A young novelist explores the anxieties of influence
It’s very hard to persuade a friend watching the clock in an office in Midtown Manhattan that at your artist colony in southeastern Wyoming, you — who are eating food made by a country-club chef, sleeping in a free bed, writing in a handsome studio, and taking walks in a landscape of religious beauty — have it the rougher.
You are 2,000 miles from home, and almost as many — or so it feels — from the nearest human settlement, not that very many kindred spirits inhabit its churches and bars. You must take those meals — which tend toward franks and beans — three times a day with seven people whom you’ve never met and might never want to again. Your bed anchors a room more or less the size of the bed. And your writing studio is outfitted with enough taxidermy that it’s a small wonder the night — the jet-black, fogged-breath, star-exploded night — doesn’t shriek with the cries of its former inhabitants.
No, it’s just you, working on the 12th draft of your first novel, about the person you were 10 years before, only this version of you also forges Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in south Brooklyn.
Your family doesn’t understand why you have to write a novel that reflects so poorly on people like them — and also them, because, rather grandly, they’re certain readers will take the family in the novel for yours. (Never mind that what you imagined has “come true” — around Draft 4, a year after you started, the FBI and district attorney’s office exposed a massive Holocaust restitution claim fraud scheme in south Brooklyn. ) A small army of literary agents has responded to the novel with roughly your family’s level of enthusiasm, though you’ve found one at last, who roots for this draft from afar. He is not alone. Your life is filled with people who have watched, with a mix of horror and empathy, as you’ve banged your head against this brick wall for three years.
You wish you could stop smoking, but can’t. You wonder if that rawness on the left side of your throat is cancer; hopefully not. It’s been over a year since you were broken up with — she has gone on not only to a new man, but also with him to a new home — but you can’t quite get her out of your mind, nor fall in love with another. There are only two things that don’t feel terrible: reading and writing. It’s a small miracle, considering the latter has been the source of so much misery.
That’s the situation, as Vivian Gornick would say. What’s the story? The story is these two books on my reading table, to which I cling for dearer life than the author can know, for he is 25 years dead. From his resting place, with fingers that were pale and bony even in life, he drags me off my ass by my collar.
After New York, southeastern Wyoming is wonderfully humbling: Suddenly, the books that are never farther than the used bookstore down the street require a three-hour round-trip to the Laramie Public Library. I don’t have the heart to deface public property, so in these library books, too, I cannot write. I must be like Lenin scribbling clandestine revolutionary messages in milk in the margins of the innocuous books he received from his visitors.
I must ration, for the month is long, and I have spent my chits on the same man, on the last two books of his I haven’t read. The man is Bernard Malamud and the books are “Dubin’s Lives” and “The Tenants.” Why Malamud? My first literary godfather was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As a 20-something trying to grow into a man, I grew out of Marquez and into Jim Harrison, the great bawdy bard of the American West. What does it mean that I next fell for a writer whose idea of a hot time was, to paraphrase E.I. Lonoff, the Malamud avatar in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” to write a sentence, then turn it around, and then turn it around again?
I am not up to questions of that size. It is all I can do to turn around this sentence. Outside my studio, there is a literal tumbleweed literally rolling past my window, and the first flakes of an indifferent snowfall — you have no idea what it could do if it tried — fall on the bare branches of the surrounding spruces.
It is eternal winter, also, in “Dubin’s Lives,” the story of a biographer failing to finish his study of D.H. Lawrence, failing to recover the language he has lost with his wife Kitty, failing to keep his hands off the young Fanny, who fills him with the life force he can’t quite feel guilty for wanting to feel. Even summer is winter: “August was a masked month: it looked like summer and conspired with fall; like February it would attempt to hide what it was about.”
In my book, it was always dusk. In a novel whose intentions I could otherwise analyze with the relentlessness of a doctoral candidate, I couldn’t say why. Before I read “Dubin’s Lives,” I took this for a weakness of imagination. After I read “Dubin’s Lives,” I decided I should work harder to render dusk in all its liminal richness — until then my dusk was dusk, period; nothing like Malamud’s winter in all its wild, wretched magnificence — but that I should trust the choice. So I trusted the choice. I dove as deep into dusk as Dubin into the snowy field that got him.
