This essay appears in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia.
This essay appears in Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational Asia.
While on creative retreat in Nepal, I became friends with the excellent poet and publisher, Yuyutsu Sharma. Not long ago, he called me up and asked if I had a poem about my experiences in Nepal for his journal, Praktik. I’m very happy with the result:
Paragliders like fruits flies gather
around a monsoon-ripened Fewa Lake,
or like colorful clippings from a celestial’s toes
catch in the sky above Mount Sarangkot.
All morning they’ve shimmied up a single thermal
whooping, crowding out the brown eagles,
a pilot and his single tourist cargo
bundled together the way twins might
as delivered by a cartoon stork.
Many, I’m told, have come just for this,
taken detours from Lhasa and Kathmandu
to be hefted at last upon another’s shoulders
and carry off armloads of this Himalayan sky.
How their eyes must drink the miles, the
blue haze spun from Machhapuchchhre.
How digestible must look dusty Pokhara,
its corner banyans heaped and leafy,
its sundry shops arrayed just so, all in reach.
How comforting the whole world must seem,
in that allotted hour when country softens
into shape, into color, when rocked and
swaddled, a man might let his own head loll.
How to choose a breakfast shop in Sheung Wan:
Are the noodles instant or homemade?
Is it Nescafe, or can you get ying-yeung?
Do they have toast or just white, crustless bread?
Go there until they remember you as “the usual”.
It may take years. One day it will close unannounced. Rents hikes.
Stand on the road for a few minutes feeling dispossessed.
Have you tried the hotel next door?
Don’t be surprised if the wonton shop sells real coffee.
Try to get a custom order from each wait staff in turn.
One day that too will be closed without notice.
Try dim sum breakfast. Do they offer a choice of tea?
They shouldn’t. You will drink pu’er.
Watch the elderly people scanning newspapers.
Is this where they all congregate? You never knew.
When that place closes, it will be vacant for more than a year.
Try the place advertising “Macanese buns”.
Say the words over and over until the pun becomes obvious.
Try the place with the junk boat sign. Avoid their red hots.
Try the French place. Try the place with a cheese room upstairs.
Try the waffle shop with graffiti lettering. Try
noodles stands A through F. Eat fish balls.
What do you want from your breakfast? Some people
want a choice of spring water. Some people want soup.
Have you looked closer to the subway?
Peer into a shop window. Are there booths?
Are they an ugly color? Are the customers too busy to talk?
Go inside. Order the same thing day after day.
This will help the wait staff overcome their shyness.
Bring poetry to read. The young man running
the till will begin to notice. Eventually he’ll ask
“Another book?” and try to sound out the words on the cover.
Explain for him the meaning of the title.
I was standing in my kitchen eating a cold slice of pizza when I thought of you on the Daily Show a few months back dissing Chicago-style deep-dish. I wasn’t eating deep-dish pizza. I was eating the scraps of some wretched chain-store pie. But it was Sunday morning, I didn’t feel like cooking and I was happy to have it. Which made me think: gee, why get bent out of shape over who’s got the best pizza anyhow?
Now Jon, don’t get me wrong. I know you were just doing a bit. I know you know that no one can actually know what is or isn’t the best pizza in the world, and that all taste is subjective, and that some people don’t even really like tomato sauce all that much, you know, in general, and when it comes right down to it, damnit, pizza is as pizza does on a Sunday morning. I know you know that. Everybody knows that.
That was the joke, right? How we all know it right up until some sauce-tart somewhere gets to talking about how they have the best pizza in the country. Because then it’s on. Then the fists come up. That was your gag that night on the Daily Show — that fragile peace we all live with only so long as no one utters that phrase: the best. Because once they do, we hit back with the full thermo-nuclear “you call that a f-ing pizza I wouldn’t feed that to Mussolini my dog’s ass looks better than your busted-ass pizza f-you f-your pizza your pizza ain’t nothin”.
