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 :)