I've been reading two forthcoming books at the moment, kind of switching back and forth between them, which is a habit that I'm never sure is healthy or productive or idiosyncratic or just wackadoo, scattered, and lame-o. One's Yiyun Li's Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life—named after the title essay, originally published in A Public Space, that later appeared in Best American Essays. It's a great essay, one of the ones that's stuck with me most in the last few years, and you should read it. The other is David LeGault's One Million Maniacs: Beanie Babies, Killer Cars, and the Power of Collectibles (to which: preorder this bad boy now; it's great). Reading it I've been thinking of writing to David—he's a former student of mine and a very fine essayist. He's also an Upper Michigander which doesn't hurt, and he lives out of the country doing something I don't understand.
I've been reading his book since the publisher (a guy I was introduced to as someone who graduated a ways back from U Arizona's MFA program which I'm directing now, though after trading a couple emails it turns out that he didn't actually graduate but did have a lot of cocktails with Joy Williams, who was teaching here at the time, which he estimates probably amounted to the same education) sent it my way for a blurb. So I've been thinking about the book, which I read a few years ago in draft form but which is way better now (nice work, David, making this thing really come together: it does). And what to say about it, whether to go descriptive and save the publisher some jacket copy or go hysterically positive (never a bad idea) or grandstand (usually a bad idea) and carve out whatever aesthetic space I feel like I occupy along with the book. Don't worry, I'm trying real hard not to do the latter. But I found myself thinking a lot about the book. I ended up teaching it in my nonfiction workshop this semester, and it comes right out of a grad seminar I taught in the fall on The Collection as a literary thing).
LeGault's book is an exercise in obsession. It's also about obsession, and is alternately hyper perceptive and pleasingly dorky about its subject matter. By subject matter I mean its obvious subject matter, being obsessions with: used 10,000 Maniacs CDs (in his role as used CD buyer for Half Price Books in Minneapolis, at some point he decides to accumulate 100 copies of their CDs, hence the title), Beanie Babies and their weird economy, with silence and snow and love and children's game shows and famous screams, with distance running and books and killer cars, with latrinalia (bathroom graffiti), and what we call a culture and its many opportunities for individuation and accumulation that it offers. But I mean also the subject matter of the self, not just the instrument of memoir (to cite Patricia Hampl) but here also (how could it not be with such glittery accumulations?) its subject. The subject of any collection worth its salt must be—eventually—its collector. That is its motivating force and its primary energy, especially the more esoteric it becomes.
Collecting, as any even half-assed collector will tell you, becomes quickly a very powerful compulsion, almost erotic in its pursuit and payoff as a collection builds and crests and nears completion. (And completion, for the collection, is simultaneously its natural end and its own extinction: one does not really desire completion in this sense, but of course all of our energies are angled toward it.)
Anyhow, LeGault's is a really good book, and one that any obsessives (and what are essayists if not born obsessives) might want to check out. It comes out from Outpost 19 next fall. I'm definitely going to finish a blurb for it, something that I could probably have used the time I'm putting into this essay into instead. But I'm here talking to you about it instead. I guess I kind of feel like reaching out to you to tell you about it and my experience reading it, and the pleasure it gave me—that instead of writing what amounts to a kind of marketing copy (or at least a nice set for the book to spike home), or doing a favor for a friend and someone whose work and self I admire—instead of that I'd rather write to you about that book. (You may perhaps sense in the idea something of that Yiyun Li book too: while this is being written in just one sitting I'm not a fool; lots of energies are coursing through my thinking about these books.)
Anyhow, I want to talk a bit about the essay "On Excess," from One Million Maniacs. It belongs to a subgenre of essay I'm rather fond of called the Bad Idea Essay (which I think I think I just made up or maybe just forgot its referent and thought myself original: back-pat/laceration?). It begins (and here you can get the immediate sense of how it fits into the subgenre):
I attempt to eat a three-and-a-half pound, seven-patty cheeseburgerGreat. This is totally a bad idea. But we want immediately to see where it goes. (Thus conflict's built into the Bad Idea Essay.) Crucially, though, it continues
so that it can be named in my honor.and here we've doubled up our subjects: task and honor, and how often these things go together in our lives and stories. How much of what we think of as masculinity is tied up in the stupid seeming unseparatability of these things at times? The essay, as my students pointed out, traffics in vulnerability and the occasional bout of self-laceration as LeGault recounts a time when he ate a giant bucket of movie theatre popcorn and came home to eat a meal his wife had made from scratch without telling her, choosing to choke it down rather than admit his failings: "I'm a fatass, and even worse, a liar." The wife, Michelle, is also present for the massive-burger-eating challenge, adding more stakes to an already high-stakes event. Self-image and how his own wife sees him (or how he fears his wife sees him) are now also on the table along with the 7 patties and the buns.
