Message in a Bottle
Bloomsday

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By a calendrical coincidence, this year’s Father’s Day is an especially literary one. It falls on June 16th, which is celebrated annually, at least by English majors, as Bloomsday. That’s the day on which Leopold Bloom, the hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, peregrinates around Dublin, and it’s the day on which Joyce’s ardent fans don period garb and recreate that journey by traipsing across the city in Bloom’s footsteps. On this side of the globe we just hoist a Guinness or two and affect an Irish accent for a few hours.

Ulysses has a lot to do with fatherhood, actually. Some representative quotes: 

  • A father, said Stephen, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil.
  • Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?  
  • [A son’s] growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.

Sheesh. No wonder people drink on Bloomsday. Lighten up, Mr. Joyce.

imageMaybe yours is the rare dad who enjoys massive modernist classics about the torments of fatherhood. Or like me, maybe you are that dad. If so, you can visit Seattle’s Town Hall for an afternoon of live performance. Professional actors will be reading selections from Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners along with some excerpts of Ulysses. It shouldn’t be all that depressing, in fact. Joyce was never afraid of confronting the harshness of life, but he’s also one of the most inquisitive and accepting authors of all time. Leopold Bloom shares the open nature of his creator, and Ulysses is famous for its triumphant conclusion, when Leopold’s wife Molly unfurls an all-embracing soliloquy like none other:

…and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

For Joyce, the final word of any philosophical argument was … well, you know.

One doesn’t usually think of a monumental writer in the context of domestic life, but Joyce was devoted to his children and indulgent of their whims. He had a close rapport with his artistic but troubled daughter, and at least one biography (Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake) claims her as a major inspiration for his work. Perhaps the best elucidation of their complex relationship can be found in a graphic novel by Bryan and Mary Talbot called Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes.

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is another famous figure of fiction who was familiar with family life. Given the times in which he lived, he wasn’t exactly a primary caregiver, but he did spend considerable quality time with the kids. When his wife and daughters traveled to visit relatives, Hawthorne was left alone for three weeks with his five-year-old son, and the experience resulted in a charming diary called Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. This isn’t a spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child narrative by a patriarch, but a story by a gentle, fun-loving parent that wouldn’t be out of place on a contemporary daddy blog.

An even briefer, yet equally profound depiction of a father and child can be found in a short story by Donald Barthelme that I’ve written about before. It’s called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong" and can be read in its entirety in about a minute. Its silliness only partly masks real feeling, and there’s a useful reminder in there too: "That is one of the satisfying things about being a parent—you’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold."

My move this Father’s Day will be to grab some books in one arm and my kids in the other. If there’s room in there somewhere for an Irish stout so I can toast Mr. Joyce, Mr. Hawthorne, Mr. Barthelme, and all the other dads out there, so much the better.

—James

In Search Of ?

We’ve been doing some sophisticated computer-aided analysis here at Message in a Bottle headquarters, and we’ve determined that—wait, let me examine the precise figures…yes, they all check out—many people are reading our posts. We could even say many, many people. If we were number crunchers instead of word fiends, we might be able to tell you exactly how many, but as it is, we’re pretty satisfied with our results.

Not only do we know that we have readers, we also know how they’re finding us. Somewhat surprisingly, most of you are subscribers. That is, you regularly receive our posts via email. This is really good news as far as we’re concerned, because it means that you like what you’ve read in the past and want to read more of it, whatever it turns out to be. Insider secret: We don’t always know what kind of post you’ll be reading until a couple of hours before you read it. The deadline muse can be very inspiring.

The next largest group of readers visits the blog itself, and many of those are sent to it by the links we put on Facebook each time we make an update. Others follow the permanent link on our store’s website, and still others know that they can always go directly to http://www.mercerislandbooks.tumblr.com to see what’s new.

Now, some of you are forgetful, and you have to do a little searching to find us. We can tell, because records indicate that quite a few of you come to us only after plugging a phrase like “island books message bottle” into Google. Or into Bing, although that’s so far just a hypothetical. This is the equivalent of not knowing a street address but navigating by landmarks. “Turn left at the drugstore and look on the right for the blue house with the weather vane.” Works perfectly well, especially when you’re in your own neighborhood. We’ll leave the porch light on all night, just in case.

