I’m writing a novel. Sorry — I mean: three no — no, wait — five novels. I’m writing five novels. Why? Because it’s a Friday and I have a few minutes to spare. (Kidding! I’m kidding. I’m not Simenon or Wodehouse, though I sometimes think they had the right idea.) One is about a group of writers working in a “professional narrating office” (and into the discount bin that goes); another is about a car thief being elected to the Academie Francaise (and wouldn’t you want to read about someone lecturing on the verb ‘etre’ before excusing himself because it looks like the cops just discovered the morning’s filched Ferrari?); another is about a chef cycling around Germany with a Jeeves-like smartphone who becomes lost in a field full of weddings (though I’m still debating what to do, given that I just discovered the film in which Tilda Swinton cycles around Deutschland herself); another is about The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and The Oxford Tab existing on the same street (which means I can write lines like, “The Oxford Tab has run stories where a student took LSD before interviewing an expert on LSD (only to have the drug hit later and lead him to lock himself in the loo of The Bear and The Sea while the bartender politely knocked on the door, asking if Sam – that is, Sam Quimby – could please come out so he could go home, but all Sam could do was say, ‘I can’t. Someone’s at the door’“)); and then there is the itinerant folk musician who decides to start writing his own songs (which means lines about “fingers collectively jump[ing] up the neck of the guitar the way a pack of horses leap forward out of the gate,” and all that, whether or not the structure ends up looking like Un tal Lucas aside.) These are the five. I love them.
They don’t “officially” exist yet. The kind of validation that comes with someone in The New York Review of Books saying, “What on earth was that?” doesn’t exist yet. If I walked into a high school classroom and began handing out pages — which I very well could, especially since I spent today thinking back on the time I took the subway in Boston wearing a giant bear mascot head and casually browsing the morning paper because I had said to myself, ‘Why not?’ — telling them that after they do “Catcher” and “Pickwick,” they’d be working on this next, I’d rightfully freak everyone the hell out. It isn’t like when the owner of a comedy club said to me to tell the person at the door I was a comedian, which would get me into the club for free. Oh, no. I have to compete with dinosaur erotica, our National Franzen Obsession (thanks, Lev Grossman), and “The Golden Age of Television.”
Why stick with writing when the Recession offered up an opportunity to economically reinvent yourself? Because it’s a job you can do for life, for one. Because it can simultaneously organize, consider, and liberate. Because it can house a plethora of rhythms. Because a doctor who can write, a lawyer who can write, or a teacher who can write is a far more interesting person than one who can’t. Why write about writing a novel when there’s no novel attached to your name? Why not walk down the streets of Cairo and live-tweet one’s way through the military and the Muslim Brotherhood audaciously playing ping-pong with the Egyptian public and the very idea of the Arab Spring? Why not try and spin out a paper on Michael Woodford, Amartya Sen, and Jagdish Bhagwati? (Which would say what?) Why not write about that gloriously grin-inducing “Madrid En Technicolor” and compare that end-of-Franco “Hoorah!” to the Madrid of today, where tourism has fallen 22% from the year before, the city’s seven million euros in debt, and where the perpetually battered and ignored pride and potential of the young has meant a giant migration — just in terms of inner-Europe, at least — to the UK? Is there a “Madrid En Technicolor” for them?
When my first girlfriend’s grandmother came over to me at a table one afternoon and placed before me a literal tome of individually laminated, pink, horse-lined pages about the time she fell off a horse when she was a child and had to spend a year in a full body cast — and did I mention the pages were in cursive? — why, that could be me, couldn’t it? What if — by writing about this in public — I end up restricting myself to some ludicrously impossible situation, like taking Mastering The Art of French Cooking and annotating it so much I re-release it as “Mastering The Art of French Cooking … Or Murder?” and try to find a way to weave a compelling murder-mystery through instructions on how to make a good cassoulet with what you have around the house? (And let me just add for the record: I can do the what-would-Churchill-sound-like-if-he-were-a-woman Julia Child voice pretty well. (“We will fight on the beaches, but not before trying this lovely duck cream sauce courtesy of Monsieur Jacques Pepin.”))
To answer the string of questions from the paragraph before last: I mean, yeah, there is the diary Steinbeck kept while he was writing The Grapes of Wrath, and I like the idea of ‘getting one’s mental arm in shape to pitch a good game,’ but do I write about the fact that I have a blank piece of plywood I picked up at a hardware store bolted to some desk legs as a desk, and — when I’m not writing — I scribble away on it, which includes little drawings, like a fish jumping over all of Florida, smudged Spanish words I thought I’d forget, a cutaway of a parrot hiding out in a cowboy’s hat, and — on the bottom — a message that says, “ATTN: WRONG SIDE. USE THE TOP?” Or is it about this, my very buried lede within a lede, where it’s really all about latching onto the dramatic opportunities implied by the stories you hear of when John le Carré heads out to do research for his books, whether it’s wandering around the middle of the Congo War or talking to warlords in Nicaragua and mob bosses in Russia? Is that the window worth lifting?
So even though I’ve done a lot of research, I feel that — looking at the stories in these novels about Mayors, the Zetas, car mechanics, the evolution of language, hotels, the line between Studs Terkel and Agnes Verda, where Urdu differentiates itself from Hindi, and other items I won’t reveal just yet (and does three “yets” make a “yeti?”); even though I can read lines like “Fishes and briskets left in baskets. A girl with a mangal sutra necklace dancing for a moment in the en point style ballerinas use to make it look like their feet are Christmastime toy trains chugging around the floor’s bend. Tiny wisps of tiny horses and tinier bandits. His earlier impulse to see a field full of weddings wasn’t wrong” and feel relatively calm, I feel like — no, no; I know — I have a lot more work to do. It takes both fiction and non-fiction to make a single tuning fork.