A test, and some texts: Are the following sentences the beginnings of essays or of short stories?
When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade. She called him Brother. Or Brutha—I don’t suppose either of them had ever voiced a terminal r.
It was maybe an hour before midnight at the Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill, and the Miz was feeling nervous. I didn’t pick up on this at the time—I mean, I couldn’t tell. To me he looked like he’s always looked, like he’s looked since his debut season, back when I first fell in love with his antics: all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced, fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen, hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.
Late in 1998 or early in ’99—during the winter that straddled the two—I spent a night on and off the telephone with a person named John Fahey.
The first moves with the courteous lento of one of Peter Taylor’s stories; the last has the directness of something by Raymond Carver; the second, more placeless and more contemporary, could be by lots of writers—Jennifer Egan, or maybe Sam Lipsyte. Actually, all are the opening sentences of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, from his second book, “Pulphead” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $16). It is obvious enough that they are by a talented storyteller, who has learned from fiction (as well as from the essayistic tradition) how to structure and ration his narratives. He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives. In a touching piece about the near-death of his brother (who electrocuted himself with a microphone while playing with his band, the Moviegoers, in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky), Sullivan mentions, in passing, “Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, strangely with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit to the Lord).” Any reporter can be specific about the two hundred joules. But the detail about Captain Jones giving all the credit to the Lord, while a small thing, suggests a writer interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness.
Such moments occur again and again in Sullivan’s work. In the same essay, he mentions his father, who is shocked into life by a brief bolt of story: “My father was a great Mark Twain fanatic—he got fired from the only teaching job he ever held for keeping the first graders in at recess, to make them listen to records of an actor reading the master’s works.” In “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” his memoir of the Tennessean writer Andrew Lytle, he remembers receiving letters from the old man, “their envelopes . . . still faintly curled from having been rolled through the heavy typewriter.” He notices that Lytle’s equally aged sister has hands whose knuckles are “cubed with arthritis.” Lytle himself sags so exaggeratedly into the sofa, “it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there.”Sullivan has a very good eye—he memorably describes the Virgin Group tycoon, Sir Richard Branson, as “that weird and whispery mogul-faun, Sir Richard”—and ears pricked for eventuality. In the book’s first essay, “Upon This Rock,” which originally appeared in the magazine GQ, Sullivan spends a few days at a Christian rock festival called Creation. It is the nation’s biggest Christian-music gathering, and it takes place at a farm by the name of Agape, in rural Pennsylvania. Once at Creation, Sullivan falls in with a group of young guys from West Virginia—Ritter, Darius, Jake, Bub, Josh, and Pee Wee. Ritter (“one of those fat men who don’t really have any fat, a corrections officer”) describes them as “just a bunch of West Virginia guys on fire for Christ.” No decent writer could go wrong with what we imagine to be the heady hideousness of a Christian rock festival, and these West Virginians on fire for Christ are juicy material: Just-So Stories from the unfathomable evangelical jungle, waiting to be written up by the compensated connoisseur once he has returned to civilization. But not only does Sullivan avoid condescension; he admires his new friends, listens to them, and quietly compacts an enormous amount of acquired information into his prose. A wide gulf separates the upper-class Sullivan, born in Kentucky into a family with deep historical roots there, who followed his grandfather to the privileged University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, from Ritter and his crew, but the gulf vanishes when Sullivan writes:
In their lives, they had known terrific violence. Ritter and Darius met, in fact, when each was beating the shit out of the other in middle-school math class. Who won? Ritter looked at Darius, as if to clear his answer, and said, “Nobody.” Jake once took a fishing pole that Darius had accidentally stepped on and broken and beat him to the ground with it. “I told him, ‘Well, watch where you’re stepping,’ ” Jake said. (This memory made Darius laugh so hard he removed his glasses.) Half of their childhood friends had been murdered—shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves. . . . When Darius was growing up, his father was in and out of jail; at least once, his father had done hard time. In Ohio he stabbed a man in the chest (the man had refused to stop “pounding on” Darius’s grandfather). Darius caught a lot of grief—“Your daddy’s a jailbird!”—during those years. He’d carried a chip on his shoulder from that. “You came up pretty rough,” I said.
“Not really,” Darius said. “Some people ain’t got hands and feet.” He talked about how much he loved his father. “With all my heart—he’s the best. He’s brought me up the way that I am.
“And anyway,” he added, “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff He took it away.”
