Sunday, January 30, 2022

Book Review: University Thugs by Free Chef

There's a moment in the novel “University Thugs” when Dean Daniels, the head of the University of Virginia's Office of African American Affairs, asks his mentee Titus Stevenson whether he has a life philosophy. Titus makes a joke to dodge the question, but the dean doesn't let it drop:
“Then the dean's laughter died down. He had stopped in his tracks. He was staring at Titus. Service. And he continued looking at Titus and Titus was nodding slowly. You know what I mean when I say that? Yeah devoting your life to others—Not just others. Ideas too.”
At first, it sounds like an easy answer. Find the right idea to serve and you might find your purpose in life, the greater meaning that brings all the disparate pieces of a difficult past into a unity. Like most college students, Titus is trying to find some sense of direction that will help him envision a future. But Titus also has a record, the result of a road rage incident that resulted in him sticking up another driver.

The consequences of this incident are that Titus is under constant scrutiny. His greatest institutional support, Dean Daniels, is spread thin among the entire Black student body. But when Titus slips up, UVA brings all its resources to bear on punishing him for his mistakes, pointing at his past as proof that he does not deserve a better future.

And this is where we start to see the complication to Dean Daniels's advice. Maybe he's right, maybe a life should be spent serving ideas, but who do those ideas belong to? Throughout the novel Titus wrestles with expectations – his own, the dean's, his family's, his friend's, and those of his sometimes-girlfriend Brooke. Everyone has their own ideas of who he should be, but none of them sit comfortably on Titus's shoulders.

This conflict erupts early on when Titus starts applying to law school. Initially he thinks his past will make a great hook for his application essay, casting himself as a reformed offender now eager to serve his community. "From behind bars to joining the bar," as Dean Daniels puts it. In fact, Daniels likes this narrative so well that he makes it the crux of his own recommendation letter for Titus.

But at the moment of truth, when Titus finally applies, he has second thoughts. Is this really how he wants to be known? Does he want his life story to center on his biggest fuck up? Titus decides that no, actually, he doesn't. When the law school applications ask if he's ever been charged with a crime, Titus checks the box "No." He also declines to send Dean Daniels's recommendation. In making this choice, Titus tries to assert himself on his grades and test scores alone, just like any other UVA student. Yet this lie about his past will come back to haunt him.

Each of this novel's central characters faces this same dilemma of whose idea to serve. There's Vonny, Titus's best friend who waffles between finishing school and jumping into the workforce. There's Brooke, who is asked by a white classmate to use her race as leverage to launch their nonprofit. And then there's Joe, traumatized and haunted by his brother's murder and desperate to find some relief. None of them are given the support they most urgently need, and all face brutal consequences for asserting themselves as anything other than who they're expected to be.

When the pressure becomes too severe, Titus and Vonny turn to the usual vices of a twenty-something college student – alcohol, weed, gaming, and porn. But they also turn to each other, and some of the novel's most tender moments spring from the way their friendship allows them to let down their guard:
“Titus laughed to himself, somehow unconvinced by anything Vonny had said just now but none of that seemed to matter anymore. He was in a good mood. He walked over to Vonny and handed him the bottle he'd just polished off. In my opinion you look even gayer with the short hair, and tried to mush him in the side of the head but Vonny preemptively mushed him first. So it's like that now huh? And they were both giggling with their dukes up, and they stayed up for a few more hours talking, just talking, so happy and relieved just talking and having someone there who could understand.”
The novel is not without controversy. Although centered on Black students at the University of Virginia, the author, Alberto Gullaba, Jr., is of Filipino descent. According to Gullaba, this was not something he ever tried to hide, but upon discovering his race Gullaba's agent asked him to rewrite the book from the perspective of a Filipino side character. Gullaba ultimately declined, self-publishing the novel pseudonymously as “Free Chef.”

If not for that backstory and the Twitter conversations that followed, I might not have heard of this book, or been curious enough to read it. It's also true that the questions at the heart of the controversy have made it fodder for people pushing other agendas. Whether any of that is good or bad for Gullaba, I have no idea, but I don't think it's fair to judge him or the book by the conversation around it.

