Johnny America


Where The Voice Begins


The nov­el I wrote last year was over 2400 pages long, and I called it A Man With­out Love. I bor­rowed this ti­tle from an En­gel­bert Humperdinck song and al­bum called A Man With­out Love, in part be­cause I thought it fit well with the text, and in part be­cause I had named the text’s first per­son nar­ra­tor En­gel­bert, and he had in­di­cat­ed, in the text, for rea­sons elab­o­rat­ed by the text, that he was named af­ter En­gel­bert Humperdinck.

I am re­luc­tant re­gard­ing my use of the word nov­el, not be­cause the book isn’t a nov­el, nec­es­sar­i­ly, but more be­cause the word “nov­el” has too much his­tor­i­cal and so­cio-eco­nom­ic con­no­ta­tion. It sug­gests too much: the great Amer­i­can nov­el, or, a ques­tion that haunts me and, every time I am asked it, threat­ens to snuff out the artist in­side of me: are you work­ing on a nov­el? I feel like the word “nov­el” is too of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a pos­ses­sive pro­noun: when you are in mas­ter of fine arts grad­u­ate writ­ing pro­grams, as I have been, peo­ple who are writ­ing nov­els al­ways call them my nov­el. But what a ridicu­lous no­tion! Pas­cal says: “Cer­tain au­thors, talk­ing about their works, say, ‘My book, my com­men­tary, my his­to­ry, etc.’ This smacks of the bour­geois who has a town house, and al­ways in his mouth the words ‘My place.’” So per­haps that’s the prob­lem: be­cause it is so of­ten, es­pe­cial­ly by writ­ers who have not yet pub­lished or are not yet known, pre­ced­ed by the pos­ses­sive pro­noun, the word “nov­el” feels far too bour­geois for me to feel com­fort­able us­ing it. And the un­pub­lished nov­el, the nov­el per­haps most of­ten re­ferred to as “my nov­el,” is sub­ject­ed to an end­less, cease­less process of re­vi­sion: the per­son who says “my nov­el” most of­ten al­so be­lieves that achiev­ing a state of pub­li­ca­tion for her un­pub­lished nov­el is sim­ply a mat­ter of im­prov­ing it in­ter­minably un­til it is in such a state that it war­rants pub­li­ca­tion, and this way of think­ing is it­self bourgeois.

My fa­ther was the first per­son to read A Man With­out Love and it was mean­ing­ful for me that he did be­cause dur­ing the six or sev­en months that he was read­ing it, he did not both­er me at all about the fact that I do not make enough mon­ey to sus­tain my­self eco­nom­i­cal­ly, nor sug­gest to me that I pur­sue full-time and high­er-pay­ing teach­ing work, nor ask me what I was go­ing to do about the cred­it card debts that I can­not pay off; which is to say that the book was mean­ing­ful enough to him that, while he was read­ing it, he for­got for six or sev­en months about this idea he has that I should ever do any­thing oth­er than work on books.

He al­so sug­gests that I write books that are short­er and more man­age­able, along those same lines, in the hopes that if I write a book that is short­er and more man­age­able it will be pub­lished and those eco­nom­ic con­cerns will be al­layed as a re­sult (I am al­most afraid to tell him that I know plen­ty of peo­ple who are pub­lish­ing books and those who are not near­ly bank­rupt are mak­ing most of their mon­ey in oth­er places, teach­ing or lec­tur­ing or ghost-writ­ing); but while he was read­ing the more than 2400 pages of A Man With­out Love, he did not sug­gest to me that I write short­er books, or any­thing oth­er than that which I was com­pelled to write, be­cause this, last year, was what I was com­pelled to write, and while he was read­ing it he be­lieved in it.

