Sunday, November 29, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Nov 29, Ander Monson on Living in the Delay

I write to thee, on the first day of liturgical Advent in the ever-elongating year 2020, of the usefulness of delay. I mean the feeling of being on a plane reading an Albert Goldbarth poem and coming across the title of a strange book in the poem and wondering: is it possible that this is actually a real book? And instead of punching it into google or amazon on my iPhone—because I’d have to pay the $14 for American’s janky wifi—having to, or, I suppose, choosing to stay in that suspended state of possibility for at least a couple hours rather than resolving it. 
     I mean to tell you that I loved that feeling of indeterminacy. There was a world in which the book mentioned in the poem was a real book, and there was a world in which it was just a poetic invention. I could feel myself existing in both of these two overlaid worlds for just a couple hours and not wanting that betweenness to end. I mean, I did want it to end in the sense that I wanted the answer, and I didn’t want to stay suspended on a plane as I was for another couple hours just to preserve the imaginative possibilities, but I knew that I would miss that feeling once it was gone.
     Turns out I miss all kinds of feelings (even the feeling of being on a plane and being annoyed about being on a plane) here in this year, this contingent year. It’s felt like I’ve spent a lot of the year just waiting for something to happen. A lot of things have happened, of course, but I’ve only kind of been part of them. I’ve been feeling like I’ve been on a series of waves, powerless to affect their direction and also unable to really tell when any of them are going to crest, or when all of them are going to crest at once and swamp whatever boat my metaphor wants to be riding on. So it’s been a year for me of hunkering down and of reading, that old school way of overlapping worlds on top of one another.

I didn’t expect to swerve into this, but I was reading Kate Bernheimer’s story “Whitework,” a mysterious, glorious thing. Listening to her talk about it in a conversation when she zoom-visited a class, I didn’t realize that it emerged from an Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Oval Portrait,” that I hadn’t read before. “Whitework” only pulls two things really from the Poe story: Poe’s final line and a line of description that rankled Bernheimer in some way and got stuck in the story she ended up writing around it. I’m not even sure what metaphor to use to describe this process: like pearl and oyster? Match and bonfire? Of course readers and scholars of fairy tales (like Bernheimer) know perfectly well that you’re always rewriting or overwriting somebody, probably better than most of the rest of us do, focused as we are on being original, whatever that means. Or at least when I’m writing something I’m always reading something—there’s always some embedded thing in me, whether or not I realize it, and it only comes out sometimes in recognizable ways. I accidentally used an Arthur C. Clarke line in a story I wrote a while back, and didn’t realize it until way later. It was just there, "mine," with the other stuff in the brain.

I’ve been reading several books about writers reading books, like for instance Fiction Advocate’s Afterwords series, for instance, where we tune into someone as they read a book, typically one I know only by reputation and have no real intention to actually read. Like My Struggle or Blood Meridian, both of which are books I’m going to be honest and say no way am I ever reading, particularly after reading Stephanie Reents’s and Kim Adrian’s fascinating engagements with McCarthy and Knausgaard. The originals are not books I need to spend time with at this point in my life is what I’ve determined. I’ll live in the delay between reading about reading them and actually reading them as long as it takes. 

