Novelist Steve Toltz gives us a view of New York through Australian eyesNovember 1, 2007
After several years of writing alone in a room, to get away from the ominous silences that are part of being alone, and to get away from the squeaky voices that tend to come in those ominous silences, I journeyed from Australia to spend a few months in New York in advance of the publication of my debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. The trip had two aims: to meet my publishers, and to revisit the city where I lived for a six-month period ten years ago. Arriving in a smog of nostalgia, I spent the first few weeks wandering the city in frustration at not finding memory lane on the map. No matter how many streets I paced, I couldn’t find the café where I’d worked for two dollars an hour and where I’d once tried to clean a junkie’s blood off the toilet seat with a broom. Nor could I find the place where I lived with a songwriter who charged me extra for using his toaster.
I was, however, thrilled to find that three key things haven’t changed about New York: first, it is still the most obviously democratic city in the world, which means to me that I don’t feel like a slob wearing tracksuit pants out in a café (how can I when the guy next to me is wearing stained tracksuit pants?); second, I’m still constantly amazed at how people of all educational backgrounds instinctively know, without even looking at the sun, where the southwest corner of a street is; and third, it’s still the city where people furiously defend their neighborhoods against any form of attack, verbal or otherwise, including the unforgivable affront of living somewhere else (e.g., I have apparently, repeatedly, on a daily basis, insulted Brooklyn merely by living in Alphabet City). The neighborhoods that New Yorkers defend may have changed over the past decade, but their passion in defending them has not.
However, the one truly glaring difference between New York then and New York now is the me in it. I was twenty-three then. I’m thirty-five now. I smoked then. I only fantasize about rolling in a field of tobacco now. Back then, I thought a goatee had some redeeming aesthetic value. Now, I am increasingly sympathetic to the whole idea of the comb-over. Ten years ago, I was just starting a novel that was destined to go no further than the first two chapters and that now exists solely as a cringe-worthy relic of another era. Ten years and many other first chapters later, I have finished and will publish an actual, tangible object with printed words—which means I’ve gone from being “allegedly” a writer to being a writer beyond a reasonable doubt. It was back in my first New York days I learned a valuable lesson, one which was later re-taught to me in Australia, a lesson that I put into my novel, and that is: “If you dedicate your life to painting or writing poetry you’d better be holding down a job at a hamburger restaurant if you know what’s good for you.” I realized this because, unlike the European cities where I’ve lived in the time between my two New York stints, here you can’t just say you’re a writer without having some pretty solid evidence to back up this wild assertion. At the time, of course, I had no evidence at all. Now, finally, I have it, and I think: If only I could go back in time and tell myself not to be impatient, that I would one day be published in this amazing city! Of course, even if I could, I wouldn’t dare, because if I was told back then it would take me twelve more years to get published, I would have dropped my pen in terror and never picked it up again.
Now, just as the weather here is threatening to turn from brain-meltingly hot to bone-shatteringly cold, I'm heading back to Sydney until February, when I'll make my third trip to New York on publication of A Fraction of the Whole. I can't imagine the city will change in my absence this time, and at the very least I'll know, without searching, that my new, rezoned memory lane will lead into a bookstore.
Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine, introduces "First Person" by discussing what it means to write in the first person on the internetNovember 1, 2007
There’s a passage in my forthcoming book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, where I describe the first-person nature of blogs as “a firewall against sympathetic feeling.” So perhaps I should be super-cautious about appearing on a blog called “First-Person.” But one of the main arguments of my book is that the first-person isn’t what it used to be.
Nowadays, the individual has learned to retail his privacy as a public performance or a public transaction. The self-dramatizing style of the memoirist has become the dominant literary expression of our day, escaping from the pages of books into garrulous emails, blogs, and videoblogs. We don’t intimately confide our interiority. We carefully craft it for public consumption. We bring our selves to market the way farmers bring heads of lettuce to market.
The packaged self has been a long time in the making; technology didn’t create this new condition. But on the internet, technology has engineered an ideal environment for the packaged self to thrive. It has manufactured a place where all activity – even play – is submerged in the work of self-selling to such a degree that it becomes nearly impossible to avoid the realms of business and commerce.
My research for Against the Machine brought me to online venues like Ebay, Jdate, and Second Life, where my avatar, Delbert, found himself behind the wheels of a sports car, which he promptly smashed into the side of a mountain. It also got me to some sites that are, in the parlance of the medium, NSFW (for research!). But it also allowed me to trace this transformation through a half-century of “offline” cultural evolution: from some very prescient postwar thinkers to the shallow boosterism of the so-called "futurists"; from the rise of method acting and the close-up to the advent of reality television; from the business-first cheerleading of some of today's most popular journalists to the still relevant skepticism of critics like Christopher Lasch. Researching this book, thinking about it, and writing it certainly allowed me to escape my own first-person for a while and to throw myself happily into the world of ideas and their consequences, and to confront The Machine -- that confluence of business and technology that serves the interests of business and technology, while moving us further away from the precious human values that sustain us.
By the time I was finished, I was able to see an alternative destiny for the Internet, a day when the Internet itself would be used to combat all the glib, slick, utilitarian forces that are now shaping it. A day when the Internet would retain its speed, and relevance, and pith, yet fulfill its promise of greater intimacy and humanity instead of betraying it; a day when journalists could stop worrying about being left behind by technology and speak truth to their modems; a day when technology would be an aid to cultivating your private self, rather than a snare for losing it. Internet users of the world unite! You have nothing lose but (some of) your links.