So I sup­pose I tend to use the word book in re­la­tion to the “nov­els” that I spend most of my time writ­ing, be­cause the word book is neu­tral and clean. Nor do I ever use the word “my” in re­la­tion to what I am writ­ing, or what I have writ­ten, un­less by ac­ci­dent or slip of the tongue. Pas­cal says: “They would do bet­ter to say, ‘Our book, our com­men­tary, our his­to­ry, etc.,’ be­cause nor­mal­ly there is more in it which be­longs to oth­er peo­ple than to them.” He is prob­a­bly cor­rect, but the rea­son that I avoid use of the pos­ses­sive pro­noun in re­la­tion to work I am do­ing or have done is not so much be­cause it be­longs to oth­er peo­ple as be­cause it be­longs to it­self. And it does be­long to it­self. If you are re­al­ly writ­ing, and not just “writ­ing,” that the text be­longs to it­self should be per­fect­ly clear. Per­haps you be­long to it, as well, but in any event it nev­er be­longs to you. I do say “my work,” be­cause al­though the texts do not be­long to me, the work of writ­ing them, that la­bor, very much does.

The sec­ond per­son who read A Man With­out Love was my moth­er. She read it dur­ing the win­ter months in Wis­con­sin, and I watched her read­ing it while I was home for two weeks in De­cem­ber and Jan­u­ary. My par­ents keep their copy of that man­u­script in two box­es, each con­tain­ing a few more than 1200 pages and so this is how my moth­er was read­ing the book when I saw her: sit­ting in a chair in the din­ing room with her feet up on a space heater and box one — be­cause at the time she was still on box one — sit­ting on the floor next to her feet. In gen­er­al, while I was home, she would sit in this fash­ion, her feet and an­kles ac­tu­al­ly on top of the space heater, and read un­til she fell asleep, her head flopped back and to one side and her mouth half-open, a man­u­script page loose on her lap. I won­der if she re­al­ly want­ed to spend eight months — for in the end it took her eight months — read­ing that book, or if she did it sim­ply to de­ny my fa­ther the plea­sure or priv­i­lege of be­ing the on­ly par­ent who was con­tin­u­ing to read all of my work de­spite the fact that my work has en­tered in­to the kind of ab­stract space with­in which a book can be­come 2400 pages long. In ei­ther case, she was a less ide­al au­di­ence for the book than my fa­ther, in part be­cause my fa­ther was the one who taught me to write and so un­der­stands my writ­ing in­stinc­tive­ly, I think, and in part be­cause un­like my fa­ther, who is able to read my books as books, my moth­er can­not help but per­ceive them as pos­si­ble en­trance points in­to the se­crets of my life. She be­lieves my life has se­crets, be­cause I do not al­ways give her the in­for­ma­tion about my life that she seeks when we talk to each oth­er on the phone, me in Cal­i­for­nia and her in Mil­wau­kee, Wis­con­sin, but the truth is that I don’t re­al­ly have any se­crets; rather, I have this hang up when it comes to giv­ing peo­ple de­tails which I do not be­lieve will be of any use to them. When, for ex­am­ple, my moth­er asks me where I am go­ing out to din­ner, I of­ten can’t bring my­self to tell her be­cause I know that she will not know where that restau­rant in Los An­ge­les is, or what it’s like, or even what go­ing there sig­ni­fies with­in my cul­tur­al mi­lieu: what will she be able to do with that detail?

I re­fused to an­swer any ques­tions about A Man With­out Love while my moth­er was read­ing it be­cause too many of her ques­tions had to do with whether some par­tic­u­lar episode or ex­change from the book “ac­tu­al­ly hap­pened” in my own life. How­ev­er, I con­vinced my­self that if she saw the book through, if she read it in its en­tire­ty, even­tu­al­ly she would find that it was a world un­to it­self and lose her sense of its con­nec­tion to the non-ex­is­tent se­crets of my life, and so I promised her that I would an­swer any ques­tions she had af­ter she had fin­ished, be­liev­ing that she will not have any.

