Spinning wheels

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

n+1 has published a longish short story of mine, “The Remainder,” in their latest issue—a retelling of Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, but gay, and at the end of the world. For the record, I wrote it about a year and a half ago, when I had no idea that respiratory pandemics would become a part of the background of my own daily life so soon. (I am a very poor self-promoter and should have flogged this in an issue of this newsletter months ago.)

Another story of mine, “Massachusetts,” is coming out in the spring 2021 (i.e., the next) issue of The Yale Review.

For the past three years, our dog has had a progressive, incurable disease called canine degenerative myelopathy. Slowly but steadily, the neural connection between his brain and his extremities is breaking down. He’s still very much himself, but his back legs have gone from uncoordinated to wobbly to collapsing to . . . wheels. The wheels came about last week after a stranger noticed that Peter was supporting Toby’s back legs in a harness and came up to say that a dog of hers had had the same illness and that she still had his doggy wheelchair in her basement, if we were interested. As it happens, she’s the owner of Slope Cellars, a wine store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and when we picked up the wheels, I realized that I had bought the wine for our wedding picnic and for the launch of Necessary Errors from her. As soon as we put the wheels on, Toby started racing around our living room, and we’re super grateful.

Related: I have found Stuart McGill’s book Back Mechanic very helpful in alleviating back pain.

A few friends have books coming out soon: Peter Mendelsund’s new novel The Delivery(FSG) is launching on Tuesday, February 9, at McNally Jackson. Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind (Hogarth) is launching on Monday, March 22, also at McNally Jackson. On the horizon: Liz Brown’s Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire (Penguin, May 18), Christopher Cox’s The Deadline Effect: How to Work Like It’s the Last Minute—Before the Last Minute (Avid Reader, July 6), Hermione Hoby’s Virtue (Riverhead, July 20). Also, my essay on Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters will be collected in an anthology, B-Side Books: Essays on Forgotten Favorites (Columbia University Press, June 21).

“It is with poetry as with chess and billiards—there is a certain degree of attainment, which labor and practice will reach, and beyond which no vigils and vows will go. —So the motto for my stanzas shall be ‘Non licat cuivis adire Corinthum’ [Not everyone can go to Corinth].” —John Quincy Adams, diary, 31 March 1829

“When men were no longer found, their place was supplied by machines.” —Gibbon, Decline and Fall

“At that time I naively imagined that there was no reason why one should not attempt to write anything that one felt inclined to write.” —Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

“He had not the slightest suspicion that in winning an argument one might end up fooling oneself as well as the opponent.” —Soseki, Grass on the Wayside

Late and getting later

[An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet]

Come phone-bank with me on Halloween, at 3pm California time / 6pm New York time! The phone-banking will be under the auspices of Auk the Vote, a Democratic-leaning birders’ get-out-the-vote campaign organized by my friend (and fellow birder) David Robinson, but no birding experience is required. The calls are to Western states where the aim is to flip Senate seats. If, like me, you’ve never phone-banked before, there are training sessions you can take. Alternatively, if DIY is your learning style, there are FAQs, scripts, and how-to videos. I’ll be giving away some paperbacks of Overthrowto participants. Please sign up! Hope to see you there!

In a brilliant short essay about the mood of this election year, Elaine Blair taps a creepy Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale for the idea that sometimes an awful moment turns out to be, in retrospect, relatively speaking much better than what follows. “Remember worrying about the prospect of climate destruction?” she asks. Which reminds me of a climate scientist whom the New York Times quoted in September: “Don’t think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century. Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century.”

Scarlatti’s sonata Kk. 213, “The Lover,” shares six notes with the theme song to the HBO show Succession, but they happen to be the most important six notes in both pieces of music. (In the Scarlatti, the notes are audible at 1’40”.)

“Bathed in the Lake from the boat. It was brilliantly fine. R—— dipped her paddles in occasionally just to keep the boat from grounding. Then I clambered over the bows and stood up to dry myself in the sun like one of Mr. Tuke’s young men.” —W. N. P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man

One wants to feel that one’s country is a force for good, and that when it hurts people unjustly, it’s an exceptional case. But as I was reading this devastating story by Laura Secor about an Iranian materials scientist (New Yorker), against whom the FBI ginned up fake charges in order to try to pressure him to become a spy, and who fought the fake charges in an American court and won—only to be tossed into ICE moments after his name was cleared, and to nearly die of COVID during his inexplicable seven-month further detention, I realized that I’m not at all sure America is a force for good right now. If I believed that a forceful, deeply reported journalistic account like Secor’s would prompt the government to mend its ways, that would be one thing. But I don’t have any confidence that it will, and arbitrary, indefinite detention of the innocent in sadistic, squalid concentration camps is just not something a good country does.

