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SVEN BIRKERTS Varia

Finding Traction by Sven Birkerts I seem to do most of my thinking about the future of literature on weekday mornings between nine and ten, sitting in a cloth-covered roller chair in a musty second-floor office that even Bartleby would have thought to spruce up a bitwhich is to say, as I work through the most recent accumulation of AGNI submissions. Though I have described the process before in this column, I dont feel that Ive even begun to exhaust its implications, especially as they apply to the larger literary questions. For in truth I find it impossible to simply screen for interesting contents and not carry on a secondary meditation at the same time. Each new manuscript pulled from its envelope renews at some level the age-old questions about aesthetics and preference. Taking from the top of the fiction pile, for instance, I read: John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake. I stop and respectfully slide the pages back into their envelope. The piece will be returned to its author. Why? I could say a number of different things, and I willbecause I voice them to myself and they seem to the point. I say (putting sentence- thoughts now to what would appear to an outside observer as a sequence of flinches, grimaces, and grumbling head-shakes), This story is wooing me with a regular-guy protagonist. John Maloneya name out of literary Central Casting. The writer is making the enormous assumption that a common world exists and that he need only set John Maloney loose in it. He hits me right off with a trite exaggerated middlebrow verb in order to inject drama, but the wordhunchedtells me that he has a secondhand, a literary, idea of what a story is or might be. He is either young and inexperienced, or experienced and lazy. When a reader reads those words, she sees and feels absolutely nothing, or maybe gets a dull memory echo from the hundred thousand hunched shoulders she has met with in a lifetimes reading. There is no attempt to welcome her to the Never Before. Of course, three words arent much of an indicatoranyone can fumble a handshake and editors as well as readers are likely to extend, if only briefly, some benefit of the doubt. But the encounter with the adjective bitter takes care of that, telegraphing faster than anything that hunched was not a fluke, that this is not an invented but a received world, and that the writer is responding not to his perceptions or fresh imaginings, but to an idea of what writers sound like. This idea is very likely derived from an uncritical involvement in the middlebrow fiction that is the noise against which any real signal hopes to be heard. It isand I harp on this because so much of what I read fits the descriptionas if the writer were hearing not the prompt of the creative Muse, but a voiceover track, or as if he were somehow already reading himself as he wrote. John Maloney hunched Thats the stuff! This is a negative way to begin, I know. Let me stress that my main impulse is not to poke fun (the sentence, by the way, is a pastiche, not part of an actual submission though a pastiche based on the sentences I read morning after morning), but rather, to give a better picture of an editors mind state, vis--vis fiction in this case but really relating to the literary in general. Keep in mind that while making selections appears to be a process of saying yes, editing is much more realistically an almost continuous search for reasons to say no. One becomes a philosopher of the art in spite of oneself, for after there has been enough of saying no, the realization strikesas sketchily suggested abovethat while I seem to be responding on the basis of taste, of I like

this, I dont like this, the taste itself is conditioned by deeper aesthetic biases and valuations, and some reflection on these quickly exposes assumptions about what is viableneededin the literary culture, which is in turn a thinly veiled way of pronouncing on the outlook for meaning in general. Quite a jump, from John Maloney to the problem of meaning, but I make it dozens of times most mornings, which may explain why I feel so tired in the afternoons. I will grant that I react differently to a piece of writingand therefore think differently about the outlook for writingwhen Im responding to a great many samples at one go than I might in another context. But rather than dismiss my situation as anomalous, I value it as offering a particular kind of intensification, not to mention conferring certain insights not as readily available otherwise. The most salientand to me, most interesting has to do with what I think of as traction. Traction is my