The Thing, Itself

This is the final of a five-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t been tracking it, I’d suggest starting at the beginning.

I’ve talked quite a bit about all of the paratext I’ve carried into my reading of Ling Ma’s Severance, beginning with the book being originally introduced to me as important in the way that my own work could never be, followed by a limited knowledge of the author’s biography, followed by the book’s location within the genre of millennial ennui, followed by the book itself as an object of highly advertised consumption. It’s a book that weighs a ton, even as it fits easily in my briefcase.

But, as the phenomenologists say, let’s bracket all that. Let’s try to take the book on its own terms, as a being in itself, an être-en-soi.

The first thing to notice is that the book is clever. I don’t mean that in a fussy, faint-praise way, I mean clever like ingenious, like an intricate wooden joint that fits together in unexpected forms. The idea of nostalgia is taken up in multiple ways, for instance. Nostalgia is the basis of the very first thing we see Candace take up as a planned event, her 1980s formal dinner with her friends—ironic nostalgia, of course, since Candace and her friends would have experienced very little of the 1980s as conscious human beings. She wouldn’t have been an early adopter of Depeche Mode at age two or three. The irony is a protection from the death sentence of earnest nostalgia, a literal death in this story, nostalgia and repetition of the past being a marker of disease.

Imitation and inauthenticity is a theme. Candace disdains the Gemstone Bible that she helps to produce, noting that the Bible is the most remarkable example of a single stable object gussied up to sell in a thousand varieties. She becomes a critical connoisseur of the varied imitation leathers of book covers. But she also takes delight in her first business trip to China and her discovery of the layers of imitation, stacked like a filo pastry:

What surprised me in Hong Kong, however, was how many iterations of the same thing were available. Take a Louis Vuitton bag, for example. You could buy the actual bag, a prototype of the actual bag from the factory that produced it, or an imitation. And if an imitation, what kind of imitation? An expensive, detailed, hand-worked imitation, a cheap imitation made of polyurethane, or something in between? Nowhere else was there such an elaborate gradient between the real and the fake. Nowhere else did the boundaries of real and fake seem so porous.

Candace herself has moments of this kind of gradient. She spends her first summer in New York wearing her mother’s old Contempo Casuals dresses, sleeping with whatever man is most convincing that afternoon, loving no one. She takes serious photographs based on her own observational capabilities, but then derides them as “Eggleston knock-offs, Stephen Shore derivatives.” She is closely aware of the levels of authenticity in the city’s varied Asian communities, which blocks are most unselfconsciously Chinese because they’re free from the tourist gaze, but when visiting China, she’s deeply aware of her own limited language, with her inability to name a Chinese food aside from General Tso’s chicken and Peking duck. She loves New York in part because everyone’s already experienced it before they ever arrive, through Woody Allen and Sex and the City and Seinfeld. Her own authenticity is just as layered as an array of Louis Vuitton bags.

The office politics of commerce and the office politics of cults (and even the office politics of boyfriends) are found to be not dissimilar. The talentless but overbearing men convinced of their own sophistication, the urgency around whatever trivial mission is on the docket, the shifting allegiances among co-workers as they vie for favor, the perpetual uncertainty over where one stands.

As I say, it’s a smart book, cleverly interwoven, everything in simultaneous motion with no solid center. But so far, it’s really an essay more than a novel, one of a long heritage of participatory social critiques born of Joan Didion: David Foster Wallace, Joni Tevis, Andrew Kay. Severance fits right in, a book about ideas. In order to become a novel—and there it is, right on the cover, “A NOVEL”—it needed a motor, a way to get from A to B. So, like a pickup truck underneath the parade float, we have the zombie story.

Taken on its own, the zombie story is pretty good. The road trip to The Facility, the really unusual way that the zombie infection manifests itself (I’m trying really hard here to not do any spoilers, something I didn’t need to worry about with the first part of the book, because essays don’t have spoilers, there’s no plot twist to worry about revealing), the details of the survivors’ mode of scavenging. The last sixty pages, taken on its own, was moving and suspenseful, a page-turner mostly distinct from the slower, chewier thematic work preceding it. The alternate title for this novel might have been Candace Wakes Up… And It Only Takes a Zombie Apocalypse to Do It.

Okay, now let’s bolt the paratext back on, slowly. Severance is (was) a publishing phenomenon, inexplicable as hits always are. It’s a good book, to be sure, but the bookstore is jammed with good books, most of which go nowhere. If we knew how to make a hit, we’d get it right every time. Part of what made it a hit… part of what got it acquired in the first place… was authorial pedigree, the right MFA and the right magazine jobs and the right preceding publication record. This same book arriving in the slush would have had a hell of a time not being swept into the storm drain with the rest.