James Pogue went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, a few months before Jacob Blake was shot there, and found the remnants of the working-class, union-fortified culture that the Democratic Party once championed (Harper’s).

For years, John Jeremiah Sullivan has collected early photos of Black life and music, and now he has donated a group of them to MoMA, and written a lovely essay about them (MoMA): “One has tried to imagine this scene so many times without ever really expecting to see it. Then someone hands you a telescope and says, ‘Here.’” (My guess, fwiw, is that the two women in the second picture are dancing. Note the feet of the woman on the right—heels together, toes out, up on the balls of her feet—and the hands of the woman on the left, which look to me to be in the position that hands fall into after you’ve just snapped your fingers.)

“It’s not that she doesn’t know him well, it’s that anyone who has followed him with a mild interest already knows him too well to be surprised by revelations of kind or of degree”: Anne Diebel on Trump family dynamics (NYRB).

“We disagree about who had the idea for the next stage, but deep down we both know it was one of us”: Rafil Kroll-Zaidi on couplehood and storage units (Harper’s).

“The idea of Ferrante’s books overflowing or exploding with anger belies the calm of her narrators as they describe earlier selves overtaken by rage”: Elaine Blair on Elena Ferrante (NYRB).

“Inextricable from the malfeasance that has made the United States uniquely vulnerable to Covid-19 is a widespread failure to imagine one’s own mortality—and a tendency to project it onto others, whose deaths are deemed unfortunate inevitabilities”: Julian Lucas on Hervé Guibert (New Yorker).

“Unlike most recent Democrat and Republican nominees for president he isn’t a meritocrat (Dukakis, the Clintons, Obama) or an aristocrat (the Bushes, Gore, Kerry), or the son of a powerful father (McCain, Romney, Trump)”: Christian Lorentzen on Joe Biden (LRB).

“Anxiety about the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have done more for gun sales than the 9/11 attacks, and even more than the election of Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook shootings, when Americans thought that guns were about to become illegal and that they needed to stock up”: Deborah Friedell on the NRA (LRB).

Meanwhile, it’s fall migration season, and very close to the end thereof, and on my blog, I’ve gone a little overboard with the nature photographs, such as, for instance, of cedar waxwings, blackpoll warblers, morning fog, golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, black-throated blue warblers, pine siskins, and chipmunks.

Harvest

{An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet}

I wrote a short story about what it feels like to have once been able to fly, which The Altantic has published online; the title is “Trajectory.” As a sidebar, the magazine has also posted a short interview with me about the story. I feel like it’s a good story; I hope you’ll check it out. It happens to be the most recent piece of fiction I’ve written—from just slightly before we entered the end-times. (The photos and air quality numbers coming out of California the last couple of days are kind of freaking me out.)

I also wrote an essay for the website Public Books about a best-selling comic novel from 1919 about social climbing, written when its author was nine years old. This one I wrote way before the end-times—almost a year ago—so it’s almost unbearably lighthearted, sorry. Here’s the original dust jacket of the comic novel, somewhat artificially freshened up by photo editing software:

Daisy Ashford's "The Young Visiters"

In other news . . .

I dreamed recently that Keanu put on a sky blue textured rubber body suit that blocked out local noise and allowed him to hear the distant signal and learn that Trump had sold us to aliens for meat and they are coming for their harvest.

“He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.” —Raymond Chandler, The Long Good-Bye

If you haven’t been reading Peter’s ongoing autobiography, told in year-by-year Instagram selfies, you should. Start here.

Write through the disenchantment, reads advice to myself that I have not been able to follow. More useful, in the same notebook: It’s hard to mourn while one is still being traumatized.

“Watch yourself. Every first-rate journalist has just one ambition—to become a second-rate author.” —Egon Kisch, quoted in Antonín Liehm’s Politics of Culture

There’s a new evolution in podcasting that I like: Two of my friends were recently interviewed in depth about their lives: poet and doctor Laura Kolbe, interviewed by Jordan Kisner in Thresholds, and teacher, activist, and birder David Robinson, interviewed by Sam Sebastian in How Are You Doing, Really?

