1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of NarniaPart of me can't even figure out how to write this, the final post in this series. I've talked and written so much about Lifespan and COW (which is what Lidia calls The Chronology of Water - she even says it aloud like the animal, like moo-cow - so that's what I'll call it too) that I don't know where to start writing about them again. Both books changed my life. Crucially. Undeniably. No-going-back-ly.
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
But then, every book on this list has changed my life. Easily half of all the books I've read have changed my life to some degree. Changing your life is not really that hard, or that unusual. Every pebble in the riverbed changes the current a little, alters where the cold water lies and where you have to swim a little harder.
If not these books, perhaps some other books. If not them, a song or an album, a play, a film. Something would have come along to make my life different than it was before. That's how this goes, this life thing, this art thing.
But since we're here -
I read this review of The Lifespan of a Fact and decided I had to get hold of it. At the time I was writing genre fiction almost exclusively; in 2012 I wrote most of a novel, Highbinder, that I still love very much but that is many miles away from what I'm doing now. Still, even then I was obsessed with truth, and with the distances between and among truth, memory, story, and fact.
Lifespan looks like it's going to be a lot of trouble to read, because the layout of each page is one central rectangle of black text surrounded on all sides by smaller, footnoteish text colored either red or black. But it goes quickly. You develop a rhythm for reading the text and its associated notes, in whatever order you elect. You go from page to page in awe of the ideological clash taking place, even though it escalates gradually, even though it involves unpleasant dick-swinging, even though it leaves off on a note that makes you stare at the wall in existential terror.
|As always, click to embiggen, because as always, Blogger makes it |
impossible to make pictures the size I want them to be
Last semester we read Lifespan in my creative nonfiction class, and I ended up recounting part of the conversation we had in an essay, "Bright White American Smile."
What a thrill to study The Lifespan of a Fact in a classroom. The book had changed my life. I couldn’t wait to hear what younger minds made of it.There was a lot more to it, but, y'know, that's why I wrote the essay. The book revolves around big questions, and questions that may seem small but are actually huge: the importance of rhythm in prose, the general point of fact-checking, the actual meaning of "nonfiction," and whether writers bear a moral responsibility to their readers. I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but searching for the answers is a big part of why I have developed and sustained a writing practice for the past five years. I don't think genre fiction could have kept my interest as I failed and failed and failed at writing during that time. If Highbinder had attracted a publisher, then maybe it could have, and my life would be different. But it didn't, and instead I read The Lifespan of a Fact, and so I am where I am.
The result astounded me: they didn’t care about the facts. They sided with art. What difference did it make if D’Agata got every little thing right? He was telling a story.
But it’s not the truth, I argued, nearly apoplectic. The truth is sacred. It’s necessary. It’s water in the desert of the real.
Eh, they answered.
Another reason I am where I am is COW, which I read just a few months before Lifespan, which was how I remembered it but which I'm still surprised to confirm. (Sidebar: in a single summer I read Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry, Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life, and Barry Hannah's Airships, which all display remarkable, unusual, fascinating story-making, and each of which is a master class in writing. Why they all came my way in just one summer I'll never know.)
Later, I sent copies of COW to four women I know. Three of them wrote me messages and emails that said WHAT IS HAPPENING I FEEL WEIRD MY LIFE IS CHANGING MY BODY EXISTS HALP. And I was like, I KNOW. COW is powerful. (The fourth woman didn't like it. Too much sex.) I've been giving it away to people ever since; I think I've bought at least twenty copies. I decided to keep a handful of them on my shelf, just in case.
What I wrote at the time:
Chronology is a book that has absolutely changed my life. In a week. I am waiting to write much about it until I read it again, which I hope to do next week. I want to read it every week. I want to write it on my skin, to chop it into dust and breathe it into my lungs. It feels like the only real book I've read since I was a little girl (aside from books that just broke my heart, like Feed); the word "book" seems inadequate to describe it.I never did write more about it, because I assimilated it so deeply that writing about it seemed unnecessary. And now, of course, I'm stuck writing about it, because of this series.
It's a book full of contradictions. For a memoir so subjectively about its author, it offers a remarkably objective, granular sense of the experience of life. It grapples with language as a limited set of parameters, but it applies language so flexibly that other writing feels stiff, toylike, minor. Most profoundly, it frees the writing of women from the methods and practices of men's writing. It's assembled the way a life is remembered, rather than the way a book is Supposed To Be Written; the grammar varies according to the mood the reader is meant to feel; the style ranges widely; metaphors roam like fenceless horses.
|Still from the book trailer|
COW affected me by virtue of its novelty, certainly. I had not read Cixous, so I didn't know there was another way to write than some version of the Harold Bloom way, nor did I know what could differentiate women's writing, trauma writing, body writing, from more traditional prose.
But the book also showed me that I am always going to be the center of my writing, and I get to choose what I do with that centrality. My mentor says - quoting someone, I think - that the most interesting thing about a piece of literature is the consciousness through which it is filtered. She's talking about voice, and her lesson is a little different from what COW demonstrates, but the underlying ideas are nearly identical. Even if I try to scrub out all traces of myself in order to write a story about a robot stealing organs to make himself human, I can't remove me. Not completely.
This seems obvious, because I write my ideas, using words inside my head, but how far I choose to lean in to myself as I write is the variable. And that little lean, from here to there, is an enormous possibility space. There's no way to divorce a writer completely from what she produces, I believe, but there's a big difference between every character in your novel having a little piece of you inside her and writing explicitly from, or of, the self. Jesse told me after reading my secret project - which is not biographical in any significant way - that he found it deeply personal, and I think that's because I wrote it out of my body, instead of allowing my body to be remote from the process. I could not have written it that way before COW came into my life.
What I've learned since I read COW is that the work is better, more intense, more interesting, when I embrace the me at the heart of each sentence. That may take the form of genuine memoir, or it may involve explaining the emotional history of my porcelain veneers during an essay about The Lifespan of a Fact and Singin' in the Rain.
It's not how the list turned out, but the better pair of books to talk about in tandem, if talking about the books that mattered to me, is Oblivion and COW. Those are my two favorite writers: Wallace and Yuknavitch. Between them, Wallace is the mind and Yuknavitch is the body. Wallace sometimes gets embodied, and Yuknavitch is a brilliant thinker, but they generally fall inside those lines for me.
Since discovering the place of each of these writers in my cosmology, the missing element that's been nagging at me is the heart. Who's the heart?
My secret desire, ambition, terror is that I'm the heart - that I'm the one who completes the trinity.
A romantic notion: the heart knows the truth. And, after all, the truth is what obsesses me.