code for the way that a sentence or a paragraph or a page of prose lands, how it does or does not anticipate and then address the resistance of the open attention. It may seem strange, if not outright perverse, that I would describe attention, a fundamentally receptive, hospitable state, using the idea of resistance. But if I am honest, this is exactly how the process feels. When I sit down with a huge stack of envelopes, each one containing some hard-won, deliberated expression, I am not the tabula rasathe fantasied clean slatethat I perhaps ought to be. No, I am a man of my time, a besieged reader, creating a specific occasion within what is, day in and day out, for me as for most everyone, a near-constant agitation of stimuli, an enfolding environment of aggressively competing signs and mean-ings. And my attitude, when I remove a clump of print-covered pages from their envelope, is not Send me more and more new information but Reach me, convince me that this news is different, that this is the news I need. It is, as you see, a kind of receptivity, but a very qualified kind. Because this is the editorsand in a way, all of oursituation, it is absolutely vital that the work, as I phrased it earlier, anticipate and address it, or at least write within the awareness of it. Most work does not, and I can tell right away when writing does, with whatever degree of success. This accounts for the factmiraculous, but also downright suspicious to manythat I can go through a foot-high pile of submissions as quickly as I do. Keep in mind that I am not, initially, screening for thematic valuethat is a second-stage deliberation. When I first run my eyes left to right down a page of prose I am looking, as reader, as editor, to see whether the writer understands that literary cultureculture in generalis no longer what it used to be, that the situation has changed completely from whatever it was even a decade ago. I check in to see whether the prose somehow records this primary recognitionif in no other way than by avoiding the myriad approaches and attitudes that no longer work. To talk about cultural change at the level I need to is very difficult. In part because there is no obvious independent place to perch, but even more because no one believes that anything has changed at a deeper level. When it comes to the things that affect us at that level, everyone seems to be from Missouri. Not many people will own that in the last decade, by degrees but inexorably, the digitized mediated world has closed up around us, making the seal complete, installing layers of signal between ourselves and the former world, and that in the process the basic nature of our

experience has altered. Not in a point-to-it obvious way, more in a God is dead kind of wayat the level of the transparent ground of things. Which is not to say that most Americans dont still believe in God-the-Father. But we have to believe that artistic necessity evolves. And our situation? As data and image supplanted the authority of the actual, foreground and background collapsed into each other; we entered what writer G. S. Trow years ago dubbed the context of no context, a zone of relativism untethered to the old material world and its various orders. And with that change our relation to the former worldto history, to literaturealtered, subtly but absolutely. All interactions and transactions now take place in a different gravitational field, and if the man on the street wont acknowledge it, the artist has to. Postmodernism had the inkling and offered the first conspicuous response postmodernism with its manifold ironies and its endless play with recycled narratives. But postmodernism is gone, and a great deal of writing seems to be working in the spirit of the status quo anteas if there were any going back from such re-castings of reality. I dont feel smart enough to think the whole business through the totality of the situation is too daunting. For my part, I measure the extent and nature of change by monitoring my responses to things on (and off ) the page, by noting all the former approaches that no longer seem to work and then wondering why. Like a man tracking an eclipse through a cardboard pinhole, I measure the transformation of culture by zeroing in on what can and cant be saidrather, what I do and dont respond to. ~ Obviously Ive gotten onto an enormous topic now, one that a short editors introduction can only brush up alongside. I cant go into all the reasons why things have come to such a pass, nor can I prove that they have (if what I have written so far makes no sense, then what follows will not bring you around), nor can I enumerate which strategies are in my view now