“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.” —Rachel Cusk, Outline

It’s fall migration season here in Brooklyn, and I’ve posted photos of Northern parulas, red-eyed and warbling vireos, and American redstarts on my blog. Also, on a hike upstate last weekend, I got a photo of a great blue heron shaking itself dry like a dog.

“To forget the past so easily seems scarcely loyal to oneself.” —W. N. P. Barbellion, Journal of a Disappointed Man

Here’s a photograph that I seem to take at the end of every summer:

Leaflet #10

Another newsletter . . .


Pluralism

I’m reading Buddenbrooks. It’s a very dry kind of funny, and it occurred to me the other day that maybe even the title is funny. It’s a little odd in English, anyway (maybe it isn’t in German?), to refer to a family’s last name in the plural without a definite article. The family name is Buddenbrook, no s, so in English, the usual title would be “The Buddenbrooks.” Mere “Buddenbrooks” has a little spin on it. There’s a little diss of generalization, as if Mann were saying, “Enclosed please find some Buddenbrooks,” or “Buddenbrooks: A Representative Sample.” Or, with a shake of the head, “Buddenbrooks, man.”

Peter, trying to get into Huckleberry Finn, a couple of months ago: “There’s kind of a lot of Tom Sawyer fan service.”

About six months ago, I started bringing a camera along when I took Toby for his morning walk. My original idea was to take a picture every day of the little vista that Toby and I see when we first reach the Nether Mead, which on some mornings is so beautiful that runners stop to snap it with their phones. We pause there so I can take off his leash. The series was going to be deliberately a little boring but it would be a way of photographing time, I told myself. Unfortunately I am too much of a jackdaw and on the very first day, even one photo of the vista seemed boring, and instead I have ended up taking pictures of whatever seems noticeably pretty or noticeably ugly, which I know is rank middlebrow pictorialism—too much studium and not enough punctum—so you don’t have to @ me, photography critics. Mostly I have only photographed natural things: mushrooms, flowers, clouds, parts of trees. For a few days in late summer I was earnest enough to post photos of leaf blight, which did not win many likes on Insta. (But did you see the leaf blight, person who scrolled by without stopping? Did you really see it?) I like the way the photos register the gradual shift of the seasons when I flick through them, which can be done on my blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything or, in a selection and in a square format, on Instagram. So you see I am photographing “time,” after all. The record isn’t rigorously a daily one, because once a week, on Saturday, Peter takes over the morning walk while I go to the green market, plus I’ve been out of town a few times, and some days I just don’t manage to take any photos worth sharing. On good days, though, I take more than one photo, so I have coverage, as the cinematographers say. There’s at least one photo for every day, if not of every day. Maybe what interests me most about the undertaking is that almost every morning I go into the park fairly certain that probably nothing of interest will come up, because after all I walk pretty much the same route every day, and it’s only a day later than yesterday, so what new thing could there be. Yet almost every morning, there is something. (On one banner day: Slug copulation! They coil around each other, upside down, and then translucent sex organs come out of the sides of their heads, which in turn coil around each other. Very much NSFW, if you’re a slug.) But not always. Which makes it like writing: consistent self-discouragement vs. unreliable pleasant surprise. Bonus: A couple of times, Prospect Park’s Instagram account reprinted one of my photos, making me famous, so there’s that.

I didn’t mean to be the sort of author who would start a newsletter and then drop it as soon as his book was published. But publishing a book is a little . . . disconcerting? (I’m doing better now. I joined a Cross Fit “box.”) The book news since (oh gosh) September 4, if you haven’t already followed it on my blog, includes a couple more nice reviews. Nicholas Dames, for Public Books: “It’s a novel that keeps faith in even the unlikeliest candidates for where redemption might next come.” Tim Pfaff, for the Bay Area Reporter: “Crain is a true craftsman, but the writing mostly doesn’t care what you think of it and shows off shamelessly.” And I sat for a few more interviews, including with Shaan Sachdev, for Bookforum; with Emily Homonoff, for Reading with Robin; and, on video, with Kevin Moore, for Cuny TV’s Twilight Talks.

Leaflet #8

Another issue of the newsletter . . .


