luiselli opens with the remark that “Searching for a grave is, to some extent, like arranging to meet a stranger in a café” and the promise here is that reader and writer, just like the living and dead, will start off strangers but end up friends. We have only to catapult ourselves over paradox and realize we must look for something in a place we can’t find and look for nothing in a place we can.
I’d like to imagine that had coincidence extended a bit further on that recent evening and I had run into Luiselli outside the coffee shop (scene of my insomniac espresso), I’d have asked her what she thought about this latest referendum on the vain endeavors of writing. “Is it all hopeless?” I’d ask, of course in a tone of utmost hope. And perhaps she’d respond, as she responds to Bergson’s theory that people are only moved to laughter when the subject of their laughter appears human in some way, with a simple “Could be” and then flick ash from her cigarette and continue on her nightly walk.
“What does the reader owe the writer?” I call after her, as puzzled and puppy-dogged as Orlando Bloom. She turns around. “Nothing,” she says with a wave of her hand. Then a pause and a beat. Her hands ball into fists. She grins. “Everything.”
Thomas Mira y Lopez has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. He'll be the Olive B. O'Connor Fellow in creative nonfiction at Colgate University in 2015-2016 and is at work on an essay collection about cemeteries and other resting places.