All they have to do is say the words “we’re better” and we throw out civilization like its the fall of Rome. We’ll salt their tomato fields. We’ll pull down the pillars of their pizzarias. We can only stand so much, after all. Because then it’s a question of pride.
And that’s the word that fills my mind as I eat my pizza, the one real American word, the word we really mean when we say all those other nice words at podiums and mall openings. Pride. None of that namby-pamby kind of “pride in a job well done” either, that United Nations, “everyone’s a winner” sort of pride. It’s pride in having the biggest, swinging-ist dick around. And everyone knows New York City has the biggest pizza dick in dick-town.
So, here we are, knowing there can be no best pizza in the whole world, really, but at the same time knowing that if anyone’s got the best pizza, goddamnit, its us. I’m eating my cold slice of supreme when I start thinking about those words, the best. We do it in so many ways, Jon. It’s not just pizza. It’s BBQ sauce. It’s clam bakes. It’s muffins. Muffins! The grandmotherly sweaters of the baker’s basket. I know people who will fight to the last man sooner than accept the tyranny of another state’s muffins.
But what do those words mean, really, the best? You don’t have to be the best to be proud, after all. You could be proud of having the oldest pizzas in the country, or in being the originals. You could take pride in having the most vibrant pizza community. But as I bite into a cold pepperoni I think, yeah, right, like anyone’s going to walk around bragging about being the mostvibrant. That just sounds conciliatory. That sounds like admitting someone else is the best. Those words are always there, even when they’re left unspoken. The best. The best. In America, we’ve gotten so used to saying “the best” and “the greatest” the words just fall, plop, onto our plates whether we say them or not.
But what do they mean? I’m chewing and thinking and chewing and thinking and I can’t figure it out, really. It’s like staring at your face in the mirror so long you don’t recognize your own features anymore.
It occurs to me that one thing being best means is to not change. The best pizza is New York style pizza, and New York style pizza is a certain way. It’s big and foldable. The sauce goes UNDER the cheese, not on TOP. It’s hand tossed. It’s got mushroom or sausage, but it sure as hell doesn’t have avocado or whatever else those maniacs in California are throwing around. New York style pizza is one way and no other, and if it’s not that way then it’s not the best.
It’s the same way with clam bakes and BBQ sauce. They’re a certain way and the best or they’re not. So that’s one thing saying “the best” does: fixes things. To call something “the best” is to try to capture it, to freeze it, as if under museum glass.
So I’m chewing my cold pizza and thinking about museums and those trays of flint arrowheads and the hundred rainbow butterflies each with a pin through it and my mind begins to wander over to the Egyptian exhibit, the one with hieroglyphics on the exit signs. I’m imagining the Anubis statues and the sarcophaguses, and then I see you, Jon. I see you in the Ancient Egypt section, laid out like an entombed pharaoh of old. I see you, arms folded across your chest, and heaped around you all your worldly riches that you might keep them just as they’d been, ready for your use across eternity.
I saw many things inside your tomb. There, with wall-mount included: the best TV. Here: the retractable hood ornament from the best car. And there in a corner, I saw the best pizza, preserved uneaten, folded into a little hawk-head jar.
I’m talking about a vision here, Jon. The more I looked, the more I saw. I saw arrayed around you in neat circles all the best things in the world. Field after field of the very best. And past them, I could see you’d brought with you even the best places: the best mid-town bistro, the best familia restaurante, the best all-night donut shop. All your life you’d been compiling your list, all for the day you’d when bring them along across the night shores and into the afterlife. You’d assembled a veritable Who-ville of smug, secret triumphs. The best, the best, the best.
And I saw more, even more, Jon. I saw the best beach studded with neon parasols, and the best Fall colors crowding gently a quiet South Hampton road. I saw, curving skyward, a cloud-strewn landscape made up of all the very best things. There in your cell you’d enclosed the best country in all the world.