Sometimes I saw echoed in, and ennobled by, Malamud a choice I had made. In this way, I forgave myself for failing the rules of balance and giving only a bit part to the middle generation; my novel is all grandchildren and grandparents. I couldn’t understand why until I spent 360 pages limping and wobbling with William Dubin, much younger than he seems on the page. Dubin is a man trying to wrest “passion, beauty” from the inexorable march of time and fleeing possibility. (“I want the world,” he shouts, quivering in fear.) The grandparents in my novel are Dubin after the fight is lost; the grandchildren are 20 going on 90 because they are made to carry the grandparents’ burden. Their souls skip the middle years the way Dubin’s summer skips autumn.
In their unabashed obsession with writing in all its glory and misery — Harry Lesser, in “The Tenants,” also can’t finish a manuscript; I imagine the novels as two fists railing at writer’s block, as if life’s other humiliations weren’t sufficient — the novels guided me through my own modest metafictional inquiry. Namely that my protagonist, Slava Gelman, who tries to figure out how to make an invented story sound credible, is a useful fig leaf for his author, also dancing as fast as he can to keep the stagehands invisible as the scenery creaks. The lessons Slava learned for his narratives, I rushed to implement in mine, for example: “If you say there are elephants flying outside your window, no one will believe you. But if you say there are six elephants flying outside your window, it’s a different story.” What I figured out, I passed to him in a note when the teacher wasn’t looking. Dubin and Lesser distracted the teacher.
Sometimes, Malamud simply showed me what to do. He writes with an inimitable melancholy wryness. Perhaps it is not the voice of American Jewishness, but it is the truest voice of Jewishness as I know it — the voice with which my family, only 25 years removed from the former Soviet Union, speaks. It is the voice of love and loss, or, as the literary critic Philip Rahv put it in describing Malamud’s sensibility, “suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get.” (As distinct from, say, Dostoyevsky, who venerates suffering for its purifying qualities. “Isn’t enough what life gives him, he wants more,” I imagine a Malamud character shaking his head.) It is the voice, quite plainly, of things not working out, but having to go on all the same. Or, in Rahv’s words again: “Malamud’s ‘Jewishness’ is also connected with a certain stylization of language we find in his fiction, a deliberate linguistic effort at once trenchantly and humorously adapting the cool WASP idiom of English to the quicker heartbeats and greater openness to emotion of his Jewish characters.” One of my favorite examples from “Dubin’s Lives”:
Dubin: Maybe I decided to write about [Thoreau] because I wanted to elucidate
Fanny: Which one?
Dubin: Are there two?
William Dubin doesn’t mangle English syntax the way Malamud’s first-generation immigrants from the Pale do, but he wishes he did, or at least Malamud does:
Sleep had for a few hours possessed him, not he it.
The way not to hurry… was to go the short way; but sometimes he hurried the long.
I had read all of those books — “The Assistant,” “The Fixer,” the short stories — but I read “Dubin’s Lives” at the moment I needed it. By this time, my protagonist, Slava, had everything — except a sense of being alive. Malamud released him from his turgidity. Slava began to speak in the voice of his ancestors. From the first page of “A Replacement Life”:
Who was misdialing at five o’clock in the morning on Sunday? Slava’s landline never rang. Even telemarketers had given up on him, you have to admit an achievement.
The copyeditor I eventually got kept turning that last comma into a period. I kept turning it back.
I started writing better prose. Some writers prefer to hit the page uninfluenced, so their writing is inflected by no one else’s. Not me: I have taken hour-long hits of others before starting my own day as long as I’ve written. But no one ever got me as high as Malamud that barren Wyoming winter. The heading “sensibility,” in the Malamud notepad I kept in Wyoming, has 74 entries, and only that many because eventually I gave up taking notes. Read these lines:
Early fall had run a cool hand through the air.
She danced the leaves to Lesser’s tree.
Once in a while Dubin prayed. It was a way of addressing the self; God had a tin ear.
He would wait till he had recovered his strength to get up and go on being lost.
My writing soared. I got looser than the jams Harry Lesser’s nemesis Willie Spearmint plays in “The Tenants”; anyone passing my studio could get an eyeful of a no-longer-so-young man dancing and high-fiving stuffed heads. But nothing except tumbleweeds went past my window; either way, nothing could go wrong on these days; nothing.
The draft of “A Replacement Life” that I completed in Wyoming was sold six weeks later for a sum that made the preceding three years feel almost humanely compensated. Barnes & Noble chose it for its Discover Great New Writers program; Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review.
I mention these accolades only because of how laughably improbable they seemed that winter in Wyoming. Because the outcome could have been entirely different. And I would still have had to find a way to go on. The novel fails, the sentences stall, the love leaves. And somehow you have to keep turning around sentences. To find the strength to go on being lost. What a life. Bernard Malamud taught me that.