The book is a hit in part because it landed at the right moment, landed at a time when “well, we’re all fucked” is a recognizable literary and experiential theme, landed with two generations of Americans coming to terms with the lies we left behind for them, landed when we see the active dismantling of almost every social good ever created. And it’s a hit in part because the star-making machinery behind the popular song (to quote Joni Mitchell) went full-throttle, getting the book reviewed by the tastemakers and the influencers.

And now it’s out there on its own, acquiring stars and likes and thumbs-ups, themselves a form of currency tradable for dollars in an uncertain exchange rate. It’s hard to leave a book review on Goodreads, for instance, without assigning stars… the whole POINT of Goodreads is stars, is the quantification that makes a 3.85 book mildly disappointing and a 4.25 book a rousing success. The star-making machinery has moved on to the new and shiny, and peak-Severance is behind us.

Who knows what might be next?

The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Little Man” rating system, devised in 1942 by cartoonist Warren Goodrich

When the Critique Becomes a Product

I think we’ll call this the fourth of five. I should probably use the final one to talk about the story itself. Here are parts one and two and three.

The protagonist in one of my novels, Katie, works in advertising in Chicago. Here, she explains why writing TV commercials is sort of fulfilling:

So you’ve got thirty or sixty seconds to tell a story. It’s all framed in present tense, there’s no backstory, but you can arrange two people on a couch and make it instantly obvious whether they like each other or they’re sick of each other or bored with each other. So you pack all of this prior relationship into the first few seconds, and then the product arrives and improves their relationship or solidifies their relationship or makes them more exciting people. Every commercial is a love story, in its own way. You buy some tacos or some dryer sheets or some ketchup and it’s happily ever after. It’s pretty sappy, kind of fun.

John Berger once wrote of advertising that its goal wasn’t to make you envious of the person who already owned the thing for sale. It was to make you envious of your own future self once you’d purchased it. I could be surrounded by girls if I have Bud Light. And I could, in fact, buy Bud Light. Therefore, I could be this better, more appealing self.

Ling Ma’s Severance is often spoken of as a critique of late capitalism, in which everything and everyone are perpetually for sale. The book “invites readers to recognize both the humor and the dangers of America’s decadent consumerism” (Madeline Day). It’s a “scathing portrait of a society collapsing under its own ungovernable appetites” (Claire Fallon). And indeed, the book is filled with brand names, the talismans and ritual goods of the presumed future self. The Clinique 3-Step skin care. The Noguchi coffee table. The Uniqlo scarves. The things we buy to become idealized versions of our own selves.

The irony of irony, though, is that it also encourages consumption. This book, this object, is as heavily covered with advertising as the concourse of a shopping mall. It carries more than twenty blurbs, three awards or award nominations, eighteen “best book of the year” citations. Buy this book, and you’ll be the kind of person who buys this kind of book, the cover tells us. Smart, sharp, young, hip. You’ll be seen on the bus with an award-winning new novel, one that knows you well enough to know that you don’t take anything too seriously, even as every word on the cover wants you to know how seriously you should take it.

As Jhumpa Lahiri would be the first to tell you, none of this is the author’s fault. Ling Ma didn’t design the cover, acquire the blurbs, choose the typefaces or the pull quotes. But the sales work of the cover, the momentary heat of the commodification of her work, wouldn’t surprise her; she predicted it in the book herself.

And after this, in another few years, the jobs will go elsewhere, to India or some other country willing to offer even cheaper rates, to produce iPods, Happy Meal toys, skateboards, American flags, sneakers, air conditioners. The American businessmen will come to visit those countries and tour their factories, inspect their manufacturing processes, sample their cuisines, while staying at their nicest hotels built to cater to them.

I was a part of this.

The House of Ennui

The third in a series on fiction and fiction writing. The first two are here and here.

It was twenty years ago this fall that I embarked on my most spectacular failure.

I’d finished my dissertation, got a publication contract for it, and was casting about for my next project. I decided to write a close ethnography of one young man I’d met as a high school senior, who had continued correspondence with me as a young-twenties adult. He was making absolutely no headway toward what we might think of as adult life, and I wanted to learn how he was configuring that project. So I moved in with him and his two housemates for a month.

