About one year ago, I published an earlier draft of the first chapter of this book in a literary periodical called The Coming Envelope. (Not one year ago from whenever you happen to be reading this, but one year from when I’m writing it now. Today is December 13, 2013.) The version in The Coming Envelope was six pages, but I had edited it down from an earlier draft of thirty-six pages, an earlier draft that was also the beginning of yet another failed attempt at writing a new novel. This earlier, never finished, novel was also called Past, Present, Future, Etc., but I somehow had another title or nickname for it. I often called it, at least in my mind, ‘the slander book’.
There were three main ideas I planned to utilize in the writing of the slander book. The first was that it was a book I would decide beforehand would take me ten years to write. The second was that I would use it to slander all the people in my life who I didn’t like (which ended up being almost everyone.) And the third was that I would refer to everyone slandered not by their names but simply by using the letter X.
At the time in my life when I began the slander book, I had completed five books but only published three. (Published: Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. Unpublished: Polyamorous Love Song, Rich and Poor.) Five books, to me at the time, seemed like enough. I prefer writers who write less, find writers who have written shelves and shelves of books to be somehow pompous or excessive. Another anxiety was that the more books you write, the greater the odds that the well will run dry, the formula become diluted. Perhaps I’ve always had the overly romantic idea that the less you publish, the harder the choices you have to make in terms of what to edit out, what you actually want to say with the relatively small literary space you have allotted yourself. The fewer the published works the more intensely focused and potent each one will be. So, in one sense, ten years was simply a way of forcing myself to write less books, to perhaps write more pages but then edit them down (much like the previous chapter was edited from thirty-six pages down to six.)
But, of course, the other reason for the ten year decision is it would be much easier for me to slander people if the result would be published not tomorrow but ten years from now. And as the book progressed, it would require more and more courage for me to continue slandering people, since the gap between writing and publication would constantly grow slimmer.
Finally, deciding beforehand that the slander book would take ten years to write was about the search for new ways of dealing with time. As mentioned in the previous chapter, more and more I feel that time is the problem that politics must begin to solve. To reconcile ourselves with the fact that we’re going in circles, and put this fact to better political use.
There has always been a chasm between my public persona and my inner life. In public, through the thick sludge of my social awkwardness, I try to keep things positive. To the best of my limited ability, I am warm, supportive, always searching for ways to keep going. But inside my head are almost only negative thoughts. In this dynamic there is some residue of my teenage attempt to reinvent myself, to not become a caricature, to avoid the self-parody that all depressed souls so easily drift down into. Instead of wearing black I would wear colours. Instead of always predicting the worst I would try to find the quiet humour in each new hopeless situation. In one sense, I feel I live my life in such a painfully dishonest way, and that I’m not doing my depression any favours by keeping it all bottled up inside. But in another sense, for some reason, and have been enacting this divide between my inner and outer life for so long that I barely notice anymore. Another way of looking at this dynamic is that when I behave in a depressed manner no one wants to hang out with me, while with my current personality, combined with a low level of artistic success, there always seem to be people swirling about. When I think about it, I have to admit that most of these people I don’t particularly like, but most of the time I don’t think about it. (Of course, at the same time I’m fooling no one. If you were to ask anyone who knows me, or anyone who has read my work, if I am a depressed or negative person, I am sure not a single one would hesitate to immediately say yes.) I don’t tell any of these people that I don’t like them, instead I try to be as friendly and kind as possible, but I’m sure many of them suspect. Then again, what’s the difference between liking no one and liking everyone?
So a book that would pour all of these repressed thoughts, insights and feelings out onto the page. Not as therapy (though I have no problems with art as therapy, often find it one of the most interesting strains) but as a way of having a different kind of intensity, a different kind of reality, of honesty, in my work. This, however, is not that book. (You can sense the residue of this earlier slander aspect in a line from the previous chapter: “As I get older, there are more and more people I don’t particularly like.”)
The Letter X
I wanted to be honest but didn’t want to attack each of these people by name. By calling them all X, I would turn almost everyone I knew into one many-headed monster of irritation, a monster ready for the sword of my literary slander.
I don’t think anyone will have any difficulty understanding why I abandoned the slander book. It was a project that could only get me in trouble and, with every new page, it became clearer to me that I was not nearly tough enough to deal with the eventual fallout or repercussions. However, now I am only on page eight of this new attempt at a novel and already I am full of doubts. Have I started writing yet another book about how misanthropic and negative I am? Is this really the vision of myself I want to put out into the world? Is it even accurate? I remember, years ago, meeting someone who had read my books, and her telling me how surprised she was, that I was nothing like she imagined I would be. When I asked her what was different, she explained that she was certain I would be far more harsh and curmudgeonly. She was surprised how much I smiled – I smile when I’m nervous and I’m almost always nervous – that I laughed and cracked jokes. From reading my work she had imagined almost the exact opposite.
