I thought I had a dark turn of mind. Listen to this:
“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”
This is a paragraph from a novel written in lone paragraphs separated from one another by a lot of white, or in this case, ecru, space. Mercifully, it’s a very short and very small book. Called “Dept. of Speculation,” it got a suave rave from the New Yorker’s literary critic James Wood. Wood is married to Clare Messud, who has written two pretty unjolly novels herself. His business is to teach us how to appreciate literature on a deep intellectual level.
He teaches at Harvard too, teaches “the practice of the art of literary criticism.” This scares me. Not only does he unhinge literature, take it apart and fondle it, examine all the glistening facets and muddy lingo, but he teaches others how to do that too. Also, he doesn’t just teach any old literary criticism; the l.c. he teaches has to be art for god’s sake. Art about art. (The market for this kind of learning I fear has dwindled to less than zero. Many an inchoate literary critic is serving up decaf, half-skim, extra foam lattes to blonds in yoga togs who are happier in their ignorance.)
Frankly the best literary criticism I’ve ever had access to is that from my oldest granddaughter who delivered a few remarks at the dinner table on Nabokov’s use of adjectives once while back. I wish I had written them down so I could toss them off at dinner parties, should I ever go to another dinner party. Or have one.
Most people who live ordinary lives in ordinary towns outside of Boston or New York or LA don’t care about this. They may be dissecting obscure indy movies about Brooklyn junky artists with dirt under their fingernails and an active sex life, or they might be just loping along trying to make a living. But I have to admit, this kind of James Wood thing fascinates me. Maybe it’s because I’m hungry. When I’m hungry I go off on tangents, some of them full of sense and others spinning out of control. But this paragraph about the life worse than the one of the prisoner at Alcatraz gets my goat.
Somebody should tell this woman that happiness is a choice. That she is odd, and bitter. And she should quit whining. Because surely she does have a button. Whether she chooses to drop that button on the dark floor and then try to find it again is up to her. (See above: happiness is a choice.) Somebody should put her in touch with Gretchen Rubin who pings my inbox every morning with happiness tips that I signed up for. Make the bed, organize the books, that kind of thing.
Okay, so Jenny Offill, the author of Dept. of Speculation, is writing fiction. But here’s the thing: anybody who can write fiction, who can get the attention let alone the approbation of a (as if there were others) James Wood, has a button. Her characters have buttons too.
But I’m a little envious of Offill’s guts and determination in writing that paragraph and sticking to it. It’s inky and nervy and bitter beyond reason. But everybody feels that way now and then whether they admit it or not. At least everybody who’s had an afternoon of genuine depression. If only I had a button, I could drop it and find it again.