December 22, 2016

Unfinished Novels


[This story was originally published in Fence Spring/Summer 2014.]

I haven’t had a lot of sex in my life and therefore don’t quite have a handle on what it does to me emotionally. I was traveling, in a small, boring city in Europe, and I had what at first felt like a one night stand. After our night together we continued to hang out, to talk, and there was a feeling that if circumstances were different we might have had something more, also perhaps not, or at least I had that feeling. I don’t think we ever spoke about it. And writing this down now, remembering how basically, between age fifteen and twenty-eight, every single time I had sex with someone new I ended up trying to turn it into literature. There are six or eight early, unfinished attempts at novels that each begin with one or more new sexual encounters, yet at the time I didn’t see the pattern. I only see it now, looking back. As I write this I am waiting to meet her. This afternoon we are going to the museum to see an exhibition called ‘Only Sculpture.’ I’m doing it all over again, something I feel I haven’t done in ages. I had sex and immediately I’m starting to write a novel about it. I wonder if this one will remain unfinished like the rest.

At the same time, I have two requests for new short stories, one from a magazine (the very magazine you are currently reading) and the other from an online journal, and I have never written a short story in my life. Or, at least, I have never written one on purpose. Several times I have begun new novels, abandoned the attempt twenty or forty pages in, and then, much later, edited the aborted attempt down into something I eventually published as a story. I think the reason I never write stories is the same reason I claim to no longer write poems. (If you google me you will find all sorts of poems and stories online, some of them quite recent. Nonetheless, this is not how I view myself. This is not the story I tell.) Both poems and stories, as pubic forums, feel so marginal to me, and I desire that my writing reach as many as possible, even though, so far, this has mostly failed to be the case. I often ask myself what difference would it make in my life if my books were read by twice as many people? Or ten times as many? Or one hundred times? The few minimal brushes I’ve had with success haven’t been particularly enjoyable or illuminating. But, I suppose, for me writing is always connected to a certain hunger, a certain desire, to reach out, envelop the world. If I were to more fully accept the marginality of my position, it would also be like I was betraying this larger artistic desire. All of this is, of course, embarrassing to admit.

We are shifting, moving forward and back in time. Yesterday I went to a panel discussion at a music festival on the theme of when to say no. Now is a period of my life in which I feel extremely overbooked, overworked, in which I think I should have said no to at least a few things so I could feel less exhausted each morning. Being exhausted feels like such a terminal waste of time. Reflecting on my own current experience, I assumed it would be a panel about saying no because you were too busy, in order not to burn out from overwork. Instead it was more about ethical questions: saying no to having one’s music licensed for use in advertisements, used in movies, or to generate content for internet platforms that could then monetize their subsequent increase in traffic.

Some of it reminded me of this quote I’d read recently from Jeff Tweedy. (A quote I feel somewhat ambivalent about):
I think about telling my dad, who worked for 46 years on the railroad, ‘Somebody offered me $100,000 to put my song in a movie, and I said no because it’s a stupid movie.’ He would want to kill me. The idea of selling out is only understandable to people of privilege.
But the impression I got from the panel was almost the exact opposite as the one conveyed in this quote. There was one guy, he ran a local record label, arguing for a deeper integrity in how we live our artistic lives. He said it was not only about saying no to corrupt opportunities, but more importantly about forging other models for how we do things. It was a panel of four and the other three weren’t exactly getting it, not exactly arguing against him either. One of the younger guys, who also ran a record label, said that, for his artists who were still on their first albums, mainly he worried they wouldn’t even make it to a third, forth or fifth album. That some money for an ad might help them get there, keep them alive as they built a career. I thought about how little sense there was today of the value of sacrifice, that holding an ideal also meant having to give something up, most likely you will be less successful (in commercial terms) than you would if you didn’t hold and live by such ideals.

After the one night stand, a few weeks after I got home, there was some email correspondence. Not so much but a few. But before that, there was another night, my last in the small, boring European city. She had gone away then come back. And since she came back I felt the possibility we would sleep together again before I left the next morning. We smoothly ditched the rest of the group and went for a drink just the two of us, which I thought verified my sexual hopes, but then as hours and drinks passed I changed my mind, it seemed it wasn’t going that way and it was 3 a.m., I’d had way too much alcohol, and if I was going home alone I thought I might as well go home alone now. It took another hour before she told me the problem, her last relationship, nine years long and now one year past the break up. I said new romance, for me, was always about a fear of hurting and a fear of being hurt and she said it was, for her, at the moment, more about a fear of hurting. How, for the last few years of the nine year relationship she’d had many (or at least a few) affairs, he hadn’t suspected a thing, and when he found out he came at her with all the anger and sadness of a complete betrayal.

The day we went to the museum, now I no longer remember what order it all happened in, I had been talking about something else, and I quoted Genet:
Anyone who’s never experienced the pleasure of betrayal doesn’t know what pleasure is.
I often use that quote. It is one of the sentences that has stuck with me more tenaciously than any other. I still don’t completely understand what it might mean, why betrayal might be pleasurable, but it stays on top of me, a mystery and a question. I think, at the time, after the museum, I was talking about betraying literature, how literature must fight against literature, try to make something new. Reject good literary taste and good literary sense. But her reaction was almost mortified. Quite suddenly I knew I was brushing up against a painful story I may or may not ever hear. A painful story that was defining her current life and feelings about the world, as so many of our painful stories seem to do.