And, in­deed, some of the episodes or ex­changes from that book did “ac­tu­al­ly hap­pen,” and ac­tu­al­ly hap­pened in my life, for ex­am­ple an in­ci­dent when, in the eighth grade, I was pelt­ed in the head with rocks by a group of laugh­ing high school girls, but there is some­thing that I tell the stu­dents in my mul­ti-genre cre­ative writ­ing class­es when we are mak­ing the tran­si­tion from talk­ing about fic­tion to talk­ing about the es­say: in fic­tion, I tell them, no mat­ter how hard you try, if you are re­al­ly writ­ing fic­tion, and re­gard­less of whether you are pro­vid­ing a blow-by-blow ac­count of events in your own life in that fic­tion, no mat­ter what, you are nev­er writ­ing about your­self, nev­er, where­as in the es­say, no mat­ter how much you in­vent, no mat­ter how many lies you tell, you are al­ways writ­ing about yourself.

As I said, I was think­ing that, when she fin­ished the book, she would not have any ques­tions. How can you ques­tion some­thing that is what it is, and I be­lieve and hope that my books al­ways are what they are, as I be­lieve that every book should be what it is. How do you ask some­thing that is what it is, why are you this way? It doesn’t make any sense. All you can say should be, there you are, haiku-style.

A Man With­out Love was the longest book I had writ­ten and fin­ished when, on April Fool’s Day of 2004, I ac­tu­al­ly fin­ished it (and when I fin­ished it, when I came to the last para­graph, the last sen­tence, I heaved and felt split in­side, and trem­bled, and thought I would vom­it from the grief or force of it, and then I saved the text and backed it up on a disk and put the disk in my car and drove to the gym), but I had writ­ten a cou­ple of books longer than 2000 pages that I had nev­er fin­ished, and the book I had fin­ished most re­cent­ly was about 800 pages, which is not that long, but I wasn’t in a very good place when I was writ­ing it and I think it was re­al­ly just a 2000 page book that failed to com­plete­ly be­come it­self; and the book that I’m work­ing on, now, and will not fin­ish be­fore I leave the coun­try to teach for the sum­mer, and thus will not fin­ish un­til some­time next year, will al­so be quite long. Why do I write books that are so long?

I think there are a num­ber of pos­si­ble an­swers, and I’m sure that the truth is some com­bi­na­tion of the possibilities:

  1. Be­cause I have to, be­cause that is the way the work comes to me, and since the work be­longs not to me (I am not that bour­geois) but rather to it­self, I must write it the way it comes.
  2. Be­cause I don’t want it to end. I am in a state of con­stant ter­ror of what comes af­ter the end, the si­lence or the ab­sence, and while some peo­ple be­gin their books and write them in or­der to get to the end, I sit down every day and write in or­der to stave off the end, to keep it away, and I do that for as long as I can and so every book, it seems, should get longer, be­cause every time I write an­oth­er book I’ve had more prac­tice at staving off the end.
  3. Be­cause at least this way, writ­ing texts that are ar­guably im­pen­e­tra­ble sim­ply be­cause of their size, I have a built-in ex­cuse if I fail to make a bour­geois-style suc­cess of my­self as a writer. If I nev­er give read­ings in bour­geois book­stores and ap­pear in pho­tos on dust­cov­ers, I can al­ways say, well, the work I was do­ing was just too much. I’d like to think that I’m not like that, but I prob­a­bly am; to some ex­tent, we all are, that’s why we’re artist-types to be­gin with. If we weren’t like that we would have gone in­to business.
  4. Be­cause I be­lieve that the nov­el, which be­gan with Don Quixote, or with Ra­belais, is in its very na­ture end­less, “a world that opens wide,” as Mi­lan Kun­dera says.

My mom, of course, does have ques­tions for me when she fin­ish­es read­ing A Man With­out Love. Most of them are un­re­mark­able, but one of them un­set­tles me: “Why,” she wants to know, “does every­body talk in the same voice?”

This is po­ten­tial­ly prob­lem­at­ic. My books are es­sen­tial­ly con­ver­sa­tion-dri­ven. Nine­ty per­cent of the time, give or take, peo­ple are talk­ing to each oth­er. Con­ver­sa­tion is more or less all there is, and if to the ca­su­al read­er it ap­pears that all of the char­ac­ters speak in the same voice, then isn’t it al­so pos­si­ble that the con­ver­sa­tions aren’t re­al­ly conversations?