Now I’m almost done with my pizza. My mouth is lined with cold grease and I’m beginning to get that heavy feeling in my stomach that means my kidneys and liver are getting ready to crank it up a notch. But in my mind, I am far away. I’m with you in the Egyptian wing at the Met and looking across the aisle at another prince of his age and all the best things he’d gathered for his voyage into eternity. There’s not much to write home about now, though. Some pots, I guess, and some wobbly gold chains. A dead cat. Nothing you’d call “the best” by today’s standards. Not so much as a remote control in the whole lot.
I’m halfway through the now soggy pizza crust, and I’m thinking, that’s what pride in having the best gets you: a roomful of dead cats. Pride is a fading photograph. A fresco on your tomb wall growing dimmer every year. Pride is a false promise. The real princes of Egypt only stopped time for them, inside their locked cells. Outside the Great Pyramids the world kept turning. And Jon. Jon. Outside is where someone was inventing pizza.
And with my last bite I think suddenly how small a pleasure it is to delight in being the best in the world. You focus on “the best” but forget about “the world”. Sure, you could go on thinking you’ve already eaten the best pizza of your life, you could believe only in the pizza you’ve seen with your own two eyes and tasted with your own pink tongue. But consider the pleasure that comes from wondering whether the best pizza of your life is still somewhere out there. Not moldering in a corner of your memory, but waiting for you, maybe at the end of a long and exhausting journey, maybe hidden at the bend of an neglected cobble-stone road. I’m talking about the impossible pizza, Jon. I’m talking about the pizza that says: you ain’t seen nothing yet. The best is yet to come. As pride is a sort-of death in life, surely the impossible pizza is an eternity we can hold within our small span of years.
So Jon, I’m writing to ask you to choose again. To not choose pride, that dead man’s hoard, that American affliction. We’re sick, Jon. Sick from pride in being best. We’re sick to death. If our satirists can’t rise above, who will?
I keep writing endings for a piece about my Dad and his painting. Every time I round out an idea, I think: yes, that’s it. That’s how I can put a cap on this whole thing. But when I read them over again, I realize they’re just hopeful volleys. They are the sorts of things you say to a person when you can see they’re waiting for you to say something, waiting for some certain set of words from your mouth. Most of the time, what you come up with only confirms to the needy party that you really don’t get it after all. In the same way, the endings I keep writing all seem to me like missed opportunities.
One memory: I was home from school for the summer and had gotten it into my head to go out and put my poems where people could read them. I was working in the slide library at MIAD, the fine arts college at which both parents worked. It was my summer project to organize a collection of public art slides. So it was natural that I’d start think what we really need in this country was site-specific poetry.
But Dad hated the idea. I’d mentioned it to him after dinner, when he sat in the living room (doing what, a crossword? Only, that doesn’t seem right). I was in the throws of the idea, feeling the passion for it rising up in me when I realized he was sitting very stiff, waiting for me to finish. That stopped me short. Dad and I always went along with one another’s sermonizing when the mood hit. “What is it?” I asked.
“Son, why would you want to do something like that?”
“It will put poetry back in people’s lives, Dad.”
“And what makes you think those people even want that?” I wasn’t sure what to make of the question. I just looked on dumbly as he spoke. He didn’t think I should be striving for mass appeal, and anyways poetry sure wouldn’t be the way to get it. He spoke casually, in the patient voice he had (I’m sure) for students but when he saw I still wasn’t hearing him, he sat upright on the couch and looked at me curiously. “I mean, why not stand outside Walmart and hand them out while you’re at it?”
Then, for whatever reason, in my memory we’re both standing, not angry, but both ready to leave the room anyways. We weren’t used to disagreeing. We stood in front of the two paintings of his in the living room, two of his early successes in the Flowers series. I could read in his body language that he’d thought he’d made an argument-ending point. Walmart. That had to make me see.