There was in fact yet another, even earlier, version of the slander book (before I had the idea to call it the slander book), with yet another title. It was called I Want To Start Again, and began as follows:
I want to start again. I want to write a book that has nothing to do with any of the books I’ve written before. This is the kind of book you write when you think you might soon be dead.
A book to make enemies, to take revenge on people who most likely don’t deserve it. Should I keep the names the same or change them? I will change the names. The world is small enough. Those who care about such things will figure it out. Gossip is a false mystery that must be solved.
A few seconds ago I felt confident I would openly slander people and now, still on the first page, I am no longer sure it is a good idea, this oscillation being so familiar it hurts.
I’m still on the first page and, already, I know I basically won’t slander anyone. And yet, still, I want to start again. I always want to start again.
It now strikes me that this earlier opening is also about time, this ‘wanting to start again,’ in fact it is the very conception of time I now feel we need to work past before a real possibility for emancipatory politics can gain ground. This wanting to start again – which I feel so strongly at regular intervals in my life – suggests it is possible to make a clean break with the past, when in fact it only possible to do the exact opposite: to keep going in circles, and each time we come round again, learn from past mistakes, build just a little bit more on whatever progress we managed to make last time around.
I am starting to believe in all this but, I have to admit, I still don’t really like it. As well, I have no idea how big the circle is. Will we come back around to a time before capitalism or only to the beginning of the unions? Or both at different times, different speeds, different cycles? Writing in this way I realize I can’t mean anything nearly so literal. I must mean something more like: the solution doesn’t lie in the future, doesn’t lie in the past, and there is no solution because we’re just going round and round, and knowing this might be the only reason to keep going, even as we crash into difficulties very close to our impending extinction. And yet I also try to imagine it differently, what if the ‘I want to start again’ was not a desire to make a clean break with the past, but rather a way to acknowledge rounding another bend of the circle, to say winter is ending, spring is coming, another year is done, what have we learned and what can we do differently, here we go again. This vague metaphor needs an anchor in reality. Or many anchors.
In writing about the slander book, a project I have started, re-started, abandoned and re-abandoned many times over, I can’t help but recall another book about an earlier book that couldn’t be finished (or perhaps couldn’t even be started.) Much like Past, Present, Future, Etc., The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud is two books, an earlier book also called The Great Fire of London that Roubaud was never able to finish, and the book he did eventually publish in which he recalls his earlier failed attempt, contrasting his memory of it with the reality of his current life, thoughts and writing. There is a silently bleak shadow that hangs over The Great Fire of London: Roubaud’s young wife had recently died and, perhaps to deal with his grief, he gets up early each morning and writes, always moving forward, never looking back, meticulously describing his actual working process as he goes. He writes:
And I am writing only in order to keep on going, to elude the anguish awaiting me once I break off, once I suspend their uncertain and awkward progression, in order that this new beginning, in the wake of so much anxiety and paralysis, won’t turn out to be merely a false start of the prose enterprise, object of my vain endeavours for so many years.
And I’m also nervous that, as I write this, I am simply embarking on yet another ‘false start.’ But then, if I am working towards a new way of thinking of time, maybe ‘false start’ is simply another way of thinking there is nothing else to do but round the same circle again, each new aborted start another step in the same ongoing cycle. A few pages later, on page twelve, Roubaud writes:
So then I write in this notebook, and each autonomous slice of prose figures here like a white paper band of sorts running with even stripes of black lines, closely written in a minute and almost illegible script (even I find it so on occasion!) between other lines, red or green, marked with dates (of composition), a numerical order, some sort of title. These red or green lines separate the black slices, each supplemented by a line of white. There are rarely any additions or corrections – infrequently, and for two reasons: the first being that I never move, as it were, backwards, and hesitate only mentally; the second, that any rate there is practically no space for corrections, because the lines are extremely dense (a good hundred or so upon a single page), full from one edge to the other, from top to bottom.
Only moving forwards, never back, as a way to make sure that this time his literary project will not stall (as it had stalled so many times before), as a way of fleeing from the recent past, which held only heartbreak and, line by steady but almost illegible line, towards something hopefully more bearable. We move forward because we die, because those around us die. A different way of thinking time would suggest reincarnation, that we don’t end but rather come back, in different ways, different forms.
My idea for this book is that, as it goes, as it goes round and round the same questions and topics, these topics might begin to transform themselves into fiction and literature. I think of writing stories in which after we die we come back, in which time runs in circles and activism utilizes this reality in order to undermine capitalism, in which everything is alive and has agency. I wonder if it would be possible to write such narratives without becoming science fiction or magic realism, while retaining a direct connection my own, and to the readers, daily reality and agency. What kind of stories might these be? How can I get from slander, from my own personal struggles, to some larger grasp of how to get off this accelerating one directional highway towards greater dystopia and catastrophe? Or towards a sense of progress that shifts in many directions at once? What kind of circles should I be writing and why include stories? There’s the famous Godard quip: “A film should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.”