What I can say is that this is a powerful, challenging novel with no easy answers. Gullaba writes with incredible sympathy for his characters and their struggle to forge their own futures. The result is a funny, tragic, rough-and-tumble novel that asks not just whose ideas and expectations these characters serve, but if there can be any hope for escape.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rest and Relaxation

At the end of her memoir “Still Writing,” Dani Shapiro explains that the title of her book is both a question and answer. The question comes from family and friends – “Still writing?” they ask, as though perhaps she'd outgrown it. “Still writing,” Shapiro answers, because of course she will always be writing. It's both a career and a habit of being, the way she exists in the world.

That dualism sits uncomfortably sometimes with the writer or artists or any creative. All the more so if your art isn't actually your job. The further removed your “day job” is from your aspirations as an artist, the more nebulous art's role seems to become. If it isn't your job, then what is it?

“Side hustle” is the first term that springs to mind. It comes with the right sense of urgency, hints of nights and weekends spent in pursuit of something that doesn't fit comfortably inside a 9 – 5 schedule. But it might be a little too broad. A side hustle could be a new business, sure, but it could also be anything from food delivery to freelancing, a gig to help make some ends meet. How many people would choose a side hustle that paid next to nothing, and how long would they stick with the job?

You could also call art a hobby, except that seems to go too far the other direction. I'm a hobbyist fossil hunter and a hobbyist cyclist. I take pleasure in these things for their own sake, but I don't worry about my dedication or discipline if a week goes by and I haven't thought about trilobites. I like these activities, and I enjoy the challenges they offer, but I have never woken up at three in the morning and worried I wasn't a real paleontologist.

I'm more tempted to call writing a “calling.” This has a nice spiritual dimension to it, and also helpfully removes certain expectations. Nobody follows a calling in order to make gobs of money. You do it out of passion, dedication, and a certain amount of faith that this is what you were put here to do.

And that works just fine until things start to get rocky, and the line between a calling and a self-delusion looks awfully blurry. “Why am I still doing this?” you wonder, sitting at the computer and staring at the blank page in front of you. “What do I hope to accomplish?”

Then the urge to write starts to feel a little sinister. It's like Dexter's “Dark Passenger,” a malevolent force outside your control. Or like poor old St. Paul and the thorn in his side that he just learned to live with. (He never specified what that thorn was, did he? You can read through all the epistles and he never says what it is. For all we know it was writer's block. Maybe every time St. Paul sat down to work on his detective novel he was seized by self-doubt and dashed off a letter to Timothy instead.)

Why am I thinking about this? I'm thinking about it because of an article I read in The Atlantic this week, called “How to Care Less About Work.” The thesis of the article is that the pandemic is an opportunity to rethink our relationship to work, and to renegotiate our boundaries. It contrasts work, with its endless treadmill of busyness that spills into evenings and weekends without any hope of reward, with the pleasures of hobbies pursued for their own sake – playing guitar, say, or taking a hike. Activities that aren't considered in terms of money or productivity, but in joy and pleasure and meaning.

As I read the article, I didn't find myself thinking much about my day job. Instead I kept thinking about writing. After a 2021, a year in which I tracked my fiction productivity in multiple spreadsheets and lists, I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I was choking out some of the joy. This passage in particular jumped out at me:
“Hobbies help cultivate essential parts of us that have been suffocated by productivity obsessions and proliferating obligations. The hobby itself ultimately matters far less than what its existence provides: a means of tilting your identity away from “person who is good at doing a lot of work.””
It seems possible – perhaps even likely – that in the absence of fortune and fame I tilted harder toward productivity as a means of securing my identity. I wanted to prove to myself not just that I took it seriously, but that I took it seriously enough.

But there's something to be said for less measurement, too. After reading that article, I decided to take a break last week and spend more time just goofing off. I cooked, I read, I watched The Red Green Show on YouTube while working a crossword. I took a breather, in other words, after a year of aggressive productivity tracking. 