That covers almost everybody who visits us virtually, but the most entertaining oddities in the data pile are the singletons, the obscure search terms that directed someone to us just once. These are readers who probably didn’t know exactly what they were looking for and stumbled across one of our posts serendipitously. In some cases, it seems clear that they found something relevant when they arrived, but in others…well, who knows what they were thinking. Let’s look at some examples:

  • drugs jungle central america: I hope this wasn’t someone looking to set up an import/export business. This phrase directed the searcher to Miriam’s fine post about Ann Patchett’s most recent novel State of Wonder.
  • andorrans: I like to imagine that this word was typed into a search engine by a lonely expat from the Pyrenees looking for her kinfolk. If so, I hope she was interested to read a post about vanished nations from the days of yore.
  • fictitious worlds in one scene: Possibly related to the search above, as the natural landing page for this one was this post about realistic imaginary landscapes. Peter Cameron’s Andorra was one of the books mentioned.
  • famous friendships in literature: This led to one of my favorite Message in a Bottle posts, in which Miriam talks about her best friend since childhood and inadvertently calls her a pig. OK, not really. Charlotte and Wilbur from E.B. White’s classic novel do come up, though. 
  • donald barthelme the baby, whats the message: A confused student probably got more (and less) than he bargained for when he ran across part three of my series on books and parenthood
  • ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic: This is a quote from Stephen King that describes the novella, and I used it in this post
  • the north wind and the sun: A Wiccan practitioner? A budding meteorologist? Who knows, but whoever it was found a charming post that’s inspired by a fable from Aesop.
  • how to build a lego hot air balloon instructions: It’s not exactly a how-to, but Miriam did discuss the topic here
  • judas hanged himself: This searcher was undoubtedly surprised to click onto a piece about truthfulness in journalism.
  • how to draw catching fire symbol: One or the other of two posts must have been the destination for this searcher, but neither of them says anything about draftsmanship.

And then there were those searches that will remain forever cryptic:

  • i will have less sader [sic] days ahead: Hopefully true for the person who initiated a brief encounter with us. Feel better, anonymous visitor.
  • cool teen boy picking up something on the ground: Very specific and very strange. Maybe it led here?
  • sweater for book lovers: My mom used to buy patterns from McCall’s, but to my knowledge, I’ve never mentioned it on the blog.
  • french wife swap: Don’t want to dig too deeply here.
  • تالممةعي

Yes, you read that last one correctly. If you read Arabic, that is. And if you do, maybe you can explain what it means and how it led someone to Message in a Bottle. Until we figure that out, I’ll just say marhaban to you, mysterious guest from far away. And the same goes to all of you readers out there.

—James

Unfinished Symphonies

Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, is the author of a funny yet poignant poem (does he write any other kind?) called “On Turning Ten,” in which the narrator laments the passing of time: 

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

He’s prematurely jaded, of course, but he’s not wrong. Youth is a time of limitless possibilities, and aging is a process by which options are whittled away. Maturity might be accepting that each opened door leaves others permanently closed behind you. I can’t say for sure, since I recently had a conversation with a friend that involved a good deal of rueful head-shaking on his part. How can I work more AND stay home with the kids? Can I wear a jaunty scarf and live in a Parisian garret without a sou AND have a country house with a yard that’s big enough for a Bernese Mountain Dog, a vegetable garden, and a tree fort? Clearly, I have a long way to go on the road to true adulthood. I have come to terms with the idea that I’ll never start in center field for the Mariners (or even sit on the bench), so I may get there yet.

Spending as many hours in a bookstore as I do doesn’t really help, though. Most days I’m purely delighted by the sheer volume of entertaining volumes there are to read, but every once in a while I become aware of how many of those will never make it to the top of the pile on my nightstand. Whatever time I take with a book is time taken away from a hundred others. All around me are eons worth of writing that I’ll never experience, characters I’ll never meet, stories I’ll never hear the end of. And since I’m changed a little by each book I do read, all around me are hundreds and thousands of unlived lives. In a few of those, maybe I’d be the author of my own books, which would be even more crushing—think of all the ones I’d never write.

