Tuesday, February 8, 2011
A few people asked to see the text of what I read at the Representing the Erotic in Literary Fiction panel (see AWP-Land post below), so here goes. I think of this as in-progress work, but I'm passing it along anyway. The bracketed sections are the sections I omitted from my presentation for the sake of time.
(Photos: Above, Red Line Metro Station; Below, From My Hotel Room Window, Saturday Night)
1 Sometime in the early nineties, I have a revelation. I can write about sex--and certainly the book I’m writing can’t be afraid of sex--if I put the characters who don't talk about sex up front. In that way the reader will be a friend to me by the time I do talk about sex. She won’t think I’m a pervert and put the book down before she’s even gotten to those sweet scenes a third of the way through.
[2 Or worse than a pervert: a writer whose work isn’t serious. A writer whose book is carted to the dullest aisle of the superstore, if there at all, where the covers are more corny than transgressive-- a college boy’s bare butt, egads. To be lost back there with with the kinds of books I’d never pick up. Back then, if I wanted something truly filthy, I was going to buy a magazine with pictures in it. I’d look at a movie, not some book.]
3 So I write and I write the other voices, the older brother of the teenage boy, the voice of the older brother’s girlfriend. I am pretty good at sounding like the people I’m supposed to sound like---the literary voices of the hour. The same contours, the same scene endings, the same clutch of images, the same voices, blunted of too much expression. But I am bored out of my skull when I try to sound like x and x. It takes a lot of energy and persistence not to write about sex, but I keep at it like that, day after day, with my pick and my shovel for close to four years. When people ask me what I’m writing, I say I’m writing about The Predicament of Desire in the 1990s, and inevitably they look at me with both sorrow and a little embarrassment, as if I’ve said a most tragic, pathetic thing.
4 Screw it, Enough. On Day 30 of my residency at The Artist Colony, I’ve had had enough. I’m tired of walking past the vacant racetrack, tired of driving to Rite Aid to buy more gum. I throw out 400 pages and throwing out 400 pages never felt so good. I’m giving the book over to the character I’ve been afraid of. I’m writing the book I need to write, where the sex isn’t subordinate to the main drama, a tasteful ellipsis, an excuse for us to turn our backs and clear our throats. Where sex is a stage of vulnerability and awe, where the shifting nature of power is enacted and contained. A place where people slip the skin of personality and became something different, and are confused and energized by that something else, whatever it is. What is he, larger, smaller, without those old traits: name, street address, the hole in the hem of his sweater? Is he still on earth? Who is the person who might say, in the moments after sex, hard sex, something like “how I wanted to lift the bowl in his moment of peace and kill him,” and not even know what such a thing might mean. I don’t even want to know what that means, but I want to write a character who’s able to say such things, if it feels true to consciousness, his consciousness.
5 As for the problem of giving the book over to this character? It’s literally the last days of a world without an internet, though most of us don’t know that yet. So many lives unrepresented, unspoken. Not to mention so many lives disappearing from some lethal disease. What are my responsibilities? Years later, I’ll feel brash and irreverent when I suggest something like, the writer has no responsibilities to anyone or anything, except to writing itself, but it doesn’t feel like that back then. My book needs to say: a gay person kept on in spite of the fact that all his potential lovers and friends were dying. But how does one write such a thing without inadvertently writing a character who’s seen as a representative character? How can a character be both representative and be allowed to have a mind that’s anarchic, uncertain, scared, and angry, angry enough to cut into himself or convert that anger into raw need. Two impulses in collision--his outward self, his inward self--and I don’t know how to keep them in the same room without a murder.
6 And back to the old question, how to keep the reader from putting the book down. This book, this book which must also speak to straight women, gay women, straight men-- oh, these tired terms. What I mean to say is the kind of reader who wouldn’t usually come to such a book, with a character who thinks and talks like that.
