Notes on narcissism and novels

by Douglas Lain

I was in NY for a book tour to promote my first novel, a book that I knew already was destined for obscurity, when I failed to help a friend rewrite or edit his book.

I was surrounded by people who knew me.  They were not fans or readers, but were more a collection of fellow travelers:  one was a college professor who taught porn studies in San Francisco, another was a jazz pianist who was also a youtube Marxist, another was a doctor of medicine, another a set designer, while two others were novelists.  All in all there were maybe two honest to goodness fans sitting at the table, and they were all the way over on the other side.

We were all of us shouting at each other in order to be heard, communicating to one person at a time, leaning in one direction and then another.

We were crammed together underneath a payphone in a crowded Irish pub called McSorley’s.  As is typical in New York, McSorley’s is little more than a shoebox.  It’s a place where white people who are certain they’re not mere tourists stand shoulder to shoulder, drink either light or dark beer, and kick at the sawdust on the floor.  McSorley’s brings to mind Lincoln’s log cabin or Franz Kafka’s birthplace because it is obviously a relic, only still around out of a conscious attempt at preservation.  Anyhow, this is where we were, where I was, when I failed to either walk through a line by line edit of my friend’s book, or have the larger conversation that I wanted.  

What I wanted to know was just why anyone should write a novel, or aspire to be a novelist.  Just what was my friend, what was I, doing with all our words and ambitions?  I never did quite ask.  It was a question like many others. Questions like how were we, as novelists, coping with middle age, family life, and the tendency for the rate of profit to fall?  These things were impossible to broach, they were too big, too difficult, and it would be pompous to talk about them.  The last thing anyone wanted was to be caught talking like he knew anything. After all, there is nothing that easier to laugh at than a bunch of writers taking themselves seriously.

A few weeks back a writer named Mallory Ortberg posted “Male Novelist Jokes” at the-toast.net, and I think she adequately summed up the problem for writers (of either gender) today. Her jokes, or the fear of turning into one of them, is why nothing really took hold, why all the talk was fragmented, at that table in NY.

Ortberg’s jokes all had the same set up but had different non-sequitur or absurdist punch lines.  Here’s an example:

Q: How many male authors does it take to screw in a light-bulb?

A: His alcoholism was different because one day he was going to die.

Or

Q: How many male authors does it take to screw in a light-bulb?

A: The lightbulb is inauthentic.

Or

Q: How many male authors does it take to screw in a light-bulb?

A: It doesn’t matter.  Male authors only think they know how to screw.

I was supposed to be helping my old friend David Friedman, a male novelist who I’d know 20 years earlier in Portland, Oregon, with his latest book.  David had been both a mentor and a bully back in the early 90s, lording over me and my science fiction stories with paperback copies of Henry Miller, Camus, even Shakespeare. Back then he could drink faster than I could drink, and he could think and talk faster too.  He was 32 to my 20, but we managed to bond through our shared ambition to be writers. Over the twenty years that had followed, it was I who’d foolishly pressed on while he’d opted to go to film school, to play poker professionally for awhile, and then to hide out in Costa Rica when those projects fell apart. Now he was back in his hometown, New York city, and he had finally written his novel.  He’d returned to this original ambition out of economic necessity, or more accurately out of desperation during what was both a personal and societal financial crisis.

Q: How many male authors does it take to screw in a light-bulb?

A: Just one, and you can pay him in pennies.

David wanted me to help him, to either tell him his book was great or to help him fix it up so it would sell big, but I’d opted out. I gathered people around me, took David to McSorley’s where it was impossible to hear, and proceeded to get drunk. After all, I had my own petty crisis to think about: the small press I was associated had gone under, I was two years late on a novella, my editor at Tor Books had been fired after a scandal, and the publicists there seemed to hate my guts.

About five minutes after we sat down, after I’d positioned myself well away from David, the pay phone rang.  The idea of it was absurd.  A pay phone?

“Hello?” I asked.  I swallowed the entirety of a half-pint of dark beer and then answered again.  “Hello?”  I asked.  “No, this isn’t McSorley’s.  I mean, it is McSorley’s, but it’s the pay phone.  I don’t work here.”  The college student on the other end of the line asked me if they were going to show the game that night.  “Do they have a TV in here?” I asked.  Of course, nobody knew and I told the voice on the other end of the line that I didn’t know.  I told him that he’d called a pay phone.  “Listen, I don’t work here, I just drink here.”