The mature response to this existential crisis would be to shrug it off, but the artistic response would be to create something from it. Which makes Ivan Vladislavić an indisputably mature artist. He’s a South African writer who’s published several books, the most recent of which is The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. It’s a slim (but not slight) work in which he discusses some of the many fictional projects he’ll never complete. As he puts it in his introduction, “These notes deal with unsettled accounts. They concern stories I imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish. Most were drafted to some point before being put aside but a few went no further than a line or two in a notebook… There were hundreds of failed stories to choose from.” He shares ten of these in discrete chapters, each of which begins with the seed that tantalized him without ever germinating. “Mrs. B,” for example, was inspired by the photographic plates in an old book recounting a 1926 expedition to the island of Komodo by the Burdens, an American naturalist and his beguiling, seemingly unflappable wife. Adventure in an exotic setting, along with the opportunity to recreate a romantic, bygone era while applying contemporary irony to its foibles—what could go wrong? This:

Probably, I should have written “Mrs. B” immediately, having glanced at the photographs and the maps to absorb an atmosphere, or dipped into the text at most, a quick plunge in a clear pool for some specimen phrase or idiom. There were clues enough for the invention of a world. But I could not leave well enough alone. I read the book.

This reading muddied the waters. It left me with a fuller sense of the Burdens and their world. I liked them less than I wanted to.

Disenchanted by the “stupid prejudices of their age,” Vladislavić abandons his couple and later writes a completely different story about a book collector who becomes obsessed with Helena, a woman who exists as nothing more than a name inscribed on a flyleaf. “You could say that Helena displaced B in my affections. In the end, real people are nearly always harder to like than fictional characters.”

Other aborted undertakings were inspired by personal experiences, politics, history, or art, but virtually all were in some way influenced by literature. Vladislavić reacts continually to a host of writers, including Laurence Sterne, Italo Calvino, Robert Walser, Don DeLillo, Georges Perec, Donald Barthelme, and Elias Canetti. We discover throughout Loss Library the myriad unexpected ways in which one artist can affect another, and one of its most notable qualities is that it demonstrates so concretely and unpretentiously the way books are built out of other books. One antecedent that’s not directly acknowledged is experimental French writer Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, which similarly recounts a lifetime of thwarted productivity in a more tongue-in-cheek style. Benabou was in turn influenced by proto-Surrealist literary dandy Raymond Roussel and his How I Wrote Certain of My Books, but I fear I’m taking us too far through the looking glass now. None of that information is necessary to appreciate the varied pleasures of Vladislavić’s reclamation project. Reading it is akin to listening to the commentary track while watching a favorite DVD or hearing about the origins of a hit song on VH1’s Storytellers

Not a bad metaphor, really—call the book a tight acoustic version of what would likely have been a bloated, overproduced pop album. When properly shored up, as they are here by essay and anecdote, these fictional fragments are powerfully suggestive and as satisfying as any complete work. They’re further supported by an immaculate design scheme. Collagist Sunandini Banerjee has created and tipped in a dozen different subtly layered images to accompany the text. To the careless eye, they appear flat spills of ink, but more graded tones and figures emerge from the darkness the longer they’re examined until they seem almost bottomless. They’re exactly the right grace note for a book with an infinite center.

What does that mean? Well, at the heart of The Loss Library is the title story, the only entry that has a final form. It provides a tour of an endless Borgesian library that’s stocked with all the books never written by all the writers who’ve ever lived, and even the books never written by the ones who never lived. Some of their potential authors had their careers (and lives) cut short by war, while some simply lost faith in their talent. “Sorriest of all, in my opinion,” says the guide, “are those that were talked away by their authors. Talking is easier than writing, and that is why so many stories are frittered away in conversation.” Which I think is my cue to shut up.