And if the books tell them­selves large­ly in con­ver­sa­tion, isn’t it es­sen­tial that we be able to dis­tin­guish, and know, our char­ac­ters by way of the dis­tinc­tive voic­es in which they speak?

So the an­swer I give my mom is: “Whoops.”

Then: “They’re not sup­posed to all talk in the same voice.”

And: “Maybe that’s why no­body is ever go­ing to dis­trib­ute these books.”

These seem like the most rea­son­able an­swers, in part be­cause they are hon­est, and in part be­cause the oth­er an­swer, the more in­volved an­swer, might con­sti­tute one of those de­tails with which my mom will not be able to do any­thing useful.

The more in­volved an­swer per­haps would go some­thing like this: when I was com­ing to my first ma­tu­ri­ty as a writer — ap­proach­ing the first mo­ment, for in­stance, at which I would be able to sud­den­ly write a “nov­el,” a sin­gle text of more than a cou­ple of hun­dred pages (and writ­ing a nov­el is en­tire­ly dif­fer­ent than writ­ing, for ex­am­ple, a short sto­ry: they are dif­fer­ent an­i­mals al­to­geth­er) — I was al­so read­ing Bakhtin and Tu­dorov on Bakhtin and even Barthes and Kris­te­va, and in them en­coun­ter­ing this no­tion that the nov­el is not a place where a sin­gle voice, the voice of the au­thor, cre­ates a form for it­self — a kind of long it­er­a­tion on the same — but rather some­thing more like a space where dif­fer­ent voic­es, many voic­es, all of the voic­es that echo in­side of the writer’s many voic­es, en­counter one an­oth­er; that there is no sin­gu­lar voice in a text: that the author’s voice isn’t sin­gu­lar, and the voice of the nar­ra­tor is not sin­gu­lar, and the voic­es of the char­ac­ters in a work of fic­tion are not sin­gu­lar, that a voice can nev­er be con­sti­tut­ed sin­gu­lar­ly, for in the ab­sence of the oth­er voic­es, or the in­fin­i­ty of oth­er voic­es, it in fact can­not be con­sti­tut­ed at all. Writ­ing books in which peo­ple are con­stant­ly talk­ing to one an­oth­er may have been, af­ter all, a fair­ly ob­vi­ous and lit­er­al re­sponse to that in­tel­lec­tu­al com­ing to aware­ness, or it may have been an ar­tic­u­la­tion of my need, as I was com­ing to that aware­ness, to de­stroy the il­lu­sion of sin­gu­lar­i­ty in my own work.

That ex­plains that, per­haps, but why, then, if my texts are Bakhtin­ian in the sense that they con­sti­tute spaces in which mul­ti­ple voic­es con­front one an­oth­er, would those voic­es be, ac­cord­ing to my own moth­er, in­dis­tin­guish­able, and if they are doesn’t this rep­re­sent a fail­ure on the writer’s part, or demon­strate that even if I am try­ing to make my nov­els spaces where many dif­fer­ent voic­es — the in­fi­nite cho­rus of voic­es — con­front each oth­er, they are in fact spaces, like many oth­er bad nov­els, where on­ly one voice ex­ists? Per­haps, but then again isn’t it pos­si­ble that the voice be­gins in dif­fer­ence and pro­ceeds to­ward same­ness? Isn’t it pos­si­ble that when we talk to each oth­er, the process is not run­ning for­wards — the sin­gle, unique, in­di­vid­ual voice emerg­ing from the cho­rus — but rather back­wards, that the voice which be­gins in the il­lu­sion of sin­gu­lar­i­ty or in­di­vid­u­al­i­ty be­com­ing in­dis­tin­guish­able from the voic­es it con­fronts while those voic­es be­come in­dis­tin­guish­able from it? That our very no­tions of back­wards and for­wards are mixed up?

I would like to think so, and I will. I will think of Blan­chot, who says that to write (and to speak, there­fore) is to cease to be, or that lan­guage gives voice not to a pres­ence but to ab­sence, for these an­swers are a good deal more sat­is­fy­ing to me than whoops.

Filed under Non-Fiction on August 20th, 2005

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