Time has been a little more fluid lately in part as a function of the relative sameness of a lot of my days, but also through playing a game called Outer Wilds that uses the mechanism of time in really unusual ways, in that, playing it, you rapidly find out that you’re stuck in a time loop of around 22 minutes, after which the universe ends and you have to start again. It sounds frustrating but it’s fascinating: everything in the 22 minutes worth of universe is in some state of flux, and your job is to explore it and put the pieces together. One planet’s getting pummeled into dust by lava meteors. Another is gradually revealed as its twin is gradually concealed by the movement of sand between the two. Many of the game’s mysteries are only available at certain times in the loop, as you have to figure out. The experience is one of often being a little too early for something or a little too late, and anyways, after 22 minutes the sun goes supernova and it’s all gone. But it’s not quite all gone, since you retain your memories from your former loops thanks to a cool alien artifact that stores and retrieves memories. If you send a person’s memories back in time, is that the same as sending the person back in time? This is a question the game explicitly and implicitly asks.      It’s also a question that reading and rereading—one of the great rituals—asks. I read a book. I reread the book. My experience of the book changes. The book hasn’t (probably) changed: it’s me (or the world) who’s changed, and so its mysteries open (or close) in a different way each time. We might mark our time this way by marking our returns to books. I mean, I’m not consistent enough to have an actual practice at this, like a book I reread each year. I wish I did, and I suppose I still could. But a book I would have picked at twenty-five probably wouldn’t be worth my time at forty-five (this is also one of crises of confidence that’s kept me from getting a tattoo—again, thus far).
     But I do have a practice of spending time along with books, and the book I’ve been spending the most time with recently in this time loop is Peter Orner’s Am I Alone Here?, a series of essays in which he writes about encountering, and usually re- and re-re-encountering writers he loves, as his life passes. Like many very good books, the project doesn’t sound great, actually, when I describe it, but it is a really good read. It’s a little spectacle but a spectacle nonetheless being embedded so deeply in someone’s reading life.
     I probably wouldn’t have cared about this at twenty-five, but now it seems appealing, perhaps because the interiors of selves are shelved with as many books as you can find in the world outside of them, and seem equally capacious, or are perhaps even more spacious. Or maybe it’s because we don’t see each other as often as we otherwise would that everyone else seems so mysterious. Or, even more obviously, it seems like I know less and less about others and what they say they want in this country (and world) that we all share. It’s easy to despair over a gap like that, so it’s a powerfully appealing trick to be drawn back into the fissures of one individual mind and follow that I down to where it’s drawn.
     As I read Orner reading writers like John Galsworthy, Anton Chekhov, Breece DJ Pancake, John Edgar Wideman, Frank O’Connor, Kafka, Welty, Walser, Rufo, Woolf, and a whole lot more, many of whom I’ve read (or at least say I’ve read in public—a more embarrassing delay) and some of whom I’ve not, I am drawn more closely to Orner’s I, little adventurer that it is, and I find ourselves working through some of the life predicaments he’s in.
     It’s a little like a loop, my reading him reading them and my reading him (or my playing him—I do think we play the characters in the stories we read in some small way; in this way you are also in this moment playing me) and his life, since the life of reading is also a life of life, and we plenty of that life outside of books too in these brief forays. In fact, Orner’s even on the same page as me, I think, with reading as ritual and stories as touchstones: “Stories fail if you read them only once. You’ve got to meet a story again and again, in different moods, in different eras of your life.”
     There’s a rueful stumbling that Orner does as I move through his own life, which is also his own reading life. Maybe more than any other book I’ve read recently about reading and writing, it’s clear that Orner lives to read, perhaps even more than he lives to write, which is what makes him such a good reader. He tells me this explicitly later in the book, and it only works because it’s obvious by then that he’s all in for these stories that he wants to tell you about. He needs to tell you about these. The question mark that ends the title’s not just a gesture: he needs to tell you about them. He needs to tell you about them.
     This is good because this year I’ve lost some of that sense of connection I pursue when I’m writing something. Maybe I’m just feeling it as a one-sided connection—because it’s impossible to know as we write how well we connect or if and to what. So maybe what I’m responding to reading Orner is tangible evidence of these connections: I’m making them; I’m seeing them as I read through the meaning Orner makes of these writers. The essays are also delightful in their variety and angles of approach, almost none of them operating in the same way. 

As Will and I started talking about and planning out this year’s advent calendar, I realized how much I missed it last time around. We were otherwise engaged, but I missed it nevertheless. This year I find myself yearning for some ritual, especially with so many others denied to us and having to make do with diminished or altered versions. So I’ve already put up my Christmas lights and erected my monument:

Why wait, I figure? I can indulge myself in the feeling of the season like I normally would, and if it’s hoping that next year is better than the last, I’m optimistic for that too, if only because I do not have the imagination to see how it could be worse. 

As I mention every year, I’m not religious but I do love ritual, and the Essay Daily Advent is one of my favorites. It offers us a shared moment to slow—if just a bit—for most of the next month. To enjoy living in the delay. Each day of it we get to read someone reading someone new. We are plunged anew into the intimacies of another’s life. It’s a door we open in the cardboard calendar, and it’s a door we go through into each I you offer us. 

Unlike with my own half-assery in which I’m totally not buying nor reading Knausgaard nor Blood Meridian, I do hope you’ll buy and read the work of the writers in our advent calendar, and those whose words our advent writers are leading us to. You should definitely play Outer Wilds, for instance, and read Am I Alone Here? The mask only works if you wear it, I wanted to say, to that dude dangling his mask from his finger in the McDonald’s I stopped at on the way back from Flagstaff, the McDonald’s with the sign on the door requiring masks, and even if wasn’t required, c’mon, man, you’re not alone here, I wanted to tell him: your actions impact others, but I also didn’t really want to get into it with one of these unknowable weirdos either—we do live in Arizona where you can open-carry almost any gun you want without a permit—so I also shut my mouth. Maybe I shouldn't have. 

I mean to say the door’s only good if you go through it, and we have 27 of them for you, coming up on Christmas at the end. Whether or not you’re religious or just like the ritual, this is one thing we don’t have to sacrifice this year of delay, contringency, and sacrifice. We can indulge ourselves and gather here together—in this I, in this moment, in this very sentence I hereby gather us—so it is for these reasons I look most forward to this year’s advent calendar which I thus begin. 


Ander Monson is the founder and one of the editors of Essay Daily.

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