Fame

What you like is in the limo

After a hot streak of several great novels, I have somewhat forgotten how to read again. I’m really enjoying reading Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series to Raffi at night, and I can’t tell whether it’s because life has stopped or because these books are genuinely rich texts - maybe both?- that I had the thought that someone should write a detailed critical analysis of them, maybe … locating them in a lineage that reaches back to traditional Yiddish folktales? (Spitballing because I have no idea, really, what I’m talking about). We just got to the part in Wayside School is Falling Down where a student finally enters Ms. Zarves’s classroom on the 19th story (there is no 19th story. There is no Ms. Zarves.) I love that Louis Sachar mentions Ms. Zarves and the 19th story so many times in the first two books in the series, but does not actually deploy her til the third book. What a genius, seriously! If you have fond memories of these books from your own childhood but have hesitated because everything seems potentially ruined now, I am here to reassure you that not only are the books still good, they are preternaturally gender and race-sensitive and also Louis Sachar has not done anything disgusting that we know of. We do not plan to know otherwise, ptoo ptoo ptoo.

To get to sleep, I’ve been listening to Simon Prebble’s amazing narration of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Have you read this book? It’s kind of weird that I never have - I am a sucker for historical fiction with supernatural elements. Most people are, I think! What could be more enticing than escaping into the past, but without the boring necessity to hew strictly to facts, and with some of the ickier, less fun elements elided by magic? And it’s long, too, like 800 pages. In a profile of Clarke that was written around its publication in 2004, John Hodgman describes it as seeming like it could easily have been twice as long. That seems exactly right to me, as a person who mainly enters and exits this book at random points while semiconcious. It’s more of a mood than a narrative. Clarke successfully created a world, and characters, and they seem to just run around in it having various adventures.

This book came out when I was working at a big mainstream publishing house, so I remember the hype around it from a backstage perspective. Probably the reason I didn’t read it then is because of seeing that hype being manufactured and understanding how little it had to do with the book. It was positioned to be a mega-bestseller, in the special way that only a debut novel by an unknown writer ever can be — which is one of the many, many ways book publishing works against authors’ long-term career longevity. The story in the Hodgman profile is irresistible, and familiar: Clarke was “discovered” almost against her will, when her writing teacher — later partner — sent an excerpt of her work to his friend Neil Gaiman without telling her. She toiled in obscurity for ten years on the novel, and then it was bought for presumably a huge amount of money and published with great fanfare worldwide, and she quit her day job in publishing.

In the profile, Hodgman and Clarke trek athletically together through the moors of Derbyshire, pausing only for drinks in a picturesque pub. Less than a year after this profile was published, in the spring of 2005, Clarke collapsed. “I was doing a lot of travelling and promoting and getting on and off aeroplanes – the sort of thing I’d never done before,” prior to the collapse, she told The Guardian recently. She was eventually diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. The sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which had been anticipated by her publisher even before the first book’s release, is still far from complete. “Everything became like uncontained bushes, shooting out in all directions,” she says in the Guardian profile.

The good news is: that profile was published on the occasion of the publication of a new Clarke book, Piranesi, which is short, fantastical in a more abstract way, and has nothing to do with 19th-century magicians. Clarke is doing better, physically, she says: “somewhat better than a few years ago, but often this is hard to remember.” Like many chronically ill people, she has found the pandemic’s virtual-ization of life to be a boon in some ways. The publication of a new book seems itself to be almost silver lining enough.

Reading about Clarke made me think of a friend who experienced a similar health crisis immediately following the spectacular success of their mega-popular, mega-hyped hyped debut novel. I’m not trying to draw a straight line, of course — bodies are private and mysterious! And working in obscurity for years and then having a huge success is, for some people, a path to ever greater successes. Some people have no trouble following up their initial hits with ever more popular sequels! But fame, especially if it was never something you particularly craved, is often — maybe always? — in some ways horrible. “Fame is abuse,” I saw someone tweet yesterday, about the new Britney documentary. It isn’t necessarily, of course. Maybe it’s more like, the onset of fame is often a form of trauma, especially for women.

I don’t plan to watch the Britney documentary because it all hits too close to home for me. I’m Britney’s exact age and her worst year coincided with the year I had a job where my linkdump posts of the tabloids’ reporting on her breakdown were often my most-read posts of the day. I’m terrified to Google my name and hers together because I’m sure I used the same casually misogynistic, leering language that was then standard to describe what was happening to her. At the time I didn’t think about it much at all. I thought she was funny, and I felt bad for her, but mostly I felt grateful that mentioning her name in a post could potentially garner me a traffic bonus.

I don’t want to be dismissive about my complicity in Britney’s suffering, but I also don’t want to scratch open my Gawker scabs again in her name; if you are reading my email newsletter and have somehow missed my roughly 25,000 published words of public processing of my own role as victim/tormentor during the extremely cursed year of 2007, I encourage you (sincerely!) to seek them out.

