Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Alfred A. Knopf, January 28, 2014
“In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”—Erik Erikson.
Edits to the almost writer: Make it easier to understand, easy to visualize. Shorter, better.
The almost writer obliges, chunking information into overviews, procedures, bulleted lists, intros, and definitions, condensing the material into the smallest common denominator of characters to be joined together by the smallest common denominator of sentences. Preferably, one-sheets. Anything more, they won’t read it.
My husband gets a new job, scoring soundtracks for commercials. The pay is better. It has benefits. How is it, people ask. “Not bad,” he says with a shrug. “Only vaguely soul-crushing.”
The almost writer thinks that aversion to devoting quality time to reading is similar to the nutrition-be-dammed philosophy that accompanies overconsumption of fast food. Congruently, if words were nourishment, their fast food equivalent in the current day would be text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, and news alerts. Meaningful prose be damned.
The Buddhists say there are 121 states of consciousness. Of these, only three involve misery or suffering. Most of us spend our time moving back and forth between these three.
The almost writer likes to blame time. The implications of being handicapped by a consistently deficient shortage thereof seems obvious but he covers his bases in case further explanation is required: foremost on his mind is the deflating reality that there isn’t enough time to devote to reading. It is no secret that a would-be writer needs to be well read. And so, the almost writer is forced to overcompensate, knowing titles must be chosen wisely. He cannot afford to get bogged down in an epic failure that has the potential to sidetrack for months on end.
A student asked Donald Barthelme how he might become a better writer. Barthelme advised him to read through the whole history of philosophy from the pre-Socratics up through the modern-day thinkers. The student wondered how he could possibly do this. “You’re probably wasting time on things like eating and sleeping,” Barthelme said. “Cease that, and read all of philosophy and all of literature.” Also art, he amended. Also politics.
He is reminded of Harry Crews. “You have to go to considerable trouble to live differently from the way the world wants you to live. That’s what I’ve discovered about writing. The world doesn’t want you to do a damn thing. If you wait till you got time to write a novel or time to write a story or time to read the hundred thousands of books you should have already read—if you wait for the time, you’ll never do it. ’Cause there ain’t no time; world don’t want you to do that. World wants you to go go the zoo and eat cotton candy, preferably seven days a week.”—“Some of Us Do It Anyway: An Interview with Harry Crews,” Getting Naked with Harry Crews.
This past weekend the almost writer watched the NFL playoffs. The shitty Pack beat Dallas in no small part to a ridiculous replay booth reversal of an amazing catch by Dallas’ Dez Bryant. An amazing catch is ruled no catch. It is a rather unfortunate turn of events just one short week after the officiating controversy in the Detroit game. The almost writer begins to review whether he should attempt a “football move” of his own by turning off next week’s game in favor of leveraging precious time more wisely. Reading. Writing.
First up, Dept. of Speculation. The almost writer is drawn to its experimental approach that he finds not unlike the world of technical writing: chunking information into the smallest form possible. He notices, that in literature, however, the approach leads to a place far greater than the sum of the parts. The stories told between the lines combine to that which is written to create an arresting affect.
His mother was visiting when we went to look at the apartment. She pointed out the church across the street. It pleased her that you could see Jesus on the cross if you leaned a little out the window. This was a good sign, she thought, and was not canceled out by the fact that her son no longer believed in him.
The novel makes the almost writer think all the more about writing. About reading. Identity. Who he is and who he wants to be. It even makes him reconsider the silly, naive notion that it’s all been done before, that all the great stories have already been told. Quite simply, it reaffirms what he has always known every step of the way. Less may in fact be more but the possibilities therein remain limitless.