Joy in Franzen

October 7, 2010

So the thing about Freedom: it’s good. I would love to be contrarian and say that it’s exaltation is the result of the old boys clubs of literary criticism. But that’s not true.

One reason Franzen has gotten so much praise, and even the re-endorsement of Oprah, is his self-seriousness. He set out to write a Big Book: one about families, environment, Iraq and America. Freedom is like a 19th century English novel with its character studies and subtle social clues. Even the vocabulary of the book, or as Franzen, might say, its lexicon, is comprised of many words I’ve only recently learned the exact meaning of through studying for the GREs.

I wouldn’t say Freedom is my favorite book from the past five years, but it’s the most ambitious book I’ve read since college. The reason Franzen’s book has received so much attention is that he succeeds in his ambition.

This was true in The Corrections, his previous book, which was almost as revered by critics, but I didn’t like. There was the stain of misanthropy through the book, and while Franzen’s prose, as always, was quite readable, I didn’t enjoy reading it. In Freedom, Franzen loves his characters the way you love your elderly dog who has lost control of his bowels. There’s shit everywhere, but what are you going to do? It’s still your dog, and Patty, the protagonists whose character is as enigmatic as anyone else’s, is still Patty.

And just as a fact: Franzen doesn’t give himself access to the internet when he writes. Not to say that’s what makes his book work—he also chews tobacco—but he probably has a point.

Race Time

September 30, 2010

I have this idea that if I plan ahead in the increments that it takes to train for a half-marathon, I can control where I’ll end up by race day.

This spring, I trained for the Brooklyn Half-Marathon and planned to finish my book around the same time. It worked. For about a week, I was very pleased with my time and the version of the book I showed around. But then whatever happiness I felt from the race and completing what amounted to a strong first draft faded away after about a week.

So I tried to do the same thing for the Hamptons half-marathon, which is Saturday. When I signed up, I was frustrated with my writing, hating the way the heat made running so hard, and hoping that a bunch of friends would do the race and we’d be able to make a Hamptons weekend out of it.

The race is Saturday, and not everything has turned out the way I hoped. Writing is still difficult, I didn’t train enough and none of my friends are doing the race. That said, I’m still writing every day, I continued to run through the heat and humidity of the hottest summer on record, and my brother and a cousin are doing the 5k. Besides, I ended up having a Hamptons weekend earlier in the summer.

All this is to say that time passes. Which is a duh thing, but in this age without graduations and due dates, it’s hard to tell what has happened in five months.

I’m not sure how I’ll do on Saturday. Like I said, the summer hasn’t really unfolded the way I had hoped and I didn’t train as much as I should have. But Saturday is still October 2, just the way it was a few months ago.

And anyway, didn’t it seem like Fall was just going to happen after Labor Day? It started getting cool and the air had the smell of decaying leaves and changing weather patterns. And then it got hot again in this sort of unpleasant, I was ready to wear flannel again way. I know it’ll cool off eventually. By February, I’ll wish it was warm enough for bug bites. And by then, I’ll probably be training for another race.

In Reassuring News

September 29, 2010

I have a word document entitled “maybe blog post” that’s just a collection of possible blog posts that never made it. In an attempt to get myself excited about writing, I’ll be publishing some of these posts, along with some new ones, in next month.

A new Hollister opened up in Soho, and like their parent company Abercrombie and Fitch, young men with great abs and no chest hair will open the door for you when you enter.

Let’s be honest, being good looking is an advantage in life and with such defined pecs, these doorman will never have trouble at a frat party. But contrary to my opinions as a 14 year-old, there’s more to life than abs. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be so good looking that my job would be to be objectified live.

Also the original title for Netherland was The Brooklyn Dream Game. Seriously, whoever was responsible for that change, good work.

Changes Along the Avenue

September 28, 2010

I have a word document entitled “maybe blog post” that’s just a collection of possible blog posts that never made it. In an attempt to get myself excited about writing, I’ll be publishing some of these posts, along with some new ones, in next month.

A few years ago, I wrote about a neighbor of mine who do not what Urban Outfitters was.

Since then, a lot has changed. Not for Urban Outfitters, but for Prospect Heights. The other day, I went to get milk, and I saw two gay couples run into each other. To my delight, there are cheap eats, coffee shops and bars everywhere. In short, and everything I wanted in a neighborhood when I moved to Prospect Heights for a cheap apartment and with a patient heart.