But instead it sounded like a fine idea. “Yeah! Maybe I will!” I was filled again with excitement; what a novel idea. The Walmart Poet – I could probably make the local paper. Already I could see opportunities present themselves: a poem about being handed a poem by a stranger. Poems of transaction. It would be a reverse in direction; outside the store you’d be handed paper, while inside you’d just forked it over. “That’s a good idea!” I shouted happily, happy with discovery and with dissidence. Dad just dropped his arms and shook his head in a slow ‘kids these days’ way. That was the end of the conversation.
He was upset about it, though. I couldn’t guess totally why – maybe he was afraid I’d run up against unfeeling public? I thought maybe I’d offended his sensibilities – a “No son of mine is going to hustle on the streets” sort of thing. It didn’t occur to me that he thought it missed the point of poetry in some way; that all art needed to find its proper audience.
I didn’t believe then in proper audiences. I thought I could make people get it. I believed, somehow, in a moment of transcendence where, suddenly confronted with just the right word, the right image, a door would open in the minds of every man and every woman. I suppose I never thought about what it was like to actually be these minds, what this door I thought existed was, why it was closed. I imagined handing a poem out; I didn’t imagine receiving one.
The same went for the writing, too. My faith in poetry was more of a superstition. I thought that, if the right steps were observed, the proper omens tracked, the right charms gathered and fixed together, then the incantation would go on to cast itself. I set to work searching, like an alchemist, for combinations and waiting for the reaction to happen there on the page.
I wasn’t aware of these beliefs while I held them. Like all superstitions, I both performed the rituals and turned a blind eye to my performance – like a child who imagines others can’t see what he’s doing if he looks away. Maybe that was the point of Dad’s and my dispute; that he could see me willfully shutting my eyes of what I was actually doing.
But he didn’t push me on it. He didn’t discourage me when I did put a public poem up, just one, outside a loading dock near to MIAD. I wanted the reader to stand under a telephone pole to read it. Looking up, he’d see how the transformer’s ribbed sides looked almost like the rayed branches of a tree from below. The poem ended with falling leaves. When I went back the next day to check on it, it was gone.
I was born in the early eighties, so by the time I started reading critically, Bruce Chatwin had become received wisdom. His writing was established. I was surprised to hear what he seemed to have meant to his contemporaries:
“No writer has meant as much to my generation. . . In Margaret Thatcher’s ropy aviary of provincial jays, squabbling finches and ‘worthy’ sparrows, Bruce Chatwin has been our bird of paradise, solitary and unpredictable in his apparitions, grand and electric in his markings.”
So says Andrew Harvey in his 1987 New York Times review of The Songlines. I hadn’t realized that Chatwin had been so dazzlingly new. A post on the NY Times Review of Books blog from July 2012 has Rory Stuart saying much the same thing; that Chatwin made English travel writing cool for his generation, that he freed them in important ways. He goes on to then say how inspired he was by The Songlines as a young man – so inspired that he took to a walking journey of his own after reading the book in the late 1980’s; 18 months by foot across Asia. He was shocked to find walking was not transcendent, a promise he had taken from Chatwin’s suggestion that we as a species are born to migrate:
“I experienced not an unfurling discovery, but harsh disconnected fragments: the chafe of the pack, a pain in the knee; I worried about the next meal, or the route. It was often repetitive, boring, and frustrating, and difficult to grasp what people were saying, even when I knew the words.”
His surprise was my second surprise. It’s not fair to criticize the fantasies of other people’s youth (my own, far more stupid, far less constructive adventures will hopefully all one day be available in print), but that he should have been so shocked to discover that traveling all day by foot is not romantic, but painful and dirty, and in some small way hold it against Chatwin’s text, does amaze. Both men give the impression of having had fairy dust blown into their eyes by Chatwin’s writing. I wonder, though, how much of this fantasy was there in the text, and how much they brought with them in the form of fawning adoration for Chatwin the writer. I take this as a cautionary tale both as a reader and as a writer. Not because I worry that some day I’ll write so brilliantly that young Englishmen will need to plug their ears with wax before reading my books to keep from jumping out of windows, but because I don’t think either reaction was part of Chatwin’s project with this (or probably any) book.
