Toddlers are murderers of time and attention. The other new parents I know (not many) were in the habit early on of dropping vague hints about how little time they had to cook or to catch up on their shows or hunt or play video games or whatever. The older parents or parents of multiple kids I know-a few more, actually, but still not many-were silent on the subject of themselves, intent only on (and here I’m projecting) crafting a vicarious life through their little achievers or (still projecting) already resigned to huskdom and devoted primarily to gathering the shards of themselves and adapting to their new dreamless reality. I envision neither fate for myself, if for no other reason than that I am so used to being a deluded selfish asshole and habits are hard to break. Here’s a little story: a fella gets out of college after living the druggy violent adolescence of an uncivilized brute and finds that he can read a little Latin, a little Greek, and has some aesthetic opinions. This is transcendence— look out world! Fella starts to do some reading, digs it, and comes across an anecdote about Sartre, that he read 200 books a year. Fella decides to do that shit himself. Fella falls way short the first year and gets closer the second, but realizes he misread or misremembered the anecdote and that the actual number was 300. Fella decides Sartre was bullshitting. Anyway, at some point during all this, and quite without the fella fully realizing it, fella’s self-image became inextricable from the image fella had of himself reading. Fella would silently snark on nonreaders, or on readers of the wrong sort of thing. Fella developed book-mania, and began to acquire, hoard, and preen. Fella found himself in bookstores, estate sales, and in private homes book-haggling for the purpose of book-buying. Fella stole books from bed-and-breakfasts to complete sets, then never read them. Everyone fella met would fall short in some way of fella’s silly book-criteria. Fella was proud of himself, forgetting in the heat of these rapacious transactions that we’re all headed for the worm.
Let me stop this awkward faux-folksy “fella” nonsense and re-calibrate. To paraphrase Gombrowicz, “me. me. me. me. me.” I hope I’m recovering.
Books read in the halcyon days of 2007: 154.
Books read in 2014: 25, a number inflated by Buzzati’s Poem Strip (a book with so few words it almost doesn’t count) and lots of re-reads including my umpteenth waltz with Bernhard’s Voice Imitator.
PB (post bébé), I need an excuse to decide to lose myself in a book. The illusion that every book read cover to cover is some magical tonic that will grant me more grace or more wisdom or more gravitas has been shattered and replaced with a sort of frantic obsession with distraction. I’m not totally cured, I still prefer my distraction “with fiber,” so to speak, and haven’t given myself over to reality television or cable or anything; but I’m quicker to give up on a book that I’m not learning from or isn’t doing it for me or feels frivolous. When I was a kid reading lots of fantasy novels, before my full blown mania, my mother bought me a “Too Many Books, Too Little Time” sweatshirt. I got in a fight on the playground over it, maybe two, and then outgrew it (the sweatshirt, I mean–fighting took a few more years), but it was true. This is my self-important rationalization for why I don’t read much contemporary fiction. It falls short of some bizarre needy ideal for me. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large I find myself interested in older stuff, weirder stuff, stuff written by people whom I cannot or do not envy. There are exceptions to that too, but I’ll resist the temptation to digress.
Nell Zink’s was a name that came to my attention late last year. I somehow got some whiff that she might have been Helen Dewitt writing under a pseudonym and so, being a full-on DeWitt partisan (please read everything) her Wallcreeper shot to the top of my “to-read” list. The book is published by the Dorothy Project, publishers of other fine works. Of course, since I live with an adorable murderer in the midst of a library of a few thousand volumes (many of which I really should one day actually, you know, read) this means my “to-read” list is really more of an aspirational, ah… but anyway– a friend of mine whose taste I trust traveled recently to Puerto Rico and brought the Zink with her. She returned confirming that Zink was well worth reading and forwarded me this profile. That sealed the deal. Book acquired. Book started. I haven’t finished, so this is not a review.
By now, the “Zink-is-Dewitt” business is no doubt put to rest. There’s enough evidence to establish Frau Zink’s independent existence (the photos, confirmation of the reality of improbable-sounding name online, etc.) There are indeed interesting similarities– both reside at least part-time in Germany, both are in their early fifties, both were military brats, both had lived or spent time in Virginia, both taught themselves languages out of books, both are apparently brilliant and unconventional practitioners of the epistolary arts (DeWitt forged a wonderful crazy probably unpublishable book from her correspondence with a journalist, Zink hooked her a goddamned Franzen), and both are named Helen– but these add up to little more than what a similar coincidence-hunt with any two contemporaries would likely yield. There is also the small matter of the dissimilarity of their writing. DeWitt has some idiosyncrasies that mark her writing like fingerprints, and these, so far as I’ve read in the Wallcreeper (~50pg), do not show up.
But there is something different about the whole Zink rollout. There’s the word “hoax” (a non-sequitur in the best of times) in that New Yorker profile. There’s the impish noncommittal Gessen blurb “[Zink] claims to be an American expatriate living in northeast Germany. Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t…” (italics mine). There’s the Franzen emails, the novel-on-a-dare story. Mystery-mongering as marketing hook (I guess this post is evidence that it worked) or are these guys just having a laugh? These are not rhetorical questions. I’m in Mississippi and haven’t been to NYC since 2012. I gnaw scraps of gossip when I’m not reading translations of decadents or books of aphorisms (true story: fella actually had a copy of Cioran’s Drawn and Quartered IN THE DELIVERY ROOM when the bébé was born– I said I hoped I was recovering, not that I was cured. I have forgotten most of the Greek and lots of the Latin, though).
Apropos of blurbs, when did they become basically useless? Have they always been mush-mouthed word salads flirting with nonsense? I count nine on this copy of The Wallcreeper. When I read them I learn that Zink may be a liar but is (pace Franzen) nevertheless “a writer of extraordinary talent and range” whose “work insistently raises the possibility that the world is larger and stranger than the world [I] think [I] know.” Okay, well, um, fuck you too! I also learn (pace Flavorwire) that the author of this “major debut” is “gifted…with no shortage of honesty…” Except for the whole mysterious identity thing. But that wasn’t Flavorwire. That was the New Yorker and Gessen. Do these folks talk about this? Who did Dorothy cut the check to? Incidentally, when did Dorothy learn that Manuela Draeger is a pseudonym of a pseudonym, and does that mean that the Ur-Draeger/Volodine/Bassmann is a female, or were they duped? That is not a rhetorical question either.
Is Nell Zink at all served by any of this, or is this all just American provincialism of the “Wait, aren’t REAL writers supposed to have MFAs or live in Brooklyn!? No MFA!? No MetroCard!? Is she EVEN REAL!?” sort? Barring a JT Leroy-style shell game (fuck, I’m doing it too!) it appears that the mere possibility of someone like this existing was news to NY publishing and to Franzen and was proof that the world is, well, larger and stranger than the one they thought they knew.
I’m looking at two other recent acquisitions: Life and Limb, a book of stories edited by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert and Leon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales, put out by the wonderful Wakefield Press. The former has no blurbs at all, and the latter has “blurbs” which I’m guessing were mined from the correspondence of Kafka, Flannery O’Connor, and Barbey d’Aurevilly. Now that’s how it should be done. Either way, really. That blurbless book of short stories? Until I looked because I was writing this post and parsing the reviewspeak on Zink’s book, I didn’t even notice.