defunct. But I can, maybe, touch a little more on this question of address and the ways that I think about it. Basicallyshort versiona work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. The world is no longer everything we thought was the case, and the writing needs to embody thisthrough sentence rhythm, tone, camera placement, or some other strategic move that signals that no tired assumptions remain in place. This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop. Now, this last is a tricky assertion and it will be very hard to make clear, not to mention binding. I dont mean for a moment that the world as we know it cannot be invoked, or used, or dissected. Of course it can. But it cannot be taken simply on faith, as unproblematic, treated as a natural signifier; nor can it be cashed in as if it were a treasury bond from the literature of a former era. Thats another problem with John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake. The sentence acts as if writing were just a matter of supplying the declarative sentence in the old straightforward manner of Hemingway. Butnever mind the time warp of the high school English classbetween

Hemingway and ourselves falls the shadow. Of the transformation of the world. Of the transformation of our consciousness of the world and of the language structures that reflect that consciousness. The old naively asserting sentence is on the endangered species list; it can no longer be used with simple reference to a common reality. That sentence, with all of its encoded assumptions about the world, must now create its terms before it can be put to work. We are back to the blizzard conditions of the white page, and the writers terrible anxiety about what might hold fast on that page. I cannot propose what will, I can only say that the acute recognition of what cannot determines my sorting morning after morning. John Maloney shrugged cannot make a place for itself, except as an obvious parody of a former mode. There is no plain reality such as the one John has been placed in, and there is no more shruggingif there ever was to begin with. At least not of the hammer-hits-the-knee-and-the-leg-goes-up variety. For a writer to create the coordinates of a reality with these markers, though its done all the time, is a lie, if a benevolent one, and for that writer to then pass it off as a representation of human action in our world is a compounding of that lie. I exaggerate, of course. Poor John Maloney has done nothing but shrug his beefy shoulders, and Im already declaring a literary crisis. Bear with me. Im quite serious. Its not just that John Maloneys shrugging is wrong, planting us in the illusion of an old continuity, but the assertion is also not enough. The phrase has not used language to cut into the world, to scratch the resistance, nor does it indicate in any way that it knows what it is trying to slip past us. Writing that works in our day finds ways to indicate that the writer gets it that from now on creative verbal expression is understood as problematic; that it is understood as a gesture undertaken in the face of saturation, in a world that no longer assumes automatic correspondence between word and correlative object or action; that the writer recognizes that expression must in one way or another muscle against the data stream, must create a context for itself in the context of no context. We should be alert, but not despairing. The job can be done, is being done. Writers are ingenious, and the pressure to mark the self on the world, how ever inhospitable that world has become to such marking, is very great. Fresh good work breaks through again and againI can testifyeach piece finding purchase and launch in its own way, and if you want to get a heartening sense of ongoing possibility, I invite you to take a close look at the work assembled here. I can shill for it freely because it is not my own work. But I can also ask it to help make my argument for me. Keep these critical musingsthis declaration of literary emergencyin mind as you read, and see if you do not agree: that no matter the setting, situation, or characters (or, for nonfiction, the premise), these pieces have connived to bring to life the world they invoke and use. They confirm, for me, the continuity of the venture (as do the poems, though that is another subject, another introductory essay) and give evidence that the new order of things can still allow for complex responsive art. Thiscoming across some unexpected new thing, seeing reality refracted in ways Id never imaginedis what continues to make editing a job to wake up for; it more than redeems the seenbetter-days atmosphere of my immediate surroundings.