One other thing. I started off by saying that the first person isn’t what it used to be. For the most part, that is. It’s been my good fortune to find a home for my own first-person with a publisher that gets the present moment in all its perplexity and complexity, while approaching it under the aspect of a very old sensibility. A culture critic, if he wants to be taken seriously, has to be careful about the company he keeps. I’m happy and proud to see my “I” appear on Spiegel and Grau’s inaugural list, where intimacy and humanity seem very much alive.
Rebecca Stott, author of the national bestseller Ghostwalk, writes about what she's been reading between semestersNovember 1, 2007
This summer I have been re-reading books I first read in my twenties. As I get older I re-read books more often because there is a mysterious way that you get to meet up with younger versions of yourself in books you’ve read several times before, like bumping into yourself in a dark corridor.
My copy of this book is full of little dog-eared coloured pieces of card, faded by the sun at the top, where they have stuck out of the book, and each of them covered in the tiny, rather intense, handwriting I had in my twenties. Just looking at the front cover takes me straight back to the first excitement of reading it – a sense of breathlessness and wonder. The scores of little coloured cards show just how breathless I was, how much that first encounter with magical realism made me want to write. It’s quite difficult to re-read it now as the little cards flutter out, like leaves.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a family saga, an epic. A band of adventurers establish a town in the heart of the South American jungle and Márquez tells us what happens to them over a century or more. It’s written in opulent prose that reads like poetry. It’s like a dream. The strangest things happen – Spanish galleons are found marooned in the middle of the jungle, a woman ascends to heaven wrapped in a still-wet white sheet which she had been hanging out on her washing line. In one part of the story a boy and a girl from feuding families fall in love with each other and while they keep their love secret, they are described as being accompanied by a cloud of yellow butterflies wherever they go. When I read the book for the first time I was newly in love and the yellow butterflies were mine. The air was thick with them. One of the cards I wrote on (not a yellow card but blue) says: “Love isn’t LIKE being surrounded by yellow butterflies, it IS being surrounded by yellow butterflies.” That’s me bumping into myself in that corridor again.
I read this novel for the first time a year ago and re-read it a few weeks ago after seeing the film which has just come out in cinemas here. What baffled me was that in a year I had forgotten the terrible twist at the end of the novel. I had forgotten it because, I realise now, I badly needed to remember the relief and peace of the atonement that the book gives and then so cruelly takes back (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it).
McEwan asks questions in this novel not just about redemption but also about the ethics of writing. Writing fiction is a kind of power he seems to say. The protagonist in Atonement tries to atone for her mistake, her crime, by self-sacrificing actions, but when she fails to do that she writes an atonement story for herself, to give herself a fictional sense of redemption. I have drawn on my own life in my writing and that means using experience that also belongs to lovers, friends, and family. I could see for the first time in reading Atonement that I too have used my writing as a way not of atoning for actions I have regretted, but instead perhaps of giving myself endings or outcomes that I wanted. You don’t always see that at the time. Later sometimes, though, you look back on a book you have written and realise that in it you have given yourself something you really wanted. I’m still not sure I know what I think about the ethics of that.
Hermann Melville, Moby Dick
This is another book of mine that has little scribblings in it – this time not coloured pieces of card, but post-it notes. It’s one of the strangest books I have ever read, a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale Moby-Dick. It’s also full of all sorts of “stuff”: lists, musings, natural history, anything and everything connected with whales.
I notice that one of my first post-it notes reads with exasperation: “what is this book?” reflecting the bafflement of my first reading. Then later, possibly three or four years later, on my second reading I answered that question on the same post-it note with the rather pompous words: “It’s a library contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a parable, a water eclogue.”
This summer, some ten years later, I added another line to the post-it note question: “it’s a warning against the dangers of fundamentalism,” I wrote. I’d been reading a Salman Rushdie essay about the novel and about American Puritanism and so it was Rushdie who made me see fundamentalism in Ahab’s quest. But the revelation was an important personal one too because I was raised in an extreme Protestant sect that taught that Satan was working his way out there in the world and had to be constantly ‘smoked out’ (my memories of that upbringing were revived recently by watching a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a zealous fundamentalist, blinkered and obsessive. He sees only the dark of the world and he very nearly sacrifices his whole crew in his quest for vengeance. It seemed to me this summer, strangely, as I read about the continuing fallout from 9-11, that Melville was writing not just about whales and sea adventures but that he also had something to say to world leaders driven by zeal and the desire for revenge.
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems
I love this volume. It has been like a family friend for as long as I remember. Particular favourites are “The Moose” and “The Man-Moth” but I like other poems too with titles that don’t begin with the letter M. Bishop has the most seductive voice, drawing you in to her intimate observations and thoughts without giving anything away about her life. Exquisite. My father, who died this year, gave me my passion for poetry. He had a particular love for collections of poetry, like his own battered copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems. He used to talk about refraction – the way that when you get to know a collection of poetry really well you get to see new lights in it because the poems refract light off and from each other. That’s certainly true of the Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems – you come to certain poems through the light of others and everything is constantly shifting and drifting. Nothing stays the same.
Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia
I have often wondered what happened to the two beautiful boys during the violence of the 90s when Yugoslavia erupted into civil war. Did they survive? What wounds did their families suffer or inflict on each other? When I spent this summer travelling down the coast of Croatia with a friend and our teenage daughters, the two boys seemed to be everywhere in my imagination. So when I came back to England I was determined that I was now going to try to understand what the boys had tried to explain to us about their country on the end of the pier that day. The Fall of Yugoslavia is written by a wonderful journalist with great political acumen and compassion. Glenny explains why this country has been so fought over for so long. What he can’t tell me, sadly, is what happened to the beautiful Brenco and his friend.