Chatwin fictionalized parts of The Songlines. From what I could uncover, he perpetrated two fictions: he collapsed two different visits to Australia separated by more than a year into a single, fictional visit, and he masked two real people (Toly Sawenko and Salman Rushdie) behind a fictional biography, a philosophical bush-whacker named Arkady. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the perils of this fictionalization in regards to dialogue – the temptation to put words in the mouths of a fictional person, or dress up the words of the actual person the character is based on, must be too great to resist. I barely resisted doing this as a journalist. What I hadn’t thought about was how intoxicating this could be for the reader; to believe that such a trip could happen and had happened, that such conversations could be and were had, that there was ever a man as erudite as the in-text persona of Bruce Chatwin.
On top of these fictions, there is also the meta-fiction of the fragmented journal entries; Stewart describes it this way: “Everything, from Aboriginal myths to childhood memories and adult encounters, is fixed, placed, and overdetermined.” I think it’s easier to just say that, with careful cherry-picking, a grand narrative can be read across any selection of history or literature. In a way, the journal excerpts are Chatwin’s own songline through history, his search for the first ancestor. This is how I read them; like a prose poem, or a lyrical assemblage essay. I read them as artifice, as construction, and I suppose that’s what everyone means by calling this book postmodern. As I read, I decided the best comparison for the book I could draw was to poetry, not fiction, and certainly not travel writing or literary journalism. This was not a critical reaction, it simply seemed the most reasonable. But, from these reviewers, I’m beginning to get a sense of the danger of such an approach to nonfiction.
As with poetry, Chatwin writes with pin-prick precision. Again as with poetry, this renders all of the research invisible; the research is folded into the text and not, as is so often the convention in nonfiction, brought up as the voice of ‘research’. Here’s an example:
“The butcher birds were silent. Sweat poured over my eyelids so that everything seemed blurred and out of scale. I heard the clatter of loose stones along the bank, and looked up to see a monster approaching.
It was the giant lace-monitor, the lord of the mountain, Perenty himself (253).”
I can see why young writers would go mad (indeed, I was humbled by passages like these). You can’t even tell he did the research; he just knows exactly what he is looking at, or seems to. Where some writers might be tempted to give more information from their research – a dramatic tidbit about butcher birds, for instance – Chatwin holds back. Like a poet, he lets the specific word carry all the weight without nonfictional exposition. I imagine him taking his notes there in the sand: “birds: motley grey wings, white breasts. They went silent in the trees. Then the lizard came down the slope. Large, a diamond-shaped snout. Could it be the perenty?” Chatwin possesses a vast vocabulary of the physical world; he knows an escarpment, a scree, can tell a bank from a slope. But I am certain he supplements these with research, and after reading The Songlines, I am convinced it’s a combination of on the spot note-taking and detailed enquiry later.
It’s the trick of his writing that readers as lulled into a belief that all of this knowledge just hovers around his head. I applaud the poem-like sparseness, the refusal to allow the extra research to creep in to the text. He does, however, also construct his narrative in an intentionally misleading way. He recalls, for example, a visit to naturalist Konrad Lorenz. On his way in, he has a brief exchange with Lorenz’s wife, who is busy gardening. Chatwin writes it thusly: “We made polite conversation about the difficulty of propagating violets,” (121). I can hear the dew-eyed readers now: ‘He can even speak to flower cultivation! Is there anything this man does not know?!?’ Chatwin’s oblique phrasing and lofty diction invites this interpretation, to be sure. Like a name-dropper at a party, he obfuscates the actual situation by leaving the reader to fill in the gaps. But such an exchange could easily have been completely one-sided; Mrs. Lorenz could have gone on about the difficulties she was having, gently prodded forward by Chatwin’s polite (and journalistically-honed) questions and responses. That seems the most likely scenario, and it’s a situation interviewers often find themselves in. Whether or not Chatwin the man can speak intelligently about growing violets isn’t really the issue, though. What’s important is that Chatwin rendered it in a way that invites a certain reading; that of two knowing minds meeting to discourse on an esoteric topic (Chatwin’s pet vanity, one gets the sense). This is obviously no accident. Though Chatwin was often right (as a poet is right) to hide the source of his knowledge and to phrase painstaking research instead as the clear-eyed seeing of the moment, he was just as often dishonest in this second way.