The other novelist there, a man named Jon Armstrong who’d written a thriller about the future of fashion called Yarn, tried to give me instructions on what to do while I was in NYC.  There were a few things to see while I was in town: I had to experience the Kimchee dumplings at Mandoo in Little Korea. I had to visit the Fashion Museum at FIT and stop by Angel’s Share Bar in the Village and notice the ice cubes.

“Each drink has just one big cube in the glass, an ice cube with beautiful long arcing bubbles,” he said.

And I had to ride the wooden escalators at Macy’s.

Jon seemed apologetic about his recommendations, as if beautiful objects weren’t for everyone.  The love of objective beauty was too serious, too elitist. The love of the pure utility of a well knit sweater, the fascinating intricacies of a stop watch, the transparent grace of well framed window, these were all somehow peculiar, perhaps even kinky.  Jon had shown up at my table forty-five minutes earlier, a bit slumped and grey in the face, not as crisp as he looked on his book jacket photo, and he’d immediately started in apologizing.

“These are all the things that I know matter,” he said.  “It’s a short list.”

My problem with my friend’s novel, the reason I was avoiding him, was this: I thought he’d substituted realism for literature, that he was merely reporting on what had happened to him when he was in a band rather than asking a dramatic question.  But, this wasn’t good enough as a criticism, it was too cerebral and not helpful.  It wasn’t aimed at the practical side of writing, so later on, many hours later when we were both of us drunk, I tried to reframe it in commercial terms as he led me back to my hotel in Greenwich Village.

“Try a love story,” I said.  “Or maybe the lead singer or the drummer is  transgender and going through a sex change operation.  Or maybe you could write it as a story about recovering from drugs and alcohol.  Or maybe the lead singer is a wizard.”

I thought his book was funny, accurate, insightful, but it didn’t have a dramatic question.  What I really wanted was to know why he dare to be a male novelist.  After all, what makes the male author laughable?  What makes him so absurd?  It’s not his privilege, or not just that.  It’s specifically the fact that his privilege makes him think that he can ask the right question.  The goal is not just to find A dramatic question, but THE dramatic question.

Hours earlier the pay phone rang again.  I answered it.

“Bukowski’s residence,” I said.

“Are they going to run the game tonight?”

“What game?”

 


DOUGLAS LAIN’S WORK HAS APPEARED IN LITERARY AND GENRE MAGAZINES SINCE 1999. HIS FIRST SHORT STORY COLLECTION, “LAST WEEK’S APOCALYPSE”, WAS PUBLISHED BY NIGHT SHADE BOOKS IN 2006. LAIN’S NON-FICTION BOOK “PICK YOUR BATTLE”, A QUASI-MEMOIR/SURREALIST SELF-HELP BOOK, WAS PUBLISHED IN 2011, WITH THE HELP OF KICKSTARTER FUNDING, AND A SECOND SHORT-STORY COLLECTION “FALL INTO TIME,” WAS PUBLISHED BY FANTASTIC PLANET PRESS IN MAY, 2011. HIS FIRST NOVEL, “BILLY MOON″, WAS PUBLISHED BY TOR BOOKS IN AUGUST OF 2013. IT TELLS THE STORY OF CHRISTOPHER ROBIN MILNE’S FICTIONAL INVOLVEMENT WITH THE FRENCH GENERAL STRIKE OF MAY, 1968. DOUG IS ALSO THE HOST OF THE WEEKLY PHILOSOPHY PODCAST DIET SOAP. RECENT SUBJECTS COVERED INCLUDE HENRI LEFEBVRE’S CONCEPT OF THE PRODUCTION OF SPACE, LOUIS ALTHUSSER’S CONCEPT OF THE IDEOLOGICAL STATE APPARATUS, AND HOW TO FIND AN EXIT WHEN STUCK IN PLATO’S CAVE.
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One thought on “Notes on narcissism and novels

  1. Pingback: Notes on narcissism and novels | David Friedman

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