On Becoming an Editor
by Sven Birkerts
(Editor's Note)

My early literary life was powered by fantasies, most of them the standard grandiose kind having to do with landing brilliant pieces in glamorous places and winning the esteem of fa-mous and beautiful people. But there were a few that were humbler, and of these one was the fantasy of editing a literary magazine, which, if I scratch away at it, was really much more about being in the thick of literary life than it was about doing the work of taste-making. I knew nothing, and I still know nothing, except, self-reflexively, the all-important truth that is the first part of this sentence. I certainly didnt imagine that fairly suddenly, at the age of fiftyin the middle of the clich-ridden period of male self-reckoningI would find myself emerging from the keyed-up isolation that is writing to take on, all-thumbsfeeling, the keyed-up quasi-public life that is editing. Here I am, though, dazedly emerged, and full of thoughts about what has felt like a dauntingly steep learning curve. To begin with, I was more or less ignorant when I took the AGNI helm from my predecessor, Askold Melnyczuk, of what was meant by editing. I had allowed the word to become a kind of synonym for putting together, as in Lets put together a literary magazine. Wrong. Assemblage, I discovered, is a late-game activity. It took only a few days on site (and taking instruction from the maestro, Managing Editor Eric Grunwald) to see that a magazine is, figuratively speaking, a receiving dock for the products of our collective dream-lifethose pure products that Williams invoked and that editing is, before readying manuscripts for publication, very much a business of cutting away the less essential in order to expose the more essential. I mean this both in practical and philosophical terms. Editing, I have found, is the search for signal in a sea of noise. This winnowing of inessentials would seem to presuppose that one has a clear sense of what the essential is, and here the business gets interesting. I discovered quickly (and self-contradictorily) that I both do and dont have such a sense. I certainly could not, for love or money, set out anything like a firm prescriptive aesthetic: this is what the best writing ought to be; this is what AGNIwill promote. No, my allegiances, both formally and in terms of content, are too widely flungI have no jihad to prosecute. But I have come to see that I do have a very acute set of preferences. I almost wrote personal preferences but checked myself. If I believed they were merely personal I would not have taken on the position. I discovered long ago as a critic and reviewer, and now again in the throes of my self-interrogation, that I have preferences I feel are worth fighting for, worth promoting, and that if they dont add up to a clearly defined aesthetic, they nonetheless do describe a bias. It is on behalf of this biasand because of the beliefs and assumptions that underlie itthat I decided to try my hand at editing AGNI. But this is far too abstract, and the editor here needs to edit himself. What I am trying to say is that I am, at root, moved and heartened when I find what strike me as the best words in the best order, never mind the ostensible subject. Language used with high artistic consciousness. Words arranged in a way that declares: here is a living mind; here is a spirit. A good sentence describing piece of gummy candy can telegraph this as certainly as any high-flown rhetoric on the soul or the fate of nations. Reading literature attends as much to the saying as to the said. Whats more, when I read language that connects me to the world, I react, and my reaction has an outward fling: I want to carry the news to others. Before, I have done this by writing essays and reviews, and Im sure that will continue. But the special attraction of editing a magazine is that rather than waiting for others to package the news for me to evaluate, I have a chanceneat reversalto evaluate and put out the news myself. Is this vanity or public service? Probably both. Theres no getting around it: Putting out a journal asks me to believe that my opinion stands for more than itself, that it has reach, that other people feel enough the sameor can be made to feel enough the sameabout life. In other words, I have to trust that many of us go about in search of the quickening word, the phrase that can break through the fatigue of inundation, and the work that repositions the self, however slightlyas almost every good book did when we were younger. I start out, then, with the belief that my longings, if not universal, are at least not just mine, and that if I can identify the work that honestly reaches me, then the broader dissemination of that work may have some value, creating a needed intensification where it counts, in the self of the reader. Askolds thirty-year experiment showed me that this could happen in larger political and social ways as well. I only hope I can grow my biases outward with the same confidence he did. Whatever I may have imagined and projected when I set out to edit my first issue, the fact is that as I write this I have the contents of my debut issue more or less in place. Instead of thinking in terms of what I would like to do, then, I can ask myself what I have already done, where my readerly instincts have taken me. Looking over the contents of this first issue, I will confess I am confounded. Squint at the list how I will, I cannot findstylistically or thematicallyanything that

looks like the figure in the carpet. If I had less faith in my responsesif I doubted that they were somehow organic and integralI would be more nervous. But then the answer, the justification, comes: I see that what I need in this inspection is a change in the frame of reference. I have been looking for commonality in too narrowly defined a sense. So when my associate fiction editor, Jenna Blum, asked me these same questions yesterday, I answered, almost abruptly, Each of these pieces is completely unique, completely unlike any other. As soon as I said that, it felt right. Differenceuniquenessas a basis of commonality, I like that. At least enough to make it this moments platform. And now, with my own space running out, I will only add that I hope you agree and that you take the time to ponder how it is that so many universes can be collected in such a small place. I start and end this reflection in the first person singular, but in fact the most vital realization of all has been of the importanceand pleasureof the plural pronoun, the we that makes everything happen. I offer my special thanks here to Editor Emeritus Askold Melnyczuk, Managing Editor Eric Grunwald, Associate Editors Jenna Blum (fiction) and Rachel DeWoskin (poetry), Brian Staveley (poetry reader), William Giraldi (fiction reader), Tom Sleigh (ombudsman), and our spirited group of interns and volunteers: John Daniels, Elisabeth Donnelly, Adam Fagin, Heather HeckmanMcKenna, Nick Klebaum, Katie Krell, Susanna Lamey, Renee Nichols, and Avi Yulish. Enjoy.