God in His wisdom had left him enough to get by on.Sullivan, who is thirty-seven, and whose pieces have appeared in places like Harper’s, GQ, The Oxford American, and The Paris Review in the past decade, has been compared to Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace. But he is kinder than the former, and less neurotic than the latter (whose own compassionate sensitivity got blocked by obsessive self-consciousness, or, when unblocked, sometimes emerged as outright sentimentality). In the essay about the Christian rock festival, he keeps a clear, unillusioned eye on his new friends, but he also takes their faith seriously, partly because, as he explains, he himself spent a few teen-age years under the evangelical spell. Like many others, he has had his “Jesus phase”: “That’s always an excellent laugh. Except a phase is supposed to end—or at least give way to other phases—not simply expand into a long preoccupation.” That afterlife, that “long preoccupation,” can be felt in some of the other pieces in this book. A dense and involving essay about the early-nineteenth-century French explorer and botanist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who travelled around the South (and “wound up living with my great-great-great-great-great-grandparents Luke and Ann Usher” in Lexington, Kentucky), ends with an eloquent summary of Rafinesque’s original theology, inflected by Sullivan’s own clear admiration:
What’s true of us is true of nature. If we are conscious, as our species seems to have become, then nature is conscious. Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball. Whatever the reason, that thing out there, with the black holes and the nebulae and whatnot, is conscious. One cannot look in the mirror and rationally deny this. It experiences love and desire, or thinks it does. The idea is enough to render the Judeo-Christian cosmos sort of quaint. . . . Rafinesque perfected his variant of this honorable philosophy while botanizing in the literal backyards of my childhood, examining ruderal plants I’ve known all my life, and so I have appropriated it from him, with minor tweaks. It works perfectly as a religion. Others talk about God, and I feel we can sit together, that God is one of this thing’s masks, or that this thing is God.
Notice the way in which Sullivan’s prose, bending itself around its subject, has taken on a little nineteenth-century American diction, with hints of Emerson and Thoreau (“I feel we can sit together”). Unlike Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, who bring their famous styles along with them like well-set, just-done hair, Sullivan lets his subjects muss and alter his prose; he works like a novelist.
The funniest and stylistically most brilliant piece in “Pulphead” is a sustained exercise in such adaptation. In “Getting Down to What Is Really Real,” Sullivan spends time with some of the cast members of the MTV reality show “The Real World.” The piece opens with Sullivan watching one of those characters, nicknamed the Miz (a.k.a. Michael Gregory Mizanin), work a crowd at the Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill. It’s a recognizable, crazy, Daytona Beach-at-spring-break kind of world, brutally real and po-mo unreal at the same time, as easy a journalistic assignment, in its way, as the Creation rock festival: the wrestler/MTV star, the idiotically pumped-up fans (“There were loads of the sort of girls who, when dudes ask them to show their breasts and asses, show their breasts and asses”), the girl getting the Miz to sign her right breast, the epileptic music (“There was music that sounded like a rabbit’s heartbeat in the core of your brain”). Sullivan goes for some of these vivid journalistic colors—who could avoid them?—and seems at first the flatly uncool, aging outsider, with his notebook and his short hair.
But this essay has a nice way of tripping up the complacent reader. Sullivan describes himself as a “hard-core fan” of the MTV show, and as the piece progresses his language oscillates between a high (or high-ish) journalistic style and the kind of excitable, slangier language a fan might use. He tells us about Julie, “from the New Orleans cast,” and “hands-down one of my all-time fave cast members”: “Julie has rediscovered her Mormon faith. Watching her now on the Challenge is wild. She’s always praying to herself while she’s scaling the rock wall or whatever.” In the same breathless tone, he fills us in on some of the tropes of the MTV show:
It is a truism by now that every Real World cast features some combination of recurring types—the slutty one, the sweet one, the racially ambiguous one, the gay one, the slutty-sweet Southern one, and so on. MJ and Landon were two new versions of the Miz, if you savvy. They were super-ripped white guys from tiny towns who didn’t know poop from peanuts, multiculturally speaking, but who were soon to learn, and in learning, they’d grow. Yeah, well, the Miz invented that shit. Not only is this kind of free indirect discourse (it’s the type of thing fiction writers do the whole time) extremely funny, it ironizes everything, so that one can’t be entirely sure whether Sullivan is excitedly expressing his love for the show or is amusedly mocking his own fandom. And this lost-in-the-fun-house feel is appropriate, because the essay is all about “what is really real.” It proceeds like a piece of fiction (by David Foster Wallace, actually—the one moment in the book where the comparison seems fair). Sullivan argues, wittily and with his tongue only slightly inserted into his cheek, that in a Baudrillardian way reality TV is not fake but very real. Not because—and here is the comic twist—it captures real life but because when you watch such a show “you’re watching people caught in the act of being on a reality show. This is now the plot of all reality shows, no matter their cooked-up themes.” Indeed, Sullivan can’t make up his mind, and seems to think that a certain amount of real life—real real life—is captured on TV:
People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching. Using weird phrases that nobody uses, except everybody uses them now. Constantly talking about “goals.” Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, “People don’t get me here.” Walking around half-naked with a butcher knife behind our backs. . . . My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war-widows of the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them—too many shows and too many people on the shows—for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
The final line of Sullivan’s peroration has a great comic lilt, and rings a cynical change on Robert Lowell’s famous phrase in “For the Union Dead.” (“A savage servility / slides by on grease.”)