The guy on the saying no panel, who ran the local record label, and was arguing for a way of working that forged different, more idealistic, models for how we might live and form communities, went on a long tangent about how today, when you are young and have your first success in music, you suddenly feel you have to jump on it, push hard and fast at your career, do as many festivals as possible, that the window of youth culture opportunity is brief and you should make your money while you can. How no one ever feels they are making enough money, no one is satisfied with their current level of success, everyone wants more, and a musician wanting to make as much as possible during his or her brief window of flash-in-the-pan success is barely different from the kind of rapacious thinking that is sending our entire planet into arrears. The fact that there is no limit, it is never enough, we have to make and want more and more and more. Gobble up everything, no rest for the wicked. And I also feel no limit to my ambition, though it certainly hasn’t, so far, resulted in any kind of rapacious success. I’ve slept with relatively few women but also, often, find myself wanting to sleep with all of them, except the women most often say no, like Bartleby say they would prefer not to, and I don’t push, my feminist training having taught me that no means no, though in reality I know this is not always the case, nonetheless I search for, I wait for, enthusiastic consent, which is rare. If I’d had more affairs when I was younger, maybe I would also have more unfinished novels, and therefore more stories.

When she told me of her nine year relationship, of how it ended with him shutting down in a spasm of feeling completely betrayed, of her fear of hurting people because of the fallout from this story, after she told me, it was if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. All that night, since returning to visit me, she had been preoccupied, full of stress and doubt, and suddenly she seemed light and happy again. The change occurred in a split second. I could barely believe that just telling someone something could result in such an instant, visible, positive change for the better. It almost made me believe in therapy. I thought about how secretive I am, how little I tell people about my life, and wondered if I were more forthcoming if I might have a lighter energy in this world. Then she came home with me a second time, it seemed too late to have sex, but we cuddled, which I also like, perhaps more so. Our bodies intertwined as we slept as if we were a couple that had been sleeping together for years. I got up early the next morning, completely exhausted, got on an airplane back to Canada. I barely remember saying goodbye.

After the saying no panel I kept thinking about how I lived and worked, kept wondering why I feel all this ambition, this overwhelming feeling of failure, why I want so much but instead feel only, completely, dissatisfied. The affair also made me feel dissatisfied, though it was great. But it was great because it was a meaningful encounter that made me reflect on my life, my history and how I interact with people while travelling, and I had this strange feeling that I would have preferred great sex. The encounter was not cheap and I was wondering if I would have preferred something that was. There is a kind of truism or cliché I’ve often heard, that one should take everything that happens in life and experience it as if it was the very thing that was meant to happen at that moment. That the things that happen to us are in no way accidents, but are all meaningful parts of our story. And if you can see your life in this way everything becomes easier. I, of course, cannot see my life in this way. My life seems arbitrary and aggravating. But it makes so much sense to me that if I could simply change my perspective, more often see the chance occurrences that fall into my path as meant to be and significant, my life would be so much easier, more consequent. A shift in perspective can change everything but I have never managed anything of the sort. I know most people are against writing as therapy, and perhaps I am verging on such bad taste here in these reflections, but I want to write about myself in ways that feel not allowed. Bad writing that doesn’t necessarily make me feel any better.

The other thing that struck me after the saying no panel was that so many musicians have this opportunity to sell out, while I have no such opportunity. I have no idea if I would actually have the integrity to say no to a lucrative advertisement offer and will most likely never know. Turing down money is never easy, however one wishes to live in the world, and I make, more or less, as many decisions motivated by financial worries as any other artist. Where do financial worries end and greed begin? Where is the line, since for the last few years I really haven’t been starving, though, like most artists today, I also feel little security around questions of money, especially if I try to think further into the future. Our entire system thrives from this fear of falling off the money trail and directly into the gutter. A sense of lightness might come from feeling the things that happen to us happen for a reason, but another feeling of lightness also might come from a feeling that a social safety net is in place to catch us when we fall.

It’s not only that a short story is a less hegemonic form, it’s also that it ends so quickly. And endings are hard. The aborted, unfinished novels of my youth had no endings, barely even trudged into the middle, and in this sense must have given me some sense of freedom. They remained open ended if only because they were abandoned. Turning them into short stories closed down a bit of that freedom, but also allowed me to publish them, put them out into the world. Because I got up so early, so exhausted, after only a few hours of sleep, and left so quickly, the rush to some innocuous airport, it was almost as if the small, boring city in Europe story had no end either, or at least a slap dash ending barely thought out and uncomposed. Or perhaps the night before was the real end, since it was in fact a fairly complex emotional climax, one I’m still grappling with, finding out so much about someone in so little time. An epiphany is learning something about oneself, or about the world, that one already knows, but learning it more suddenly, more sharply, with greater force or rush or impact. On the plane back home I was struck again by how dissatisfaction is the engine that drives so much of my work and my actions. I felt so dissatisfied by what had happened though it was fascinating. And how, at least in this one aspect, I am so much like everything else that is currently fucked in the world. Wanting more instead of accepting the small pleasure life offers us. I don’t write stories or poems (but of course I also do.) And I don’t know what to think about love.


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