What Remains
by Sven Birkerts
Possibly because the best words in the best order lay claim to a larger life, we imagine that their authors do as well. I imagine it, anywayalways have. Its pure superstition, of course, this notion that the maker of art that lasts partakes of a power. Not an immortalityIm not that credulous. But a kind of grace, a metaphysical clearance, some strengthening of the self s endurance odds by whatever it is that insists on being said. This past year, though, brought a double jolt: the deaths of two writers I had placed in the quasi-eternity they had cleared around them with the abundance of their brilliant prose. Unthinkingly placed there, simply by refusing to associate them with my idea of normal actuarial mortality. I mean David Foster Wallace and John Updike, who, though they could not have been more different, were both writers of fiction, novels, and essays, and who, though their styles and visions unfolded in registers not remotely adjacent, both inhabited their language, those styles, so completely that it was hard to imagine much left over for mere living. Indeed, this was a big part of the shock, for their deathsby suicide, by cancer drove home the fact that they had been, yes, flesh-and-blooding it among us, not only not immune, but by that strange twist of survivor logic less immune than we who remain. Ive joined them in my mind somehow, these two, yet Wallace tilted against Updike in the pages of The New York Observer some years ago (and I tilted with him, writing a parallel piece that claimed that the Master was too prolix, too ready to come forward into print with whatever his pen produced). They represented different, in some ways opposing worlds. Wallace was, in a core part of his being, an unassimilated subversive, and what he subverted, over and over, in his exacerbated scenarios, his outlaw fugues, was the vast entrenched order, the what is that Updike chronicled with calm Flemish exactitude. Updike celebrated an assumption about reality that Wallace was in some defining way at odds with. To call it a father/son dynamic would be simplistic, of course, but there are certain elements of that conventional agon, including the sons will not just to repudiate but to outdo the father. Considering the divergence in their aesthetics Wallaces complete lack of interest in the realism that takes surfaces as the outer manifestation of interior forcesthe field of engagement would have to be the how as opposed to the what. Which is to say the how of language, style: the sentence. Is it farfetched to think of Wallaces prose pitching itself in sustained defiance against the philosophical ground of Updikes, its lightly ironized acceptance of things as they are? The bemused Updike smile endorses a reality, an outlook, that Wallace could not fit himself to, a failure that was bound up, I suspect, with his deepest suffering. Fathers and sons, but also order and chaos. No matter what revising impressions our later contacts brought, Dave Wallace will always be for me first the young man, the kid, that I met back in 1989 or early 1990. I had reviewed his first collection of stories, Girl With Curious Hair, with some excitement in a short-lived magazine called Wigwag, and he had written a thank-you letter (very Wallace, that) in which he said he was living nearby in Cambridge, studying philosophy at Harvard; he proposed coffee. We agreed on a street corner near the Pamplona Caf. I forget who arrived first. Possibly we both did, for my sense is that we were perfectly matched in our anal scrupulousness about promises, meetings, deadlines, and the like. First impressions are funny. Though in later years when I saw him he did not appear to tower over me physically, that day he did. He was all lanky kid, withIm positiveshort light-brown hair, every bit the tennis ace he self-deprecatingly describes in his great essay Derivative sport in Tornado Alley. Well, not every bit. No tennis ace would smokeat all, never mind with the shell-game dexterity that had me checking again and again exactly how many cigarettes he had going at once and where they all were. A kid, yes: fresh-faced, nervous, though I dont think nervous about talking to me I wont flatter myselfbut about the terms of existence, time and space. At the same time he was keyed up, which is somehow different from nervous. The laces on his talking shoes were all tangled up. He was trying to say too many different things at once. He was also modest, sending my praises of his work right back over the net, not accepted, but addressed. His