—James

The Spirit of ‘56

Midafternoon last Thursday I received a polite query from one of my co-workers, who very tactfully questioned me about something I’d written for the blog you’re now reading, taking issue not with the content of the post but with the manner of expression I’d chosen, specifically relating to the extreme length of one of my sentences. I was at first surprised by her comment, as I hadn’t noticed anything unusual about the sentence at issue, but I came to realize that this was the heart of the problem, since what seemed to me perfectly intelligible struck her as confounding and overly complex, obfuscating rather than illuminating what I was trying to say. Reading elaborate sentences has never troubled me (in fact it’s something that gives me great enjoyment) so writing in similarly convoluted style comes naturally, and it’s actually more difficult to break my thoughts into discrete chunks punctuated at regular intervals by periods than it is to make a trainlike chain of phrases strung together by commas. If I haven’t tried your patience and overworked the metaphor already, imagine clauses piled upon clauses like an endless procession of coupled cars, some freighted with facts like humble flatbeds carrying crates, and some containing nothing more than pretty words, like observation cars with sides of glass that provide an outlook onto gorgeous but unproductive landscapes. Answering my would-be editor, I fell back on authority, citing 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who’s best known for developing the first mechanical calculator, but is relevant here for something he wrote at the end of a letter: “I am sorry to have written such a long one, but I had no time to make it shorter.” Maybe his quote meant nothing to her, but it did to me, supporting my contention that the most direct, unmediated ideas manifest themselves in a torrent of prose that isn’t always easy to navigate, but amply rewards a reader’s attention through all its capers and tumbles, revealing through verbosity the truest picture of a writer’s personality.

Whew. That rant took a lot out of me, not so much because I ran out of breath (the part about my penchant for long-windedness is mostly true) but because I had to make sure that each of those sentences had exactly 56 words in it, just like the one that raised a red flag for my colleague. She was absolutely right to call me out on it, by the way. Even I would acknowledge that brevity has its virtues, and a paragraph like the one above is past the border of ridiculous. I didn’t really bring up Pascal, but we did start an interesting conversation about the dubious pleasures of corkscrewing sentences.

Pico Iyer wrote a wonderfully impassioned paean to them in the LA Times just recently that I highly recommend. He notes several authors famed for their prolixity, particularly highlighting those of an earlier era such as Melville and Proust (whose longest uninterrupted utterance runs 944 words), but it’s quite recently that the envelope of the long sentence has really been pushed. In the late 1960s, Donald Barthelme wrote a short story called “Sentence” (collected in Forty Stories) that runs several pages without a stop, and in 2008 Mathias Enard produced Zone, a novel that streams the consciousness of a European soldier of fortune on a train journey toward his last mission. It unfurls in a single majestic sentence that takes more than 500 pages to wind up. This sort of experimentation is gimmicky, of course, but at their best, both these works have a great deal to offer a dedicated reader. 

Record-breaking word counts were just a side note to the main conversation, which quickly digressed onto the general topic of self-imposed limitation in writing. Haiku, for example, restricts practitioners to a mere seventeen syllables and requires a reference to the natural world. The severe constraints are supposed to be a spur to creativity. Is it possible to write one about this blog post? Let’s see:

My words drop like leaves
Fifty-six from each branch. What
A depressing fall.

Hey, I didn’t say it would be good. 

Turning to highly compressed fiction, the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso is the author of one of the world’s shortest stories, “The Dinosaur.” In its entirety, it reads, “When she awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” There’s an even briefer one that’s apocryphally attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That evocative little number has triggered a rash of tributes over the years, the best collection of which is probably Not Quite What I Was Planning. Its editors asked hundreds of people, some famous, most not, to sum up their lives in just six words. They’re endlessly fascinating to read, packing humor and heartbreak tightly together. “Found true love, married someone else.” “Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears.” Great for quick bursts of amusement, and also for getting you to reflect on your own life.

The internet has popularized a slightly looser constraint, courtesy of Twitter. The service’s 140-character limit inspired Twitterature, which turns famous books into a series of tweets. Its version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye broadcasts his angst: “Still surrounded by phonies! I bet you’re all phonies too. Ugh.” Even more tersely, Harry Potter asks, “Is it just me, or should they really have a tougher vetting process for Dark Arts teachers?” 

                         

Facebook too has bred artists. Lou Beach started composing stories there back in the long-ago era (before last year) when status updates were cut off at 420 Characters, which became the title of his book. It’s filled with deft sketches that suggest a whole lot more than they say:

Zuma Pedley hailed from Lubbock, came to L.A. in ‘02 with his guitar, some songs, and an ugly dog. He didn’t think to change the world, wasn’t built that way, but thought music might lessen the burden of those with hearts. He was looking for an army of smiles, but settled for a girl with corn hair and a bungalow in the hills, grew tomatoes. The dog is still ugly.