The House of Ennui, which will never be published*, is the record of that month, and of my own descent into despair over the adulthood I’d created for myself. Pete’s life was nothing but inertia, a block of resistance moved only temporarily and resentfully by any outside force. There was no word in his language for “toward.”

One of the books Pete shared with me that month was Michael Chabon’s debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Here’s part of what I wrote about it.

The basic logic of fiction is that a protagonist—a character having certain strengths, weaknesses and motivations—is set into a situation in which those strengths are tested, those weaknesses emerge, and those motivations are fulfilled or denied or come into question.The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, the first novel by Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon, is a fascinating experiment in fiction because it omits one of those three elements:  its protagonist has no motivation whatsoever.  As such, it is by far the most annoying well-written book I’ve ever read, Art Bechstein the least interesting leading character.

Nothing that had ever happened to Art happened because he had desired or pursued it for himself. As he’s finishing his last college paper—late—in the school library in June, he sees a pretty girl, gets chatted up by a pretty boy, and proceeds to be dragged around all summer through an endless series of social circles, near-events, and pointless drama. The pretty young woman and the pretty young man both pursue him, because he is beautiful and because his blankness offers them the reflections of themselves they both desire.  His pursuers dislike and distrust one another, and Art cannot choose between them, and so offers himself to whichever is nearest or speaks with more persuasion at the moment.  He loves neither, because “to love” is a verb, and Art does not do verbs.  Art is far too distant and disengaged for any effort beyond observation and reportage.

The current book on the table, Ling Ma’s Severance, falls exactly into this same camp. Candace cannot bring herself to do anything, or to want anything. She eats, but takes no pleasure in it. She has sex, but takes no pleasure in it. She has #friends, but takes no pleasure in them. The other people in the story are props, flat and unsophisticated, not because the author is careless but because Candace is.

And it all makes me wonder. I wonder why such talented and driven people are writing about such motivationless characters. Michael Chabon went to college at Pitt and got his MFA from UC Irvine, a program with a 2% acceptance rate. Ling Ma went to college at U.Chicago and did her MFA at Cornell, a program with a 1.6% acceptance rate. Jia Tolentino, who wrote of Severance that it was “the best work of fiction I’ve read yet about the millennial condition,” was an undergraduate Jefferson Scholar at Virginia and did her MFA at Michigan, a program with a 1.5% acceptance rate. These are not people who sit around and let the world happen to them.

The identifying field mark of literary fiction is suffering. No one’s aspirations are satisfied for even a moment before being dashed in even more baroque ways. Even imagining a happy ending is seen as naïve and implausible, perhaps even irresponsible. No possible indignity can be spared; no misfortune can be too unlikely; no character can be respected strongly enough to have her best intentions fulfilled for more than fleeting moments before the next humiliation. As perhaps befits our zeitgeist, too many of the most celebrated literary novels of recent years have portrayed life as tormented, degraded and diminished. “Realism” means unrelenting layers of misery. We’re far more likely to suspend disbelief about vampires, dragons and zombies than we are about regular people living regular lives with some degree of nobility and hope.

This body of anhedonic, anti-aspirational literature does harm, I think. Like Ma’s imagined Shen Fever, its spores are everywhere, slowing us to nostalgia for when things were all okay, leaving us less able to take action in the face of the troubles around us. “Well, we’re all fucked” is nothing but a declaration of inertia, a raising of the white flag so that maybe we won’t be hurt even further. We are oversupplied with irony and mockery, are left anemic by our deficiency of hope.

*That book, in its draft form, did a lot of harm to the people I wrote about. As Joan Didion said, “A writer is always selling someone out.” Now they’re all twenty years older, and don’t deserve to undergo public scrutiny of their pasts. And Pete isn’t really his name.

Paratext

This is the second of a multi-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t read the first yet, you should start there.

Ling Ma, the author of Severance, teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago. A quick look at their faculty page shows us that even a well-heeled institution like Chicago isn’t immune from contingency. Five of their thirteen “core faculty” are within the tenure stream, seven are professors of the practice (a polite term for an academic job with a term limit), and one a postdoc. And these thirteen core faculty are surrounded by a larger group of seventeen visiting faculty, to whom the university takes an even more delimited obligation.

Again, it all depends on how you count. By my count, there are thirty people teaching in this program, and five of them are faculty.

Looking at their bios, there’s remarkable diversity in detail, remarkable sameness in structure.