modesty did not, however, prevent him from working to establish his serious-credentials. He made it a pointthis I rememberto score and underscore that even his childhood exposures had been intense, that his father was a philosopher whod insisted on reading philosophy, not Pooh, to David at bedtime. I was deeply struck by Girl With Curious Hair. The prose had raised ungainliness to a kind of lyricism of its ownit was clearly achieved sentence by sentence by a writer who knew exactly how to manage his effects. Those sentences, though I dont know that I thought it at the time, were wringing the oft-wrung neck of eloquence, certainly eloquence of the Updike stripe. They made a music that went against the familiar melos, or honey, of that idea of style. What do I mean exactly? Let me try to illustrate. Here is a small cutting from Updikes Rabbit Is Rich, fairly representative, I think: He goes into the bedroom he and Janice have here and dresses himself in Jockey shorts, an alligator shirt, and soft Levis all washed and tumble-dried at the Laundromat behind the little Acme in the village. Each crisp item seems another tile of his well-being he is fitting into place. As he sits on the bed to put on fresh socks a red ray of late sun slices through a gap in the pines and falls knifelike across his toes, the orangish corns and the little hairs between the joints and the nails translucent like the thin sheets in furnace peepholes. (143)

Though this looks restrained when set alongside other Updike passages, we nonetheless catch the signature mode: his details, his supple and often striking analogies, the confident rhythmic pacing. Now Wallace, from his story Lyndon: I saw the big white Bufferin of the Presidents personal master bed, stripped to sheets, variously shadow-colored by the changing traffic light at the Washington and Kennedy Streets intersection below and just outside. On the stripped bed neatly littered with papers and cards, my notecards, a decade of stenography to Lyndonlay my lover, curled stiff on his side, a frozen skeleton X ray, impossibly thin, fuzzily bearded, his hand outstretched with dulled nails to cover, partly, the white face beside him, the big white face attached to the long form below the tight clean sheets, motionless, the bed flanked by two servicemen who slumped, tired, red, green. Is the difference clear? The Updike passage pushing its nuanced observations toward an idea of beauty, extracting aesthetic pleasure from what might be considered the trivial-domestic, the impulse a fundamental valorizing of creation and the adequacy of language for its representation. Wallace, meanwhile, no whit less precise, or less syntactically ambitious, makes a picture that is slightly garish, leached of any softness of light. He is not, through his narrator, approving the world, but registering it in a way that is highly attuned to its menace. Wallace, I should make clear, was no Updike-hater. Though he excoriated the excessesthe turgiditiesof Updikes novelToward the End of Time, and in the process struck off not a few more broadly applicable criticisms, he also was open about his admirations. The fact is, he wrote, that I am probably classifiable as one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans. Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker, but I do believe that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm, and The Centaur are all great books, maybe classics. And even since 1981s Rabbit is Richas his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellentIve continued to read Updikes novels and to admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose. The language, for Wallace, trumps character, and presumably plot, since Updike is hardly to be accused of great inventiveness or sophistication on that score. But something nags here. Though I almost never find myself questioning the thrust or psychological accuracy of Wallaces assertions, that sheer gorgeousness rings false for me. Not that Updikes descriptive prose isnt manifestly gorgeous, nor that Wallace could not admire it, but there is something too straightforward, something insufficiently questioning, in the way he frames his point. Wallace is not owning up to what I think would have to be the complexly conflicted character of that admiration. For Wallaces whole enterprise can be seen, at one level, as a tilting at that very quality. Of course, to tilt at something in that way, as an artist, is to have been affected by it, to have internalized it deeply, in the way of a son absorbing a fathers