The Shriek from the Coffin
How to Read Essays With Pleasure
One of the problems of the pleasure argument for reading is that there are many different kinds of reading pleasure, and not all of them can co-exist. For example, the argument that reading is a pleasure on the order of a Hollywood movie or a rollercoaster (both quite keen pleasures, by the way) doesn’t really jibe with the kind of pleasure I want to describe here, which is the pleasure of finding small hints of a writer’s literary aesthetic embedded in the essays he or she produces. This pleasure is not compatible with the books-as-excitement pleasure because it amounts to the spark of insight that leads, ultimately, to what I’m doing here, writing something of, ahem, a critical nature in reply, and, frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would risk conflating the writing or reading of a piece of criticism with The Cyclone at Coney Island (which actually batters you around a good bit—my advice: wear shoulder pads on The Cyclone).
A few years ago, I set out to write a book about the essayist and novelist Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal. What was odd about B & Me, in its conception, was that I hadn’t read any Baker at all when I sat down to start writing about him, and the idea was that no one had ever chronicled a literary relationship from its moment literary conception, that moment when you realize there is a writer out there in the world that you should read, and so you read them. What that meant was that I could read Nicholson Baker “in order,” that is, in the order in which his work was actually produced. I wasn’t able to sustain this for the entire book – I bet you couldn’t either – but what it meant was that some of the very first Baker I read was a series of essays from the early eighties, “The Size of Thoughts,” “Rarity,” and “Changes of Mind,” all of which first appeared in The Atlantic. It wasn’t until I started in on his novels, The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, that I realized how very important these essays were to his career. And what I want to propose here is that this exercise in “deep reading” revealed a very keen, but not much discussed, kind of pleasure: an echoing resonance between Baker’s novels and his essays.
This continued throughout his career. For example, a scene in The Fermata, in which the monstrous boy-masturbator Arno Strine perfects his time-stopping ability with a complicated system of thread passing through his fingertip calluses (yanked by the agitating post of a washing machine), echoes the film projector imagery of “The Projector,” an essay Baker published in The New Yorker within weeks of the publication of The Fermata. Similarly, Jay and Ben, the hapless comedy team that semi-conspires to murder George W. Bush in the much-maligned 2004 assassination farce Checkpoint, often find themselves straying off topic to discuss Ben’s writerly work on “Cold War themes,” which, as it turns out, is a pretty perfect description of whole range of nonfiction that Baker himself produced from the mid-nineties through the turn of the millennium.
I don’t think this is merely a case of recycling material. Because it’s not always retroactive. When I began reading the footnotes for which The Mezzanine is famous (and which are the prototype of the footnote fad more commonly associated with David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and a host of other shameless imitators), I experienced the sharp joy of a repetition sounding from “Rarity,” published five years before The Mezzanine hit the shelves: “the ecstasy of arriving at something underappreciated at the end of a briareous ramification of footnotes.” And imagine my joy—my pleasure—when I stumbled across a plea for rhyming poetry from Paul Chowder in The Anthologist, and recognized it as an idea published twenty-five years earlier, in an essay of Baker’s called “Reading Aloud”:
And there were the suspect intonation patterns, the I’m-reading-aloud patterns—especially at poetry readings, where talented and untalented alike, understandably wishing in the absence of rhyme, to give an audible analogue of the ragged left and right margins in their typed or printed original, resorted to syllable-punching rhythms and studiously unresolved final cadences… (italics mine)
These kinds of repetitions aren’t only forward-looking, either. The critic Doug Phillips, in a remarkable recent piece about Eliot’s plays published in Text and Presentation, documents the temporal somersaults of a writer commenting on his or her own work:
Like any good philosopher-cum-poet-cum-playwright-cum-essayist-cum Nobel Prize Winner, Eliot thought the Real important enough to at least take a peek, and so he devised a strategy for doing so, via verse drama. While he laid the groundwork in his early essay “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama” (1921), Eliot would wait some thirty years to really flesh things out in an essay called, simply, “Poetry and Drama.” Perhaps he needed first to put into practice what he could only theorize early on, and so in the intervening years wrote five of his seven plays, all in verse. Whatever the case, “Poetry and Drama” appeared just after The Cocktail Party in 1951, the very year that Lacan would begin holding his now famous seminars, all of them in some way concerned with the Real, and the truth of our desire.
It would seem, then, that essays serve, for the multi-genre writer, as a kind of navigational fixation system, a way of setting the course of one’s blind and wandering submersible, the yellow submarine in which we all live and work. In an essay, a writer states an aesthetic hypothesis that is then tested, proved, or warped into new hypotheses in other work.
But what explains the pleasure of the reader peeking, as it were, behind the wizard’s curtain? Ours is an age in which those who are compelled to indulge the critical reflex are more or less required to ignore the writer in favor of his or her text. This is true in spite of the fact that the same critics who claim to respond to text alone show a preternatural interest in writers’ biographies, particularly those aspects of a writer’s life that are not detailed in essays and interviews. (Poor Henry James’s sexuality is the classic example of this, in spite of the fact that sexuality is not among the many controversial subjects he addressed in his work.) Indeed, the critic, however fired into frenzy he or she might have been by Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author,” will not hesitate to stretch tortured inferences between a writer’s work and their life, particularly when some prurient suggestion, held together by strained sinews of logic and association, is of the sort that is likely to land in a journal just obscure enough for their tenure file. For me, it’s quite different. I am not much interested in aspects of writers’ lives that they do not attest to themselves, and I very much want to hear them anticipate, and retroactively assess, the nature of their creations. Indeed, it seems to me that essays in which writers fess up to their aesthetic intentions is a way of ensuring that posterity understands that they knew what they were doing, that their productions have not simply downloaded into their minds from the creative ether. In the larger context of the long and dubious history of criticism, then, the essay may be a writer’s shriek from inside the coffin for which “The Death of the Author” served only as the final nail.
So—the pleasure. The pleasure for me, reading Baker, is what I find to be the true pleasure of reading. It’s not entertainment. Nor is it any masochistic drive toward tribulation based on a misguided notion of reading as transcendent self-flagellation. It’s this: When you read a writer’s essays anticipating or reflecting on their other work, you sink deep not only into their psyche but into their process, you enter into their plans, their hopes, their doubts, and celebrations, and regrets. You no longer watch the process, you are part of it, quite as if you rode the rollercoaster, and then sat down for a lovely chat with its architect. Would that not add to the thrill?
J.C. Hallman is the author of a number of books. His study of Nicholson Baker, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, comes out in March, and is available here. He lives in New York City.