Anyway. I’m going to go buy Piranesi, and I hope it will be the book that breaks me out of my latest slump. What are you reading and watching lately? Do you understand why people still seek fame, even though it seems so clear now that even micro-fame is micro-traumatizing us? What was the liberating moment that made you realize that you did not, in fact, want to be well-known and in fact just wanted to make lots of money? Sound off in the comments :)

The acupuncture room where it happens

("it" being a weird coma-nap)

I got acupuncture this morning for the first time in a year. Pre-pandemic I went to the community clinic down the block at least once a month, treating my various everyday aches and pains with deep coma-naps under one of those silvery marathon blankets on a cot bracketed by other cots occupied by various needle-filled strangers. For obvious reasons, community acupuncture is no longer an option.

I waited for the clinic to renovate into a warren of little treatment rooms before I thought about going back. Was it worth the discomfort of lying face-down on a massage table with my masked face in the little face cradle? I think “yes,” though it was scary. Not for COVID reasons, more because this was the first time anyone other than Keith and my children has touched me for a long time. I wonder how long it will be til it seems normal to go to the doctor, the dentist, the hairdresser, the nail salon et cetera. I mean, I know some people have never stopped. Maybe one of the reasons that they never stopped is that if you do stop, it’s so weird and hard to get your body to trust other people’s bodies again.

For the first fifteen minutes or so of the session, as the needles were going in, I had to actively fight the visceral urge to leap up, brush off all the needles, throw my shirt back on and run out the door. The therapist burned some herbs near my achy T3 vertebra and I could smell them super strongly through my mask and my mouth briefly filled with pre-vomit saliva. But then I forced myself to imagine the needles doing their magical thing, realigning my energy, sending little subtle coded messages along my nerves. I thought about the dream I’d awoken from three hours earlier, where I’d been interviewing a boring celebrity in a giant beautiful suburban house, and tried to find my way back into it. The next thing I knew, the therapist was gently removing the needles. I had slept so soundly that I’d drooled into my mask a little bit.

I had a whole newsletter planned about how Raffi continues to be really into Hamilton and how much I hate Hamilton and also love it, am its prisoner, have most of it memorized, deeply resent the sexy/sexist parts, and am reminded of my own formative musical theater nerdery. There would have been a bow-tie at the end about how, I guess, even art that I have a ton of problems with can sometimes “spark a meaningful conversation” with my kid, who was surprised to learn that until recently women had no rights and could not own property or vote. (Next, I guess, we take on “what are ‘women’?”) I might still get around to writing about that but I think unfortunately my brain is done for the day. I do just want to set down for posterity that the absolute hack-est line in Hamilton, so hack that it is kind of majestic, is: “You’re an orphan? I’m an orphan!/God, I wish there was a war/So we can show we’re worth more than anyone bargained for.”

Here are a handful of cultural recommendations from both me and Raffi that aren’t about horny founding fathers and maternal, accommodating women who just want to be part of the narrative:

RAFFI:

Wow in the World is the new podcast hotness chez nous, superseding Story Pirates (which I think we’ve listened to every episode of), and Circle Round, which has joined the growing pile of things that are, to my chagrin, “for babies.” Wow sates Raffi’s need for new facts about science, nature, etc to mansplain to us, and is fairly tolerable to have on in the background. Try it on your 5 year old and let me know how it goes.

The Ramona Quimby Audio Collection, in which Beverly Cleary’s masterpieces about a very real, very Raffi-esque troublemaker and her schoolmarmish older sister are read sublimely by the goddess Stockard Channing, is currently permitting me to get an extra 15-30 minutes of semi-sleep every morning. Raffi just comes into my room and asks me to turn it on, and then I do, and then he eats granola bars and grapes on the couch while cradling the Bluetooth speaker thoughtfully til he gets bored and wakes us all up. I guess this is why people get Alexas, but I won’t succumb. Stockard Channing does voices for literally every character, even very minor non-recurring ones, and deserves a lifetime achievement Grammy (she has at least one Emmy and a Tony, fwiw).

EMILY:

Detransition, Baby deserves more than my on-1% brain, all I can do is beg you to read it. If you do, we can talk about it — I would 100% have a book club about it with subscribers and if anyone is interested I will totally … figure out how to do live chat on this thing. Also if you live in Brooklyn and need a copy, I have a spare, hmu!

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood comes out in March and I also have spare galleys for anyone who is intrigued by the idea that it was my gateway drug back into the world of actually really enjoying novels again and always being in the middle of one continuously since I read it. I just flipped it open to a random page because it’s full of perfect zingers, and this is the one on the random page I flipped to:

“She tried to make the smile that her therapists did, that little pursed smile that signaled neither approval nor disapproval but simply stated the relationship: We are in therapy, was the ultimate meaning of the smile, and I am a therapist.”

Ok, I think that’s definitely all for today. Thank you for reading. This newsletter is free and subscribing is optional. Occasionally, I send out subscriber-only issues, and only subscribers can comment (which is good because otherwise I’m sure someone would come at me for insulting Lin-Manuel Miranda.) Want to subscribe? Here’s a button!

