An end-of-break update
Greetings, fellow fiends! I am halfway through my reread of The Yellow Admiral and am full of thoughts about the eighteenth installment of Patrick O’Brian’s immortal Aubrey-Maturin series—thoughts having vaguely to do with Anthony Trollope (whose Barsetshire novels I’ve been eating like candy) and what it might mean to classify these books as secondary world fantasies, more akin to The Lord of the Rings or the Earthsea books than they are to the works of Hilary Mantel or C.S. Forester. But this is not that post; this is just taking a moment to look about me and say howdy before I plunge into the spring semester. What can we look forward to this year?
Yesterday the first proper review of How Long Is Now, the novel I published last year, appeared courtesy of the Independent Book Review. I’m grateful to the Review’s editor, Joe Hall, and to Nick Rees Gardner for throwing a little light on this very personal novel, which in the way of small-press books has gotten almost no attention to this point. You can read the whole thing here but I’ll just excerpt my favorite bits:
In How Long Is Now, Joshua Corey’s protagonist, a Jewish-American poet, believes that “every writer works with two intertwining materials, his language and his life.” He wants to write a book about his father, a celebration of New York in the sixties, a place and time exploding with the artists, musicians, and writers that the writer himself admires.
The result of this merger of language and life is a deep-dive into theory and esoteric art. The unnamed protagonist states: “there is nothing in our experience so foreign that it can’t be metabolized and made a part of ourselves.” And he proceeds to tell, or rather, to relive the idealized lives of his father and mother through delicious prose while physically visiting the shrines of his artistic idols, their lives, their experiences imbued within himself. At a restaurant, the protagonist reflects on the influence of Anthony Bourdain, and in a museum, he comes to terms with his experience through works by Goya. In this way, Corey’s protagonist brilliantly contemplates how past art and artists become a lens through which we can gain a better grasp of our present struggles.
…Experimental in its waver between past and present, its combination of theory and narrative, and the shifting focus between first, second, and third person narration, How Long Is Now is as strangely beautiful as it is informative. Cities like Munich, Tangiers, and Madrid are limned illustriously, creating an intimate and nuanced sense of place. The scenery and citizens bloom. With its unnamed protagonist in the midst of emotional crisis, How Long Is Now is a quiet novel, but Joshua Corey’s pulsing prose is a force to be reckoned with.
One writes to communicate, though I admit in my case that impulse has always only just won out over an almost equally powerful impulse to conceal. It’s rare to feel seen as a writer through one’s writing, in one’s writing. When it happens, as here, it’s cause for celebration.
(Want to celebrate with me? Not only might you buy your own copy of the novel but you could then write a review of it on Goodreads or Amazon. I’d surely appreciate it!)
The mention of Bourdain struck me as uncanny; the night before the review came out, for the first time since his death, I watched some episodes from the first season of Parts Unknown, including the one where he goes to Tangiers and has experiences remarkably similar to my own (including a visit to Joujouka), which are chronicled in the novel. (Gardner refers to the “unnamed protagonist” of How Long Is Now, but I feel free to say in the parlance of the Internet: It me.) I’m not particularly prone to strong feelings about celebrities, but I was genuinely devastated when Bourdain killed himself. Part of it was the shock associated with the suicide of someone who seemed to truly have it all; now, of course, I can’t watch the old episodes without glimpsing the desperation that must have always been there. But I also see what I and so many other people loved about the man: his humor, his curiosity, his fearlessness, his empathy, his bookishness and love of cinema, his passion for food and the connections it makes possible, above all his vast capacity for enjoying whomever he was with and whatever he was doing. I have some anhedonic tendencies and the spectacle of someone having a good time is a good counter for them. And though Anthony Bourdain didn’t look anything like my father they were both lanky good-looking Jersey guys who loved to eat and I suppose in my mind there’s a connection there. I miss him; I’m glad that I can still travel with him.
One of the loveliest but also slightly agonizing things about being an academic is the breaks. It’s a privilege to get time off (a privilege that ought to be everyone’s right) but the agonizing part comes in the shift in identity brought to me by every break. During the teaching months I’m a professor who writes in his spare time, but during the breaks I’m a writer, tout court. The transitions are always bumpy; I’m very happy to be a professor, and I’m very happy to be a writer, but for the first few days or weeks around the shift I feel like neither and tend to be grumpy and out of sorts. For the past couple weeks I’ve made significant progress on the novel I’m calling The Murder of Jack Ruby, and I’ve also nearly finished revising the screenplay for a TV pilot that’s been a ton of fun to write. That will all have to be demoted, if not put aside, next week. Yet being a working writer is central to my work as a teacher; my creative writing classes are always more satisfying when I can bring the enthusiasm and frustration of what I’m writing into my work with students. I try to cultivate a spirit of we’re-all-in-this-together; not the least important part of my job is alleviating the loneliness that comes with writing, at least a little bit.
Most semesters I teach two creative writing courses (an introductory course and a more advanced course) alongside a literature course; this spring’s literature course is called Diverse Voices in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. I confess to being less enthused about it than I was about last term’s Shakespeare course, but that’s only because it’s a survey. It was delicious to sink into the work of a single author, even as we gloried in his infinite variety; this course will be more of a skim. It doesn’t help that the easiest way to teach a survey course is to emphasize a sociological take on the material, rather than focusing on what makes the literary technique of Dickinson or Hawthorne so electric and uncanny. The key text of the course, I think, is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Douglass’s writing illustrates the gap in the experience of one’s own humanity—in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others—that can be filled to a degree by literature. Nowhere is that gap more vividly illustrated than in this literally scarifying image of Douglass’ suffering as a small boy on a wintry plantation: “My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes” (my italics). Is that not Douglass’ impossible project in the Narrative—to close the wounds of his denied humanity with his pen?
Douglass famously intuits that “the pathway from slavery to freedom” is the path of literacy—reading and writing. But what is the pathway from literacy to literature? What is it about novels and poetry, or the elevated, experiential rhetoric of Douglass’ narrative, that enlarges the sense of human connection and human freedom? I refuse to separate the sociological from the aesthetic in this respect, because I intuit no contradiction. The more beautiful, or funny, or tragic, or resonant a piece of writing is, the more of humanity it communicates, and this must be something like a political project. I will communicate that insight to my students, if I can.
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