  • MFAs from Virginia, Harvard, Boston University, Cornell, Iowa. PhDs from Berkeley, Yale.
  • Fellowships and residencies with Bread Loaf, Macdowell, Sewanee, Millay
  • Awards: the Rome Prize, the Guggenheim, PEN Emerging Writers
  • Publications in Granta, Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Ploughshares

There’s no walk-ons on this team. The pedigrees are immaculate, groomed through years and years of the right connections, the right programs, the right mentors. This is not to say that they aren’t all wonderful writers, wonderful people. I’m sure they’re lovely. But they came to the team through the scouting reports, through the minor leagues, passed up the line from hand to hand. These are the kinds of credentials it takes now even to be contingent at an elite school.

They didn’t come to their publishers as unknowns, either, as a crumb of ice within the slush. They came through cocktail parties, through conversations on the lawn in Vermont and Tennessee, through conference panels and service on the editorial boards of the little magazines. Their three-paragraph pitch letter didn’t stand on its own—it was supported by volumes of paratext, the things we know about texts before we ever encounter them as texts. Their pitch didn’t come in a batch of fifty, to be cleared through in the hour commute on the train—swipe left, swipe left, swipe left. They came in personalized e-mails, with subject lines like “Nice to meet you at Joan’s…” They came over lunches, the vague, handwaving got-an-idea-for-a-story that gets incubated over a salad and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. They come through publishing chapter after chapter as standalones in literary journals, a habit that becomes its own form (the medium, as we know, being the message), the novel reduced to a twitchy series of short stories.

All of this is, as I’ve said about faculty life, a form of sponsorship, of standing members vouching for the newcomer to the rest of the community. If you don’t have a sponsor, you don’t get to join the lodge. Or, to use a Chicago story, Abner Mikva (future judge) walked into a Democratic Party ward office in 1948 and asked the ward chairman, Tim O’Sullivan, if he could volunteer for the Adlai Stevenson campaign. “Who sent you?” O’Sullivan said. “Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied. O’Sullivan jammed his cigar back into his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

The response to “Who sent you?” is a form of paratext, a larger knowledge within which we read the specific story. If the answer is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or The Sewanee Review, we’re predisposed to read the story generously. If the answer is the submissions-form portal on the agency website, we’re predisposed to think poorly of it.

And again, this is not to imply that those who’ve come up through the system aren’t deserving, in authorial or faculty life. It merely implies that there are an awful lot of people whose work is deserving, many of whom will not be properly introduced.

House of Commons, House of Lords

The first of a few consecutive pieces on fiction and fiction writing. If I knew how many there’ll be, I’d tell you.

In August 2017, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as a “contributor.” That meant that I contributed full tuition so that the important people, the real writers, got to be there for free. It was an enormously hierarchical event, the 270 or so of us clustered into herds of Faculty and Fellows and Waitstaff, the young and beautiful and serious who waited tables during the week in exchange for their tuition waiver, just as they taught freshman comp and introduction to poetry at the colleges that hosted their MFA programs. The tribes almost never intersected except within the bounds of prescribed roles. Workshop leader and participants. Lecturer and audience. Waiter and diner. We all knew our places, and didn’t struggle against them.

Along with the workshops and readings and afternoon craft talks, the middle of the conference featured visitors from the industry, agents and editors who’d made the drive up from New York or Boston for a genial few days among their friends in the woods. Like summer camp or a Catskills resort, to which the privileged return like migratory birds each season.

In exchange for catching up with old friends and sharing industry gossip, they too had a role—to meet, individually or in small groups, with the desperate, with the outsiders seeking knowledge, seeking the password, the secret key to the club. And the two people I met with performed that role in as dull and desultory a fashion as one might expect, the House of Lords communicating distantly with the House of Commons.

The first was an agent with thirty years’ experience, who calmly informed us during her talk that she no longer knew how to do her job. “It used to be that you could manufacture a bestseller, that you could put a hundred thousand dollars into promotion and guarantee a big book. Now, books with big marketing budgets go nowhere, and books no one expected somehow go viral.” She did let us know that seventy percent of all new fiction sells fewer than two thousand copies, and that her business model didn’t include those books. “If I sell a book that makes two thousand dollars, I’m going to make three hundred. I can’t spend my time on that.” She closed by urging the masses to support the project of literature. “Buy books,” she said.

When I later met with her individually, I attempted to describe my project, as she smiled blandly at my desperation. I was merely an anonymous, fifteen-minute middle car in the freight train of hope that blocked her path that afternoon. “You’re asking men to think about their emotions,” she said. “They don’t want to do that.” Okay, then, thanks.