I'm reminded in the Bad Ideaness of this essay of a story my friend Sean (also, perhaps unsurprisingly, also a marathoner, as obsessives often are if they discover that kind of outlet for their energies) told me about going to his parents' cabin somewhere in rural Tennessee and getting there before they did and deciding to just take one of everything in their medicine cabinet. Now that's a god damn bad idea, I think. And a great idea for an essay. We do not want to be Friend Sean, but we do want to see What Happens to Friend Sean. We want to read about the sort of person Friend Sean Must Be To Do Something So Dumb / Great. Already we are interested in the outcome of his Bad Idea. The great thing about a bad idea is that it sets a bar that the essay must clear to be successful: one must transcend the badness of the idea to get to Something Good for it to work.
Of course this is a mandate for all essays and all pieces of written art. But if you start with a Good Idea it's easy to forget what you have to transcend to really make it go. Sometimes a Good Idea is so self-obviously good that it's actually pretty hard to make the essay good, or live up to the idea. In a Bad Idea essay one's job is to live it down. Or transform it. That's always what we're after: transformation. Swerve. Some movement, even if it's a sexy little wiggle as it tries to work its way into a too-tight dress and doesn't make it all the way and splits its seams and becomes something else, the collision of two things: ambition and transcendence.
I don't want to spoil the essay. I will spoil Friend Sean's essay, which is Unwritten because the outcome of the experiment resulted—simply—in diarrhea—which continues to be one of the few words I cannot spell on the first try. I don't want to say there's not a good essay to be written out of or about bouts of diarrhea (perhaps Michael Ives' "Excerpted from The Dark Burthen" in that special Seneca Review anthology might qualify—and you already know whether you'll go seek that out or not from my description of it), but there aren't probably very many. Maybe Sean will write that essay someday. But he didn't. And at any rate, David LeGault has written his Bad Idea essay (perhaps one could describe most of the essays in the book as Bad Idea essays now that I think about it, and I can feel my blurb writing itself), and finished it. Of course this is also a guy who ran a marathon with me--Grandma's in Duluth, MN, the first one I ran--and it turns out, he told me only later: he didn't train for it. That took most of the edge off my pride in beating his ass at said marathon. So you get the idea. LeGault is kind of a Bad Idea aficionado, but he's an essayist who's figured out how to follow a Bad Idea long enough until it becomes Kind of a Great Idea, Really. You should try it yourself and see where it will take you.
I was planning on writing more about Yiyun Li here, whose essay—and book—invites the kind of writing to I'm doing here (sort of) to David and to you, but I'll put that off for another time: a little later this spring I'll check back with you on that. That's also a book you should preorder now. In the meantime, Dear David, I'm writing here because your book told me or revealed or maybe just flat-out resonated something about my life, which felt good. I hope this kind of resonance is what in part this space is about. It's what our first anthology is about, most definitely. That too you may want to check out in 6 weeks.
And I was meaning to talk more about March Fadness, the sequel to last year's March Sadness, about which I wrote a bit here last spring. All I can say is that you should give this year's tournament/festival of essays and one-hit-wonder songs a read. Start with Brandon Alva's essay, "The Hammer People Need Towels," which went up today as a kind of prelude to the tournament (which begins in earnest 3/1; play-in games begin 2/1). I'm pretty sure March Fadness and Sadness qualify as Bad Idea essay collections on their own, or maybe just machines for memory, but we'll have to see.
These are pretty dark times. Read books for light. Start with these.
Ander Monson is one of the caretakers of this site. Rock and roll.