Because underneath all of those spreadsheets, I was asking myself the same question: Are you sure you still want to write? And this week, as part of my answer, I trusted myself with a break.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, and which was attractive because it was quiet, and other people were sparse. 

I got there early, being paranoid about the prospects of parking, and so I ordered a tea and took a seat by the window to wait. The view overlooked a six-way intersection of popular streets, full of dog walkers and joggers and people carrying small bags of groceries. The window itself sat about ten feet up from ground level, which is apparently all it takes for me to gaze down with godlike impunity. Look at them all, I said to myself, running around like ants in the cold!

But unlike a god, I knew nothing about the people who scurried below. The best I could do was guess, which is the same kind of impulse that leads a person to try writing fiction, and also what makes a good book so satisfying to read. The pleasure of something like A Visit from the Goon Squad is the all-knowing writer, who looks deep in the future and who twists the perspective, making a minor character from one chapter central to the plot of the next. It all adds up to the happily woozy feeling that you're careening from one mind to another, that you have, for three-hundred pages at least, achieved a certain kind of omniscience.

That kind of knowing isn't possible in real life, and so in the absence of answers you find yourself looking for types. From my perch in the window I would see echoes of old friends, exes, and coworkers in the faces of strangers, and this made them seem more familiar. One person, a young guy walking by with his groceries, reminded me of a friend from my twenties who used to live downtown over a jazz club.

Dan was a classical musician, and the kind of charmingly directionless person you meet in your twenties while you're also wandering lost. I met him not long after I finished student teaching with the realization I wasn't cut out for it, and so took a job working in retail. Dan and a whole cadre of other aimless twenty-somethings at the store became both my coworkers and my post-college friends.

It was an uneasy time in my life. I felt like I should be doing something, but I didn't know what, and the result of this was that I tried to put some distance between my twenty-three-year-old self and the life that preceded him. I'd already drifted away from most of my high school pals, and college was quickly receding. Dan and these other new friends seemed to offer some kind of alternative, even if it wasn't clear what.

I drifted like that for a while. Then, three years after I met Dan, I got married. Finding my best man was easy – I had one close friend I'd been smart enough to hold onto – but I had no idea how to fill out the rest of my groomsmen. Dan seemed like an obvious choice: After three years of hanging out, getting drinks, going to parties, and bullshitting about our plans for the future, it seemed like inviting him in as a groomsman would be a nice way to acknowledge our friendship (and keep the wedding party symmetrical).

But this was a miscalculation. Dan declined and the friendship cooled, our once easy rapport becoming stilted and awkward. Maybe I had asked him too earnestly. Maybe I just misread the friendship. I didn't know, but I was pretty sure that the best way to compound the mistake was by asking those kinds of questions, and so I didn't, to try and save face.

We lost touch not long after that. Dan moved, I got divorced, and eventually I got a new job. It seemed like none of it was bound to add up to anything, yet the memory of my misstep calcified into a permanent embarrassment. It became one of those things you remember at three o'clock in the morning, wincing so hard you can feel your spine buckle. Why didn't I just ask somebody else? What on earth was I thinking?

We are mysteries to ourselves, and others are mysteries to us, and so you can rarely get certain answers. Fiction can be a great teacher of empathy, but I don't think that's why I read it. I read it because fiction goes further. It can give you a taste of omniscience, telling you not just why people do what they do but also how they behave, the full range of options you may not have considered. And in this way it can start to sate at least some of your curiosity: The questions you don't think you can ask, the direction you don't think you can find, could be out there in a book, so you keep on reading and searching.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

No Slower Than This

I loved watching magicians when I was a kid. On TV, I watched David Copperfield vanish the Statue of Liberty and Penn cut off Teller's head with a chainsaw. I loved these big, spectacular tricks, but the ones that left me most awed were almost always the simplest.

There was one trick I remember where the magician snapped cards down on a green felt table. The camera stayed perfectly still as he revealed the Ten through Ace of Hearts, then turned each card upside down again while only ever using one hand. Finally, he tapped the last card with a finger and flipped them back right-side up. Their order had somehow reversed.