Half of January subscription proceeds will be donated to 4Kira4Moms, which advocates for improved maternal mortality prevention policies and regulations.

Crise de panique

sounds delicious, right? I'd order it

I’ve gotten really over-invested in Le Bureau, a tv show that it’s fair to call French Homeland. It’s a spy show with a lot of feints toward psychological realism and scenes where someone at a whiteboard explains which faction currently controls the different regions of Syria to the characters in the room (but really to the audience.) I don’t know why I’m insulting it! It’s a good show! I guess because it’s 2020 (for another few hours) and if you find anything pleasurable you’re supposed to immediately investigate why you shouldn’t enjoy it. Anyway: Le Bureau. It’s the main thing I have going on right now, and I still have two seasons left, so I hope it continues to be a bright spot in the days for me. Recently though there was a subplot in it that threw me for a loop.

(I’m not going to try to do this without spoilers, because I doubt you’ll immediately embark on a 6 season spy show that’s in French and even if you do, by the time you get to this subplot you’ll have forgotten about having read this newsletter.)

So there’s this spy, Marina, who’s come back from a mission in Iran, having been jailed and interrogated and tortured. We saw her survive and escape. Now she’s returning to active duty, but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s broken. At a coffee-date job interview — her cover identity is that she’s a seismologist, so it’s normal for her to get jobs in eg Iran — she thinks a guy a few tables away is listening to her conversation, and she hyperventilates and sprints out of the café. Despite this failure, her bosses let her try again, this time on a mission to Moscow. But at the airport she thinks she sees someone eyeing her suspiciously, makes excuses, and misses her flight as she hides in a bathroom stall, trembling and weeping.

I’m sure I’ve seen PTSD depicted in film and TV before, but if I’ve seen anyone have a panic attack onscreen with this level of specificity, I can’t remember it. Certainly, I felt I had more in common with Marina than with Tony Soprano passing out at the bbq. I hadn’t actively admired the actress who plays Marina before season 3 of the show, but maybe she’s a great actress because her performance is kind of flat and one-note, and you can project anything onto her, which means she’s a good spy? The scenes where she’s freaking out are so vivid because suddenly this blank person’s exterior is cracking. I guess the thing the actress nails is the tension of trying to seem okay when you feel like you’re dying.

I hadn’t had a panic attack for a while and then I started to have one when we were driving into Manhattan to go to the Natural History Museum. It was a beautiful sunny winter day, with cold white light shining on the East River, and we were zooming up the F.D.R. when I started to realize that I was sweaty, dizzy, and actively fantasizing about the moment I would be allowed to get out of the car. I didn’t tell Keith anything was wrong because it’s never my first impulse to tell anyone I’m freaking out. I took half an Ativan and continued to chat about whatever (global warming, which didn’t help.) In the car with the kids I’m always a little bit worried (in a normal way) that Ilya will barf because the times he’s barfed have come out of nowhere and have been truly horrific. In this context though I started to worry about it in a not-normal way, and that sort of dovetailed into thinking about the other bad things that could happen to us trapped on the shoulder-less F.D.R.

I felt fine by the time we were looking for parking, like, 75% fine. The whole time we were in the museum I was not thrilled to be inside with so many other people, but again, in a not-pathological way. I felt like I had control over my body and reactions.

Marina is obviously starting to seem doomed. The show has been telegraphing her doomed-ness for a while. The spy IT-guy character who’s always eating sandwiches at his desk compares her to a line of broken code that will eventually corrupt the whole system. She’s only on her current mission because she was recruited by a Mossad agent pretending to be a French agent for a mission in Azerbaijan — she was going to retire, but got pulled back in! Sorry, I’m trying to only give you as much context as is relevant but you can see the kind of show we’re dealing with (awesome to watch, doesn’t withstand a ton of scrutiny). Anyway, to get her Azerbaijan seismology job, she has to pass a polygraph test, and the Mossad-pretending-to-be-DGSE-agent handler coaches her through it in a way that seems like it might fix her brain, at least temporarily. He teaches her to purposely overreact to the benign questions like “have you ever lied to a boss,” deliberately holding her breath to get her heart rate up, so that any involuntary reaction to questions like “are you a spy” will seem minor by comparison. As we watch her ace the test, it seems like she might be back in control of her reactions, which she’ll need to be in order to have any chance at survival.

It occurs to me now that the one thing that’s off-limits to Marina is to tell whoever she’s with that she’s freaking out, but that is not off-limits to me. It’s only this weird prideful need for control that makes me imagine that it is.

***

Happy (?!) 2021 to everyone who has read this far. I’m excited to read more newsletters this coming year from the newsletteristes/ Patreoners who have gotten me through 2020. It is not a coincidence that these people all have little kids.

Capitulate Now!

Everything Happened

What It Is I Think I’m Doing

Evil Witches

I’ll Be Right Back

Julia Wertz

Sarah Glidden

If you like my letter and don’t subscribe to these you really should, just my 2 cents.

See you in 2021!

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