It is a fine line to walk, perhaps the best lesson a writer can take from this book. Chatwin writes with perfect confidence. His descriptions are direct and unambiguous. He is not afraid to describe a character’s face as “fantastically ugly,” or call the man on the next barstool a “truckie” on sight alone. This gives his prose energy. If, like Stewart says in his review, Chatwin “does not have the anxieties of an anthropologist,” it is because he is not afraid to call a spade a spade, or to hold back the confession that he only learned this in hindsight. But this confidence is also the source of the book’s failing. It makes too perfect the fantasy.
This would be fine, except it is not fantasy; at least, the project of the book is not to slip so completely into the fantastic, and Chatwin is still bound by the autobiographic pact with his reader to “tell the truth”. The Songlines ends the only way it could: abruptly. The two halves, his journal entries and his superficial experiences with Aboriginal peoples, are all he has to work with. He plays loose with facts and forms, but is still constrained by his actual experiences – the conversations he had, the research that trails behind him like footprints. I think he would have been better served going the whole way. He should have fictionalized a narrator. His project was always liminal, on the edge of what human memory and scientific enquiry can positively say. By fixing it to a “real” point, that is the autobiographic author, he was left with an irreconcilable conflict. The problem wasn’t Arkady; it was Bruce. You could not both explore the edges of human experience and be the travel writer dropped into Australia; at least Chatwin couldn’t. We are left to wonder why he held so tightly to his writer persona while everything else slipped away.
Chatwin, Bruce. The Songlines. London: Picador, 1988.
Harvey, Andrew. “Footprints of the Ancestors.” The New York Times. August 2, 1987: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/19/specials/chatwin-songlines.html
Stewart, Rory. “Walking with Chatwin.” The New York Times Review of Books, NYRblog. June 25, 2012: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jun/25/walking-with-bruce-chatwin/
“Explore” is a good word, since it’s original meaning – to fill in the unknown areas of the map – has become mostly obsolete in the modern age. Now the maps we fill in are mental ones, and for many years I walked and wrote to fill in the unknown margins of my own map, a map of the self. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer anymore – I knew I was not going to be a poet, as I had believed for my many years of schooling. I gave writing up, initially. From then on, I had long periods of not writing. But no matter what, I would eventually return to it. Each time, I would approach writing with greater and greater intensity – more time spent writing, more demands on myself in terms of productivity. Like a dynamo gaining momentum, with each revolution I was revving faster and faster. In this way, I returned continually to creative nonfiction.
In traveling, the impulse to experience and understand becomes your entire purpose. I started writing travel pieces in and about Taiwan, and this led me to creative nonfiction. The themes in my writing still reflect my first focus. I write about identity, creation (artistic and otherwise), the ways people try to get closer to themselves, their cultures, their histories. What I’m most interested in is how we map these ideas onto ourselves and the world we see (and how the world we see gets mapped onto us). My desire to have a medium through which to explore these issues explains why, after many years of struggle and little material success, I am as determined as ever to devote my life to writing. It also explains why I prefer the fine balance of fact and impression that makes creative nonfiction, since I am chiefly interested in how those two sides, sight and thought, self and world, inform one another.
This blog is a record of my efforts.