Last October, I relocated a block. It was one of those silly New York moves, but in moving, I crossed Washington Avenue, the defacto border between Crown Heights and Prospect Heights. My new block is mostly brownstones, whereas my old street had big, elevator-less apartment buildings, a vacant parking lot and a fire station. My building is mostly filled with people in my demographic—that is over educated and underpaid. My old place was mostly families who had settled in before there were any whispers of gentrification in this neighborhood.

While I haven’t made any apartment friends here, in my old building, I was friends with a teenage girl who lived on the third floor. Mostly, we joked about her brother, who was using the stairwell to the roof for intimate time with his girlfriend. I remember her saying how she was a little jealous of him. He and his girlfriend were clearly sweet on each other; they were condom wrappers in the stairwell all the time.

But since I crossed the avenue, I haven’t really seen anyone from my old building much. The lights on Washington Avenue are uninviting for crossing, and there aren’t as many reasons to venture into Crown Heights. But the other day I saw my old friend with a newborn strapped to her body. Her younger brother also had a kid in the time I’ve been living across Washington.

The Salad Bars of New York

September 24, 2010

One of my first memories of New York is coming into the city to go to a Knicks game with my dad. The actual game isn’t the memory, but the dinner beforehand.

My dad took me to my first pay-by-the-pound deli. Imagine being 8, and deciding how much macaroni and cheese, chicken wings and lo mein you wanted for dinner. It was an incredible experience. I don’t remember the actual dinner as much I remember choosing what I wanted to eat for it.

I didn’t know then that all the flavors would mix, that all of the food would be kind of bad and that the actual cost of my three quarters of a pound of a food would be so high. But since my ethnic food experience was limited to pizza and Chinese food, it was an exciting night.

Even though I now know how expensive and gross pay-by-the-pound bars are, I still love them. Where else could you get a quarter pound of roast, sesame seed encrusted, winged, and grilled chicken at one place?

The immediacy, extensive variety and ultimate mediocrity of salad bars seems like the perfect metaphor for a fallen New York. But luckily, there are better lo mein options than what you can be found for $7.95 per pound.

Now I Wrote Something Today

June 29, 2010

I suppose it’s better to update my blog than to watch another youtube clip of the National.

Anyway, the Brooklyn Half Marathon went well; the book writing has been less successful. I’m trying to change the point of view, which has been really hard. It feels like I’m trying to move a bookshelf eight inches, but I have to take out all the books first and then restock them. In taking this metaphor too far news: I’m not even sure where I want the bookshelf to be. And my books are alphabetized.

Here are two things that would be lovely details in some other book:

When I was a teenager, a friend of mine scored tickets to a George Carlin stand-up show. To make this story easier to follow, I’ll combine this friend with another one who I had a crush on. Anyway, George Carlin made a joke about how when you trim your toenails, there’s this urgent need to bend the clipped nail between your fingers because by the next day, the nail clippings won’t be flexible any more. Also, interacting with a dislodged body part is weird and exciting. This friend, the one who is the combined ticket getter and crush, laughed knowingly at that joke. At that time, I had never bent my toenails after they had been clipped from my toes, and I thought his laughing at this joke was some huge insight into him. Not even that, but a real moment of intimacy. That’s as close as my friend and I ever got.

Secondly, in the ABC documentary about the Beatles, Ringo Starr said something about how his father was a baker, which was lucky because during the war, he always had butter and sugar. And if I ever wanted to make an optimistic character, there’s no better line than that, because Ringo Starr wasn’t wealthy as a kid, but felt rich because of his access to butter.

So those are two things I think about every time I trim my toenails and see butter being thrown away. Now you can too!

From One of the 20 Writers Under 40

June 10, 2010

Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?

There were plenty of dark moments. After I finished college, I got a job on Wall Street as a derivatives trader, but after a couple years of it I was calling in sick in order to work on my novel. By then, I’d been writing seriously for seven years. My second novel was nearly finished, and I figured it would take a year or two, at most, to become a published author. So I walked away from the bank and my cushy job.

Two years later, after pouring everything I had into that second novel, I was broke, back in debt, and the book had been rejected by almost every literary agent in America. I moved back to Baltimore, into my parents’ basement, and took jobs in construction and drove an ambulance.

It was a pretty depressing couple of years. I’d turned thirty, but I was living with my parents, doing manual labor, and making the same wages I had made as a teen-ager. Nothing I’d done in the intervening decade—getting into Cornell, my job in banking—mattered anymore. I had taken an enormous risk, and, as far as everyone could tell, I had failed miserably.

