Schoolgirl

I reviewed Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl for Words Without Borders.

Written in 1939 but only now translated into English for the first time, Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl—a slim, precocious novella narrated by a schoolgirl of indeterminate age—was stylish and provocative in its time. Almost three-quarters of a century later, its prescience seems eerie; hardly anything about this book seems to have aged, least of all the narrator herself, who is perfectly preserved somewhere along the road to adolescence. Though she’s still young enough to entertain herself with nonsensical songs and inventive daydreams as she walks home from school (“I thought today I will try to pretend that I am from somewhere else, someone who has never been to this country town before”), she’s old enough to know her childhood is fast coming to a close. “It made me miserable that I was rapidly becoming an adult and that I was unable to do anything about it,” she reflects.

The full review is here.   It’s also definitely worth spending some time with the rest of this month’s Words Without Borders issue (which happens to be all about sex).

We Are Equal

The more things change, the more the stay the same.  At least that’s the feeling I’ve been getting reading through some of John Kennedy Toole’s fifty-plus-year-old writings in Butterfly in the Typewriter, a new biography of the writer that recently landed on my desk.

Entertainingly, many of Toole’s observations on New York still seem fresh all these years later.  For example, Toole describes — with a certain grim glee — “the masochism of living in New York, which has become the Inferno of America” (that is to say, it typifies “the American Dream as Apocalypse”).  But I was especially struck by this response to an exam question Toole wrote in 1955: 

Our government tells us we are equal, even though we enjoy economic freedom.  There are, of course, many citizens who believe wholeheartedly that this is true.  It is taught to all school children as the catechism of our government, as dogma.

But when these children are faced with the stark reality that school is over, that they are no longer “actives” in their fraternity, that they have their degree in Business Administration and that the regular checks from home are no longer forthcoming, the dogma which they so firmly believed explodes in their faces.

I was immediately reminded of a recent college graduate who joined The Takeaway a few months ago.  “We also were told a narrative our whole lives that if we did well in school and attended college, you know, there’d be good middle class jobs waiting for us,”  Chris Galloway said.  As he explained on the show, when Chris finished his degree and found himself jobless — and tens of thousands of dollars in debt — his perspective changed dramatically.

One could argue that the factors Toole observed exploding “the catechism of our government” half a century ago were in many ways different from the factors Galloway and other young graduates experience today.  But the tension between that “dogma” and the reality — the tension between a promising young graduate’s expectations, aspirations, and prospects — seems pretty much the same.

(For more on Toole, check out Cory McLachlan’s wonderful essay in The Millions about the process of researching Butterfly in the Typewriter).

The Artist of Disappearance

I reviewed The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai for Newsweek/The Daily Beast:

Regret, disappointment, and despair color the lives of the characters of The Artist of Disappearance, author Anita Desai’s latest book, which is made up of three novellas. In these stories, Desai casts her gaze backward to conjure a fading era. Though “details of time and place are left deliberately vague” (as Desai notes in a recent interview), the India of this volume is clearly not the “new India” of booming economic growth and rapidly shifting fortunes; it is an older India of fading dynasties and postcolonial habits.

The Best Blurb I Never Had

Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book.  Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.

Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me.  I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen.  “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair.  This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.”  He wanted to know what else I was working on.

What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now).  To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either.  We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me.  We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.

We never did get coffee.  I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was.  I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next.  For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan.  I hoped things would make more sense eventually.  When they did, maybe I would write about it.

In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone.  I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college.  I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone.  “Sly dog,” my brother said.  I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline.  Writers:  They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly).  They Google strangers.  They don’t know what they’re looking for.  They don’t know what they mean.  Our correspondence tapered off.

A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would.  I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life.   And the writing?  It’s coming along — slowly.  I’m finding my footing.  Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes.  Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.