Hot and cold

“All do not all things well,” sang Thomas Campion, and one thing that I don’t do well is the last few weeks before publication. My husband and I were trading anecdotes a few nights ago of how, in the month or so before my first novel was published, six years ago, I was a little sputtering butter warmer of rage and self-regard. I don’t want anyone to look at me! Why aren’t more people looking at me? was then the refrain of my days.

Frank Norris once said that he didn’t like to write but did like having written. It’s the sort of thing people like to hear from a writer, because it suggests that the writer is aware that there is something antisocial about the retreat from the world that is inextricable from writing, and that he is happy to reunite with the world at the end. It suggests, in other words, that the writer likes you.

What a lie. A writer is someone who likes other people much less than he likes to be able to say whatever he wants, in as rococo a way as he wants, at whatever length he wants, making jokes that only he may think are funny. For five years, while writing a novel, I have a life I never thought I’d be lucky enough to live: I sit alone for hours at a time, imagining people and a world, and growing fonder of them than of what is called the real world. And then, just when I think, Wow, I’ve finished a novel, what a good boy am I, I am told: You’re fired, sucker. Worse luck, my new job is salesman. Are my social media accounts tonally appropriate? What kind of pencil do I use? Are any of my characters based on people I knew in real life?

Overthrow is that cursed thing, a second novel. By “second novel,” I mean the book where one reaches—perhaps beyond one’s grasp. Herman Melville’s “second novel” was his third one, Mardi. (His actual second novel, Omoo, was just a sequel—more of the same of what was in his debut novel, Typee.) In Mardi, Melville attempted a novel that was also philosophy—allegorical, essayistic, stuffed full with oakum he had unpicked from his reading. It didn’t go over well. No, Herman, we liked it when you did boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism. Not watered-down Gulliver’s Travels but even more pedantic. For his next two books Melville went back to writing boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, though he now appropriated the cultures of England and the American navy instead of those of islands in the South Pacific. In time the thwacked ambition of his “second novel” resurfaced, however. Moby-Dick is Mardi redux—a novel that is, once again, also a work of philosophy. But also with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, now of the culture of whaling. Melville couldn’t have written Moby-Dick if he hadn’t first written his failure Mardi. The challenge thus is not to mind failing. The proper stance to the reception of one’s work isn’t stovetop sputter but what I think of in my internal mental shortand as cool 1970s artist, wearing sunglasses and bellbottoms to her vernissage, cadging cigarettes from her friends in the back of the gallery, downing the yellowy white wine, not giving a shit because what’s important is to keep making the art, you know? Which of course is as much a lie as Frank Norris’s.

Quotes: “Les seuls vrais paradis, said Proust, sont les paradis qu’on a perdus: and conversely, the only genuine Infernos, perhaps, are those which are yet to come.” —Jocelyn Brooke, The Military Orchid

“A delightful feeling of rage seethed and bubbled over me as I read the letter. I was trembling a little and my palms felt sticky. Righteous indignation must be the cheapest emotion in the world.” —Denton Welch, Maiden Voyage

“If England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover, then New York is my own dear old whore, all flash and vitality and history.” —Thom Gunn, “My Life up to Now”

“The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.” —Thomas Hardy, 1875 notebook, qtd. in Early Life

News: There’s an excerpt from Overthrow, the novel whose impending publication is causing me so much agita, in the August issue of Harper’s. In late June (gosh it’s been a while since I sent out a newsletter), the New Yorker website published my review of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances, a history of murders of gays in the 20th century and the so-called gay panic defense.

Below, in Technicolor, is the info on my bookstore events. Please don your bellbottoms and lengthen your sideburns and feather your hair and come:Please come help launch Caleb Crain's new novel Overthrow at a bookstore event in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles Brooklyn: Books Are Magic, 225, Smith St. Tuesday, August 27, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain reads from Overthrow with help from Christine Smallwood, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Smith, and Leon Neyfakh Manhattan: The Strand, 828 Broadway. Thursday, September 5, 7:30pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Kate Bolick. Manhattan: McNally Jackson South St. Seaport, 4 Fulton St. (new location!). Sunday, September 8, 4pm. Caleb Crain and Astra Taylor discuss his novel Overthrow and her book Democracy May Not Exist but We'll Miss It When It's Gone San Francisco: Book Passage, 1 Ferry bldg. Wednesday, September 18, 6pm. Caleb Crain discusses Overthrow in conversation with Anna Wiener Los Angeles: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. Saturday, September 21, 4pm. Caleb Crain talks about Overthrow in conversation with Elaine Blair