Meanwhile, I continued to fail—the first year I lived with my parents, I applied to a bunch of M.F.A. programs and was rejected by all of them. Now, by this time, I’d written two novels—not things I’d dashed off and stuck in a drawer but books I’d painstakingly revised and rewritten, labored over for years. I didn’t consider myself a hobbyist.

But, anyway—no, I never questioned that I was a writer. In fact, strange as it might sound, I never questioned that I was a good writer. I did, however, begin to seriously question my writing. It occurred to me that I couldn’t even define literature—not even to myself. I could give very erudite and intimidating answers to other people, the sort of bullshit that anyone with an English degree can throw up as a smokescreen, but I didn’t have a substantive answer that I believed in. I didn’t know why I liked the books I liked. So I decided I would throw everything away, everything I’d heard in college and everything else. I decided I would trust only myself—what I really believed and felt to be true. Which, of course, didn’t exactly occur overnight: it probably took the better part of 2004. But it was a very conscious effort.

That was when things began to change. I think of it as year zero, though it was actually year ten. The cynical part of me says, Well, maybe it could have happened some other way—maybe you could have kept the cushy job and kept writing. But I really don’t think so. I think you really have to stare down the demons. You really have to know what making art is worth to you.

Philipp Meyer, whose story “What You Do Out Here, When You’re Alone,” appeared in The New Yorker Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40 issue.

It’s always good to hear that success doesn’t come easy, even to successful people.

Long Term Goals

May 14, 2010

Now that we’re not graduating from something every couple of years, it’s hard to feel any real sense of accomplishment. This, to me, accounts for the popularity of slow runners participating in long distance races.

For example, if someone were to ask what’s going on with me, I could answer with the fact that I’m training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon. And after May 22, I’ll have a t-shirt that proves that I’ve done something with myself. To be honest, running a half marathon is a very manageable goal. There are some unpleasant long runs involved, but you can prepare for one in like three months and you don’t need to carry water bottles on a belt as you go. Still, it’s a distance that takes some preparation, and with marathon in the title, people are impressed.

In other long term goals news, I think I finished my book. Or, I’m starting to give it to people who didn’t go to college with me. I started this project as a 2008 New Year’s resolution with a blind certainty that I would finish it. And that plan worked out. Weird.

With running a half marathon, the whole accomplishment is doing it. Unless you’re an elite runner, your time doesn’t really matter. In my last half marathon, my time was 14 seconds away from my goal, and so what?

I’m trying to embrace the accomplishment of setting a long term goal like writing book and completing it. My whole New Year’s resolution writing plan was based on the fact that I’d rather fail at publishing a novel than not try. Well, I’ve done that. But what comes next, other than 13.1 miles next Saturday, I’m not as sure about.

In John Paul News

April 9, 2010

So now that we’re about to go through a whole Supreme Court nomination process, I was reminded of when the Pope John Paul died, and I asked my dad what would happen. And he was, “Oh, you’ve never experienced it. There’s smoke that comes out of the Vatican and it’s a whole big deal.” I was 22 when Benedict became the new Pope, and while I hadn’t paid for my own health insurance, signed a lease or found a gray hair (which happened today), I thought I had experienced almost most every news cycle. And the way my dad said it, it was as if there were something innocent about not knowing how the Vatican went about picking new popes. Well anyway. Aging.

Recurring Dream Sequences

February 21, 2010

I have two dreams that come up with alarming frequency:

The first is that I’m driving, and I can’t break in time to make the light. I hit the breaks, but they just don’t work. Fortunately, I make it through the intersection without getting hit.

The second is about this guy I went to high school with. We’re Facebook friends now, but we never interacted with each other except for the fact that we had all of our classes together. You know how high school is. Anyway, this guy was really good at tests. Standardized, essay form, whatever. Now at life, he seems to be doing well. Or at least, he’s followed a defined road to success since the day he graduated high school, and now he’s successful.

A friend—one Facebook suggests I reconnect with, but I actually travel with and see regularly—says my dreams are like parodies. I hate driving and sometimes my life feels out of control. And as for the Subconscious Guest Star: I’m jealous that he seems, at least from the tagged photos, so certain of his straight path.

I miss high school math more than I thought I would. I was all right at math—not good enough to do anything with it and certainly worse than my Subconscious Guest Star—but good enough that I understood how proportions and angles work. Lately, I’ve been helping high school kids with math. There’s a real part of me that wants to steal their textbook, and do some geometry whenever I get stressed out. I guess I’ll have to settle for the math sections in Ten Real SATS.