At present, the American magazine essay, both the long feature piece and the critical essay, is flourishing, in unlikely circumstances. Despite the slightly tedious nostalgia for the world of the New York intellectuals and the patient outlets of nineteen-fifties high journalism, I doubt that Edmund Wilson or Alfred Kazin would rightfully find much to complain about. New and new-ish journals such as McSweeney’s, n+1, The Point, and The Common have found their way; older magazines have been optimistically refurbished, or just optimistically survive anyway.
There are plenty of reasons for this. One is that magazines, big and small, are taking over some of the cultural and literary ground vacated by newspapers in their seemingly unstoppable evaporation. Another is that the contemporary essay has for some time now been gaining energy as an escape from, or rival to, the perceived conservatism of much mainstream fiction. Geoff Dyer puts this adversarial relationship well in “Out of Sheer Rage,” his book about, around, and through D. H. Lawrence, in which he makes an argument against general cirrhosis of the novel, and in favor of the healthy freedom of the essay:
Increasingly, the process of novelisation goes hand in hand with a strait-jacketing of the material’s expressive potential. One gets so weary watching authors’ sensations and thoughts get novelized, set into the concrete of fiction, that perhaps it is best to avoid the novel as a medium of expression.
Dyer goes on to say that he likes Milan Kundera’s advocacy of the “novelistic essay,” that what he enjoys in Kundera’s work is the idea of fiction “composed entirely of essays, stripped of the last rind of novelisation.” The “novelists I like best are, with the exception of the last-named, not novelists at all: Nietzsche, the Goncourt brothers, Barthes, Fernando Pessoa, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Thomas Bernhard.”
One knows exactly what Dyer means by novelization—it’s the clanking train of novelistic grammar (the plots, the formulas, the scenes, the “conflict,” the dialogue, the so-called “telling details”). Roland Barthes spent a lifetime subtly exposing the artifice of this artifice; sometimes he just called it “Fiction,” as if indicting the entire monstrous novelizing urge. I would be more inclined than Dyer to salvage “the novel as a medium of expression,” and indeed to reserve a special place for the fictionality of fiction. And this kind of plea can sometimes sound as if novelists themselves were not aware of the burdensome machinery of novelization (whereas, in my experience, they chafe at it daily). But it is hard not to be in sympathy with Dyer’s restlessness; his own work is evidence of such genre-busting freedom.
So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction. That these anti-novelistic tricks are all, in fact, novelistic tricks, often borrowed from the history of the novel, does not muffle the pleasure of watching this literary freedom in action.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the essay has its own inescapable conventions, its own formulas, too. The attempt to evade convention eventually becomes conventional. If there is “novelization” and its clanking machinery, then there will also be “essayism” and its clanking machinery. The current liberties of the essay will doubtless look mannered in thirty years’ time; its vaunted self-consciousness will look naïve, the fractured forms quaint rather than radical. Sullivan’s essay on the MTV reality show is huge fun, but it is also—unlike most of the essays in this book—a familiar foray into American zaniness and insanity, and it obeys certain laws, right down to its unwillingness to make any judgment about reality TV itself. One feels that Sullivan shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways: if reality TV is “really real” because it catches people in the act of being on reality TV, it has only a limited, or possibly null, reality, and Sullivan is just being cynical and jokey. On the other hand, if reality TV is really real because it connects us with Poe and Whitman, and displays America for us as we really are, then large claims are being made for reality TV’s (perhaps inadvertent and unwitting) powers of mimesis. It can’t quite be both, and the ambivalence perhaps alerts us to the fact that essays like this one have their own unexamined unreality, too.