“I can't go any slower than this,” he intoned, flipping the cards yet again. This time the finger tap changed their suits, so that now the cards were all Clubs. It made me feel insane. I sat inches from the television screen, desperate to catch some flick of the wrist that might hint at how it was done. But there was nothing to give him away.

Magic abounds. This week I traveled to Tulsa for work and spent two nights in the city's Blue Dome district. That's not enough time to say anything meaningful about the city. The people were nice. The food was good. Facial coverings were few and far between, but there never seemed to be many other people around. My group, decked out in our masks, stood out clearly as tourists. We might as well have bought "I HEART TULSA" t-shirts at the airport.

The short stay meant little time for sight-seeing, but we did manage to visit Black Moth, a boutique that specializes in natural history artifacts by way of Dr. Caligari and Severus Snape. There were skulls and fossils and porcupine quills; stuffed antelope heads and a skeletonized bat mounted under glass; bundles of sage and antelope horn and small bags of black sand. I considered buying a scorpion, but wasn't sure how well it would travel.

Throughout the shop hung signs reassuring customers that all these relics were ethically sourced, in line with regulations imposed by the State of Oklahoma. Each item was carefully tagged, not just with a price but also a note about the item's provenance. Toward the front of the shop, sitting a shelf above a line of alligator heads, were two human bones up for sale, a femur and tibia. The source was a “Private Collection,” according to the tag, but they could be added to yours for five hundred dollars. (Maybe a good price – I couldn't find any listed on Amazon.)

Only one person in our group made an actual purchase, a polished slice of ammonite and a lucky sea bean the size of a golf ball on which was drawn a white eyeball surrounded by rays. As charms go, this seemed like a kinder purchase than one of the rabbit's feet that were also for sale. A sea bean could still have some life in it.

But we could not approach Tulsa directly. Instead, in the span of three days we ended up on four different flights. I don't like to fly very much, especially on those tiny little planes they reserve for connecting flights to Midwestern cities. One of our group, a photographer who travels a lot more than I do, reassured me once about planes. He told me that turbulence has never taken one down; that in fact these same planes can fly through a hurricane.

I don't know if that's true, but I refuse to look it up. I'd rather keep it handy as a mantra for when the plane hits a cloud and starts bucking around side to side. “We could fly this thing through a hurricane,” I'll mutter, while bolts fly loose from the wings. “These little bumps are nothing at all.”

My other trick is to read as hard as I can. I know that sounds stupid, but take-offs and landings make me especially nervous, and I've learned the best way to ignore them is to stare at a sentence and force myself to read it one word after the next. Sometimes I'll even mouth them out loud just to make sure I pay close attention.

The book I took with me to Tulsa was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad. The book is a novel told in interconnected stories, each one complete on its own but adding up to a much larger whole. I first tried reading it years ago, but stopped after the first story, “Found Objects.” I stopped for the same reason I stopped watching Dexter after the first season: It too good to keep going.

I couldn't imagine how the rest of the novel might live up to what I just read. How could anything that followed be as satisfying as how it began? I wanted to give that first story room, to let it unfold in my mind without interference. So I set the book aside for twelve years, and finally, this week, I came back.

It was around halfway through the book that I counted up the words on the page, then multiplied that by the number of pages in the chapter. It came out to five or six thousand, which didn't seem possible, so I counted again. Same answer. 

It was baffling. How could a writer put so much depth into so little space? It felt like there must be a secret, that the chapters only felt like short stories but were actually very much longer. But no matter how closely I looked, I couldn't seem to work out the trick.

There's a story about Hunter S. Thompson typing out The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms as a way to learn how to write. It might be apocryphal; there are similar stories about other writers doing the same thing. Regardless, I get the idea. There is a level of performance at which you can't quite believe your own eyes. There you are on a plane, reading as hard as you can to ignore the steel death trap you're in, when the novel does the impossible. You read it again, trying to pick at each word to see how it's done, mouthing them to see how they feel. But you cannot dissect the magic, the tap of the finger that changes the cards.