7 We do our best; that’s as much as we can do. The Book, The Writer, The Character. We speak every sentence, before we go on to the next. We stand apart from each sentence and listen; we hold it up and out for our consideration. It seems less important that each sentence be true to his speech pattern than to be true to how he perceives. His soul voice, I’ll call it. Or the Undervoice, as Jean Valentine might call it. And thus, we’ll have made a space for all the things that those readers might not otherwise want to hear about, know about.
[8 A novel about AIDS in which none of the characters die of AIDS.]
[9 Though there are readers who put the book down, who might still put the book down, for reasons other than the story, the language, the craft stuff, I am lucky enough to be spared those reactions. For the most part.]
[10 To be tested in fire, as they say. To imagine the face of that reader whose mouth might turn down, tighten, then lift into a straight crease. And I’m not talking about some fundamentalist Christian face, but someone who thinks of himself as enlightened, progressive, and urbane--all the traits many of us would like to think we are.]
11 Ten years after the first book I am writing THE BURNING HOUSE, another book about sex and desire. I don’t want to write that other book all over again, don’t simply want to substitute a different name for Evan’s name, a different place for Southern Florida, beech trees for palm trees--any of that. This narrator of this book is older than that other narrator, he’s well into this thirties. It doesn’t take long to find out that the narrator isn’t drawn to other men, but to women, which seems like the ultimate taboo to me--am I allowed to write this story? The gay actor playing the straight lead. I’m not sure if people will let me. But the strange taboo of writing such a voice ends up feeding the work. Who is this person who talks about women’s bodies, who stays up half the night, dreaming of a women’s body that isn’t his wife’s body, but his sister-in-laws? I don’t know what I’m doing writing such things, but I do know that it makes me feel unexpectedly thrilled when I’m inside the dark dream of it.
12 Though it feels like taboo to me, I also know that certain safeguards are off. By which I mean that I can write about a particular heterosexual man without feeling the burden and pressure of writing about all heterosexual men. I could not have planned that. And as such, I might be more deeply inside this character’s mind and voice than before. This time I’m not holding up each sentence for consideration. And I’m not always listening to how he speaks each word.
13 Is that to say it is easier to write about a straight man’s sexual experience, than a gay man’s or a woman’s. No, that is too simple. And yet we do have a tradition of men who have written explicitly about sex, without apparent cost: Roth, Brodkey, Updike, and the list goes on.
14 Maybe we are clearer in 2012 than we were in the 1990s. Maybe we can write anything now and expect to be met with distance and maturity. Then I think of the student who lost it in class when we talked about “The Girl on the Plane” last year. Whose agitation was so real that she couldn’t even talk specifically about why the story didn’t work for her, other than the fact that she couldn’t stand Mary Gaitskill, the person, the author. No. To think we’re more worldly today than we were just a few years ago. No.
15 Rage boils over when a book blogger accuses novelists under 40 of minimizing sex in their work. The reaction on Twitter is indignant, instantaneous. What is this woman trying to say? cry any number of my friends, as if the finger has been shaken at them. I don’t like the curmudgeonly tone either, but it is possible that she is onto something. I know what she means: It is always preferable to hurry past human questions too troubling to see.
16 Long past the age of sex as transport or rebellion. Long past the initial years of the AIDS epidemic. The age of crystal meth, which seems like it’s long over, and then it’s not over at all, not by a long shot. Sex enmeshed with addiction, drug addiction--at least for some. It gets better, we tell our young people. It gets better. Well, for some. For others, not. You move to the city, you use the most personal parts of yourself to hit back at all that trauma, brutality, and erasure. You fuck your brains out. Then you have the problems that everyone else has--and where is that better that was promised you? So no wonder it’s hard not to hurry past sex in our writing. Zone of possibility, zone of danger, beauty, warmth, exploitation, comradeship, tenderness, bearing it, bored by it, pimping it, using it as a lure then tossing that lure away. Rubbing your face in it. Oh, human hunger, the aching song of it, which somehow refuses to stop, in spite of how we sing it, or not.