For instance, the contemporary essay likes to display its postmodernity by showing us its workings. Sullivan does this, too—fairly half-heartedly, I’m pleased to report. The essay on the Christian rock festival starts with an assessment of the kind of easy piece that Sullivan was looking forward to writing, before Ritter and company got hold of him: “Later that night I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck.” Elsewhere, while visiting the Jamaican home of Bunny Wailer, the last of Bob Marley’s Wailers, he admits to using “that exaggerated surprise it’s somehow impossible not to affect when you’re interviewing people: ‘Really?!’ ” One essay, “Violence of the Lambs,” introduces an academic zoologist named Professor Marcus Livengood, only to announce at its end that Sullivan invented him.
But this is the weakest essay in the book—Sullivan’s heart is not really in this kind of fantastication. On the Geoff Dyer-scale, he is a fairly old-fashioned essayist. And, anyway, his talent is beautifully for the real; or, rather, for the real fictions that people make of the real, and which they live by. (The really real.) It is why he is drawn to people like Ritter and Darius on the Agape farm; or the Miz; or Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who ended up teaching at the fabulously named Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, in the eighteen-twenties; or Andrew Lytle, the last of the Southern Agrarians, who lived a strangely posthumous existence throughout most of the twentieth century, hardly moving from his house in Monteagle, Tennessee; or John Fahey, the subject of one of the most moving essays here, about the country-blues songs of people like Skip James and Geeshie Wiley. “Fahey was someone whose destiny followed the track of a deep inner flaw, like a twisted apple.” Fahey had had a career as a musician and as a scholar and collector of rare blues recordings from the nineteen-twenties and thirties. But when the young Sullivan got him on the phone, at some point of the winter between 1998 and 1999, Fahey was “almost sixty and living in room 5 of a welfare motel outside Portland, Oregon. . . . I pictured him prone on the bed, gray bearded and possibly naked, his overabundant corpus spread out like something that got up only to eat.” So begins another of Sullivan’s captivations. And note that careful, exact, poignant “room 5.” ♦
Throughout history, people who like to think of themselves as high-minded have sneered at the masses, frittering their days away on “mindless entertainment”. The definition of “mindless” keeps changing: not so long ago, novels were considered a frivolous indulgence; then broadcasting took their place, and novel-reading became something that high-minded people did. For years, I told myself I wasn’t like the Average Person who watched four hours of TV a day (my average must be more like 15 minutes), because I was doing something much more brainy: surfing the internet. Recently, largely thanks to social media, it’s become impossible to ignore the fact that this is often mindless, too. So now, on my more self-disciplined days, I stay off social media, and feel slightly superior about it. And what do I do instead, since I’m far too smart to waste my life on rubbish. Now, I listen to podcasts.
Christmas shopping online? Don't fall into the ratings trap
So, naturally, I was intrigued by a recent essay on New York magazine’s website The Cut, by Sirena Bergman: “I listen to 35 hours of podcasts every week. Is that… bad?” Her conclusion: yes, partly. The brain needs silence, and the trouble with audio – like mobile internet, too – is that it doesn’t simply replace other forms of entertainment; rather, it seeps into the gaps (commutes, housework, exercise) that you might previously have used to be alone with your thoughts. Podcasts improve my daily life immensely and I’ve zero intention of abandoning them; but Bergman draws attention to an important truth about the content we incessantly consume: it’s quite possible to get addicted to stuff that seems edifying and intellectual, as well as to brainless nonsense. Indeed, for a certain kind of person, it’s probably easier. You know it’s a distraction to compulsively seek updates on reality shows hosted by Ant and Dec. It’s harder to remember that political news, or fascinating tales from the frontiers of science, might be serving the same function.
The point is that what makes something a distraction isn’t necessarily that it’s stupid or silly. It’s the role it’s playing in your life. If it’s helping you numb out, or put off important but scary tasks, or avoid asking tough questions about how you’re spending your time, it’s a problem, whatever the details. Seemingly productive work can easily be a distraction, if it’s not the work that counts. Even deeply meaningful activities can be distractions. That’s the logic behind a suggestion attributed to the investor Warren Buffett: first, write down your top 25 goals for life; then identify the most important five, focus on them, and avoid the other 20 like the plague – because they’re the seductive ones most likely to distract you, precisely because they do matter. They just don’t matter most.
From this perspective, “mindless entertainment” really isn’t the main danger. Yes, obviously, it’s a waste of time to watch four hours of (most) television a day. But that very obviousness means it’s hard to do by accident. It’s when you catch yourself feeling smug that you’re immune to that sort of thing that you really need to start worrying.