Read me as slow as you like, Egan invites. You'll never see how it's done.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Faith and Fortuna

Ignatius J. Reilly: A Man for These Troubled Times
There's nothing more demoralizing than failing at something you didn't want to do in the first place. I thought about this as the neighbor's duck slapped across my face and fled into the night.

I don't normally mind duck-sitting, but all week it has been cold and dark and rainy. And while the ducks never like going to bed, one in particular was especially determined not to cooperate. This duck couldn't fly, but he'd figured out that by flapping hard enough he could glide a few feet, which gave him three dimensions of possible escape. One of these being upside my head.

Eventually we caught the duck and got it safely inside of its coop, but by that point our shoes were soaked through with mud and my wife was covered in duck poop. A pyrrhic victory at best.

I didn't read a whole lot of fiction this year. Not because I didn't want to, but during most of 2021 I felt pulled toward other things, such as a certain Danish philosopher who wrote a lot about meaning and despair. These have been a good couple years for thinking about meaning and despair, and Kierkegaard helped me get my head around some things I couldn't figure out how else to articulate.

One of those things was something he wrote at the end of The Sickness Unto Death, where he lands at the conclusion that the opposite of sin and despair isn't virtue. Instead, he argues, it's faith. That doesn't sound like much of a revelation, maybe, but it's the same kind of move the Buddhists make when they warn against trapping yourself in cycles of pain and pleasure, praise and blame, etc. You can't escape the cycle by trying to stick to one side of the wheel, because the wheel just keeps on turning. You have to look for the option outside the system to pull yourself up and out of it.

I did read a few novels, though, especially at the end of the year. These included A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which I finished the last day of December. It's been on my "to-read" list for a very long time, but it never felt especially urgent. I think I was worried it wouldn't live up to the hype, that it might be “literary” funny but not actually “haha” funny. But I worried for nothing. It was the kind of book where I had to stop and read passages out loud to my wife, just to get her in on the joke so I wasn't giggling alone like a maniac.

Besides being funny, the novel also has an above-average amount of Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy serves both as a running joke in the novel and the framework by which Ignatius J. Reilly denies responsibility for anything that happens. Every terrible turn, every stroke of bad luck, is the result of “that wench Fortuna” and her damned spinning wheel, rather than his own bad decisions. I'd never read Boethius before 2021, so having Consolation and Confederacy cross my path this year felt like some strange synchronicity.

The legacy of A Confederacy of Dunces is shaded by the fact that John Kennedy Toole killed himself before the book was ever published. It's tempting to paint this as a simple, tragic story; that it was the book's lack of success that drove him over the edge, and if he'd only held on he could have enjoyed its success. The actual story is a complicated one of mental illness and alcoholism in addition to failure, and there's no way to quantify which factors played what kind of role in his decision to end his own life. 

But I guess for my own sake, I want to believe some of that weight could be relieved. That the see-saw between hope and despair can be escaped by a move up into that third-dimension, whether we want to call it "faith" or something else.

Here's Kierkegaard again, this time from Purity of Heart:

“In your occupation, what is your attitude of mind? And how do you carry out your occupation? Have you made up your mind that your occupation is your real calling, so that you do not have to make explanation hinge on the result, maintaining that it was not your real calling if the results are not favorable, if your efforts do not succeed? Alas, such fickleness weakens a man immeasurably. Therefore persevere. By God's help and by your own faithfulness something good will come from the unpromising beginning.”

And here's Dani Shapiro, from her book Still Writing:

"If we are artists – hell, whether or not we're artists – it is our job, our responsibility, perhaps even our sacred calling, to take whatever life has handed us and make something new.... To hurl ourselves in an act of faith so complete that our fears, insecurities, hopelessness, and despair blur along the edges of our vision. We stop for nothing. ... It is in that leap that the future unfolds, surprising us with what can be done."

Both of them, I think, are arguing for faith as a way off the see-saw, a process of divorcing yourself from the results of your labor in order to focus on the work at hand. Otherwise, every small failure – writing a bad story, receiving a rejection slip, getting hit in the face with a duck – starts to seem a lot worse than it is. The act of doing the work becomes the act of faith; flapping your wings hard enough you can glide.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...