Beach displays an impressive range of personalities and scenes, and all his pieces have the satisfying snap that usually takes much more time and space to develop.

Given all this interesting work being produced at micro- and macro-scale and everywhere in between, perhaps there’s room for another new form, one that can be prosaic or poetic, factual or fictional, varied in content but always uniform in size, with an identical maximum and minimum word count of precisely 56, no more and no less. Two score and sixteen words in aggregate, we’ve brought forth on this blog a new notion, conceived in frivolity and dedicated to the proposition that all sentences are created equal, whether they’re measured in millimeters or miles, and we can commemorate that egalitarian ideal each time we count fifty-six beats between initial capital and full stop. 

—James

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

(continued from part two)

Deciding whether or not to have kids seemed like a difficult task at the time, but once the first one showed up, that fell into proper perspective as (ahem) child’s play. The real hard work is actually doing the job of parenting. A baby is like an extremely overbearing boss who communicates loudly but poorly and doesn’t allow you to sleep or even take an unattended bathroom break. And those are just the physical demands. There’s also the higher-level pressure of fretting about doing something subtly wrong that will someday prevent your darling from getting into college. Is there enough DHA in his diet? Is there too much BPA in her sippy cup? And so on. Fortunately, advice on the subject is plentiful. Unfortunately, some of us aren’t always good at taking it.

During her pregnancy, my wife was happy to read through piles of helpful books, although she drew the line at the very popular What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Despite its grandmotherly gingham cover, it’s very detailed and perhaps too clinical at times: Itchy palms and sweating? That could be a symptom of something dire … Well, it might also mean it’s hot out, but thanks for scaring us. She much preferred Penny Simkin’s Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn. After our son was born, she continued browsing the parenting section for every stage of development and would try to share her finds with me, but my vision would glaze after a paragraph or two.

This seemed odd to her, since I generally have no trouble plowing through encyclopedia-length books, but I’ve always had issues with certain kinds of instructional writing. If there’s too much of it and it’s too plainly told, I start thinking, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve made your point,” and stop seeing nuance or novelty. I remember a college class that assigned Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic back to back with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Both are classics of feminist thought, but one is a straightforward 768-page catalog of 19th-century restraints on women’s expression while the other is 128 pages of sparkling prose that makes its point by dancing the reader along the author’s brilliant mental pathways. Guess which one resonated with me.

I did finally run across something that put me in the right frame of mind, but it wasn’t in the self-help section. In the late Donald Barthelme’s Forty Stories there’s a piece called “The First Thing the Baby Did Wrong” that’s less than two pages long, but I found more in it than in any number of books by experts with PhDs. It features an infant with a jones for destruction and a father figuring out how to cope, but saying more about it would be like dissecting a frog. Besides, the whole thing is available here in all its sardonically funny glory, and it takes about two minutes to read. Go on, I’ll wait.

Maybe I’ve spent too many years with my nose in a book and my mind in a castle in the air, but the oblique approach to advice is the only thing that works on me. If you have a point to make, let it sneak up on me disguised by a joke or whisper it between the lines instead of bludgeoning me with authority. I doubt that Barthelme set out to be a parenting guru when he wrote this story, but when I’m frustrated by my kids and their refusal to do exactly what I think they should, it’s Forty Stories I turn to before Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care. I think fatherhood requires a mix of rationality and strong feeling, which is what I get out of his fiction. The humor and confusion keep my brain in gear and trick me into feeling things that a directly sentimental plea fails to elicit. Barthelme’s work can be silly or obscure, but it often has an underlying sweetness and it always has an underlying humanity. When he taught creative writing he was quoted as saying to his students, “We have wacky mode. What must wacky mode do?” After a silence, he answered his own question. “Break their hearts.”  

As a postscript, I ran across a photo book about a year ago called The Word Made Flesh. It’s a gallery of tattoos inspired by literature, many taken from illustrations, but many more of words themselves. The one that caught my eye read “Born Dancin’,” which, if you clicked the link above, you’ll recognize as the name of the baby in Barthelme’s story. Looking at the caption I discovered that the words are inked on the skin of a grownup Kate Barthelme, his daughter. She was born in 1982, and the story first appeared the following year. Its author died in 1989. I guess I’m not the only one who takes this stuff personally.

James

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