Well, now E.L. Doctorow is dead.
There’s a lot I don’t know about Doctorow. For instance, I am only just today, now that he’s dead, learning that he was, politically, a great lefty.
My dad gave me a book of his years ago called Loon Lake. I read some but not all of this book before putting it down. I’ve moved it approximately one million times. Early on it’d be taken from a bookshelf that was being moved too, filed with its colleagues into a cardboard box, lugged, then slipped back in among its colleagues onto the same bookshelf, now in some unfamiliar room. Eventually the bookshelves were replaced; the book kept moving.
In grad school I was struck when a professor referred to a book as a “technology”. It’s really an incredible piece of technology when you think about it, she said. We clashed a lot, this professor and I, although I ended up having nothing but affection for her. Affection can creep up on you like that, co-opting what’s mean in you.
But it’s true: they really are amazing pieces of technology. A book is a middle finger to Impermanence. Loon Lake had lives in the minds of probably hundreds of thousands of people, and even though its author is dead it will continue to. The ship doesn’t sink with the captain.
I don’t really have what you’d call a relationship with Loon Lake. I remember that there’s passengers on a train all heading in the same direction for different reasons, and that my dad had highlighted a monologue in which a grown-up was advising a youngster on the importance of determining what level of moral compromise he’d be willing to accept in life, and staying there, and not exceeding that level. I think.
This embarrasses me a little, even though it probably shouldn’t, but my first favorite author was Tom Clancy. I borrowed a copy of Patriot Games from my mom and read it when I was probably 12 or 13. Clancy didn’t used to be such a hack; there were very thoughtful explorations in that book, which had a lot to do with the Irish Republican Army, about terrorism. A lot of these passages were underlined in the book–passages concerning when it could be arguably permissable for a person to act if the state wouldn’t or couldn’t—and I remember being genuinely afraid that my sweet Baptist mother was hatching a terroristic scheme. Because you’re stupid when you’re a kid!
Then I realized the book originally belonged to her friend Beverly, and I felt a tremendous relief, because obviously Beverly was the terrorist, and my mom was safe.
I did the flashlight-under-the-blanket-thing with Larry Bond’s Cauldron, a global military techno thriller about a war in South Africa. I was way into tanks and shit, bombers. I had my own favorite Air Force jet. It wasn’t even an especially fast or powerful one—I just thought it looked cool. I watched a History Channel show narrated by George C. Scott (of course) called “Brute Force” and got really excited by the prospect of cruise missiles that delivered a payload of multiple independently-targeted heat-seeking bombs. I wrote long imitative fictions about the U.S. going to the brink of war with North Korea. I remember having a Secretary of Defense tell the President the line “You can’t spell nuclear without unclear” and thinking I was a chubby genius.
These young versions of you are ineradicable. I cannot erase the chubby genius with a hard-on for Jane’s Defence Weekly. Even in a Faulkner seminar in college, even unthreading The Sound and the Fury around a whisky-wet table with hot, smart friends, all of whom have lit cigarettes and divergent opinions, he haunts me. You’re more Benjy than Quentin, he says. You’d rather be reading 1960s baseball fiction—admit it. But why should I resent him? Why shouldn’t I just be grateful for having had a gateway passion and be done with it?
Because good lefties should start off reading Tolkien? I don’t know. Because I feel like a fake. Because now the chubby genius wants to be seen reading Pynchon. Because during one my blacker moods as an undergraduate it seemed that the study of literature trained readers how to appreciate what they didn’t love and dismiss what they did. Because if Loon Lake had been more like The Cardinal of the Kremlin and less like Loon Lake I probably finish it.
More and more these days I bump into the necessity of forgiving myself for being who I am. What a pain in the ass it is, always running yourself down and then picking yourself up. “You are a piece of shit, Walsh.” “Hey, go easy on him! He’s only human!” “Why didn’t you finish that fucking book?” “Calm down! Can’t you see he’s trying to sleep?”
It’s like you have to flog that flimsy genrelove out of you with Seriousness. Why can’t I can’t get affection to co-opt all that meanness?
Mostly what gnaws at me is the suspicion that my slavish commitment to Sloth is undermining my talent, consigning me to historical irrelevance and ruining Arielle’s life.
Speaking of ostentatious Pynchonianism: it is well known among The Bucktooth’d One’s fans that he writes with a Post-It note affixed to his monitor reading ESCHEW SLOTH. “And Sloth,” he wrote in an essay on the subject for the NYT, “being continual evasion, just kept piling up like a budget deficit, while the dimensions of the inevitable payback grew ever less merciful.”
I’ve been writing the same novel now for oh about three years. It’s great and I love it and when I can’t sleep at night I think about what’s happening in it, what’s happened in it, and what’s going to happen in it. It’s about 120- or 130-pages long, which is really bupkus for three years’ work. You have to put some pretty serious effort into just absolutely farting around in order to duck 300 pages after 1000 days.
I have a relationship with this inactivity. It evolves. Sometimes it’s the bane of my existence and other times it’s actually admirable, like in a tranquil, Zen sort of way. Finishing things is overrated, I think. It really is about the journey. Oh, but, by the way, you’re going to be 40 in the blink of an eye, so maybe you better get scrivening there, pal.
Melville knew. What were those 400 pages in the middle of Moby Dick but a prolonged deferral of narrative obligation? “Dear Reader,” he might as well have written after approximately the fiftieth page, “thank you very much for buying my book. I know I’ve set up quite the gripping tale here, what with the maniac captain’s relentless pursuit of the demonic beast and all, but the thing is, I’m really just flat terrified of finishing this mother, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to spend around 400 pages on the subject of whales in general. Then at the end I’ll sink the ship and we can all just get on with our fucking lives. Deal? Deal.”
My sister told me once about how Zadie Smith confessed to spending loads of time on the first halves of her books before rushing through to the end, and she said this explained Zadie Smith books for her.
The chunk of my book that’s written has been polished to an extraordinary gleam. I stroll through it regularly, rubbing sentences, holding paragraphs up to the light. The other half swims mostly intact and alive but unfished in my imagination. At night I visit it in its aquarium, admiring its beauty, doing next to nothing to dredge it out splattering and sputtering onto the page. What isn’t written yet is perfect. Then you have to go and pin it down: a naturalist killing a butterfly. But I digress.
Friend of mine had a t-shirt in Junior High: “Top 10 Reasons to Procrastinate: #1:”
Well, anyway. This has been a delightful couple hours at the office. You cannot see in here all the breaks, the living ellipses: the twenty minutes reading Nearer My Couch to Thee; the episodic sessions surfing Astros chat forums; the occasional outbreaks of honest work done. This meditation is lousy with punched holes. It is interlarded with air. Like the soul, writes T.P. in Mason & Dixon, bread is mostly air.
Maybe that’s just another example of That Which is Below resembling That Which is Above: looking at me, the stranger cannot see the chubby genius thrillingly turning the pages of military potboilers; or the son putting down the book his father gave him to read and letting the memory of it vanish into the fog bank; or the thirtysomething donning a nightly mental hair shirt. We are each an index of what we can’t forget, and each alone in the remembering.
This year, as soon as I’ve finished THE THOMAS PYNCHON BOOK I’M CURRENTLY READING, I’ll pick up Loon Lake.
Thanks, mom, Thanks, dad. Thanks, Tom. Thanks, E.L.