The other, whom I met with for an abbreviated hour in a group of five, was a fiction editor with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. She had no interest in our projects, asked no questions, just came in and sat and waited for us to lead things. She stressed the importance of being able to encapsulate a novel in just a few words. “Everyone involved in a book is trying to sell it to the next person in line. The agent is selling it to the editor, the editor is selling it to the editorial board, and editorial is selling it to the marketing team. The form we use, once we’ve got a book and we’re sending it to the marketing department, has a field we fill out for the book’s description. It’s 130 characters.” We were enrapt, as outsiders are—that’s why we read gossip magazines, too, for any glimpse of how the celebrities live. “Can you give us an example?” I asked.

She could not. She had not even done the most basic preparation of attempting to bring details from the books that supposedly enlivened her. She flailed for a moment, and then said, “I’m working on a project right now, I’m really excited about it. It’s the first post-apocalyptic office novel.” That description—the first post-apocalyptic office novel—certainly met the goal of abbreviation, clocking in at a mere thirty-nine characters. But it communicated absolutely nothing at all. Well, not nothing. There was “novel,” meaning a book length work of fiction. And there was “first,” which meant that no one had ever attempted to jam those two pieces together before.


Last weekend, I went to our local bookseller’s annual customer appreciation weekend. As I was browsing—and what an apt word, looking down on the lush bounty and considering which blade of grass might be tastiest, most tender. Anyway, as I was browsing, I spent a few minutes at the “New and Notable” table, upon which I spotted a nearly plain, pink paperback, its graphic design laid out as though it were a manila envelope: the title and author on a paper sticky-label, surrounding text applied as though with faded office ink stamps.

That book is Severance, by Ling Ma. The first post-apocalyptic office novel, acquired originally by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. And I’m reading it now. I’ll have plenty to say in the next few days, far more than 130 characters.

Read This Now

Jan Feindt’s illustration for Academe’s Extinction Event, by Andrew Kay

Stop what you’re doing, safely but right this minute—pull out of traffic, finish your surgery and wash up. You need to spend the next thirty minutes reading this.

Andrew Kay has written one of the finest accounts I’ve ever seen of the dissolution of an academic life. It’s rife with quotable lines, but rather than Twitter-pick it, I want you to read it. All of it. Right now. It’s completely, wrenchingly, wickedly perfect.

Kaleidoscopic Grief

Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has become widely known for her work On Death and Dying (1969), and especially its model of the stages of grief. When faced with a loss, she claimed, we go through five relatively predictable sequences of response.

  • The first is denial—”This can’t be happening.”
  • Then anger—”Why is this happening to me?
  • Then bargaining—”If God will change things, I’ll be a better person for the rest of my life.
  • Then depression—”What’s the point? Why bother?
  • And finally, acceptance—”This is what’s happened, and I have to move forward.

But much of what we know about grief comes from the experience of single ruptures: a divorce, a diagnosis of terminal condition, a death of a pet or a partner. Losing a career could be as simple as that, of course—you don’t pass the bar exam, your manufacturing job moves to Indonesia. It’s just over with. But the special torment of losing a career in higher education is that no one ever tells you that you’re done. They keep hiring you one course at a time, keep hinting that success is just around the corner, keep telling you that the next application is sure to strike gold. And so we relive the hope and the grief over and over and over again, every semester a new cycle of possibilities raised and crushed. No one ever gives us the terminal diagnosis, because we’re just more useful if we’re hopeful.

Because of the constant cycling, the stages of grief aren’t sequential at all, they get mashed together into a perpetual, kaleidoscopic bewilderment in which we can go from anger to denial to depression to hope to bargaining within the space of minutes. It’s emotionally exhausting, for us and for everyone we live with.

In my prior book The PhDictionary, I offered the following advice under the glossary entry for Adjunct Faculty:

If you are a doctorate-holding adjunct instructor for more than two years, you must seriously think about a career change. There are ways of making a living that will use some of your intellectual skills and give you livable pay and benefits. Don’t be the guy who refuses to leave the casino, thinking that the next hand will be the big turnaround. You gambled, you had a good time but you lost. Go home. Now.

I didn’t realize at the time, though, the emotional importance of that statement. I thought of it as merely an economic reality, but its greater value is in the release of one’s soul from endless torment. Go ahead and declare that dream dead, so that you can grieve properly and then move on. It may feel like you’ll never recover; but if you don’t let it go, you’ll never have the chance to recover.