presence. But no rebel son will admit to finding his fathers worldview an object of simple admiration. The father . . . In a sense, Updike had only recently begun to accept that public role, and he never seemed at ease with it. For so many years he had been seen as the heir-pending, moving in Cheevers great shadow, then Bellows. Though he appeared to carry the patrician entitlement, and though he was unstinting in his output, dominating the Knopf catalogues, and The New Yorkerpages, front and back, and The New York Review of Books, there was also a way in which he held back, acted happiest playing the part of the newcomer delighted to have been included. He did not want to wear the mantle most of us had him wearing. I remember thinking of Updike as a consummate senior insider as far back as high school. He would have been in his thirties then, but all adults were olderthey wore suits and sat decorously on panels and took honorary degrees and got themselves pictured in Life magazine . . . By the time I finally set eyes on Updike at some New York ceremonial event, he was in his sixties and exudedliterary paternity. I made him a father. And I made kid-Wallace a son figure. Even after the lanky kid had been outgrown, enfolded in a greater girth and the aura of his stunning attainments, I couldnt let the impression go. And Wallace made that preservation easy, even in recent years remaining the puer aeternus. If Wallace was, for many, a writer keyed to disaffection, to late-modern angst, to recognitions of plasticity and horror and in this a kind of harbinger, an early-warning system for a world in accelerated declineUpdike was a figure looking from the other side. Though possibly no less attuned to decline, he refracted his vision not viscerally, not as rage or stark bitter repudiation, but elegiacally, as nostalgia. His renderings expose the starkness of the present through juxtaposition to memory-sweetened evocations of how it was. That, the former world, a world shorthanded as belonging to the greatest generation, was always his subject. And though it was often felt to be fast disappearing, he found enough poetic meat in the remnants, the ruins, to allow a tone that was on the whole accepting. What I think Wallace responded to in Updikes writing was not so much the gorgeousness of the procession of words on the page as the perceived absoluteness of the investment in language. Not that I think Wallace was at all insensible to the lyric end of the spectrumhis precise ways of defying it show that he registered it keenly. Butheres the pointhis determined refusal of lyricism in his own work makes his professed admiration sound a bit glib. And it is not in Wallaces grain to be glib. I dont believe that he would have pretended to an admiration he did not feel. I suggest it was the deeper affinity that he was in fact acknowledging, the recognition that here was a fellow language-captive, a man completely consumed, as he himself was, by the process of ingesting the world and spinning it out as words. This is all psychological guesswork on my part, of course. And I proceed by way of a perverse triangulation, deducing a perceived affinity on Wallaces part from the fact that the two writers have become conjoined in my thoughts. What has

joined them is my very real sense of loss. Of what, exactly? Its complex, when I start to bear down on it. With Wallace, though I knew him only slightly, I register first the loss of the person. Although our contacts were sparse and fleetinga few meetings, a few thoughtful letters, some writing-related businessI did do that human thing. I projected and extrapolated. The man touched me and interested me, I had a strong impression of his character, and I gave him a good deal of affectionate thought. This is not entirely separable from the next echelon of loss, which has to do with the idea of the person, with the fact that hethey bothwere fellow writers profoundly committed to the arduous ordeal of creating a voice for the times. In Wallaces case, especially, I was moved by his urgency, his vision of the existential stress of contemporary life, his recognition of the predatory corporate ethos against which the private self was so utterly vulnerable, in the face of which he was so disposable. Also by his fiercely dark comedy, the filter of his terrible ironies, his flashes of inspired absurdity, salient whether in the stories or the grand world-system that was Infinite Jest or in essays like A Supposedly Fun Thing Ill Never Do Again. I was inspired by his all-out tenaciousness and used his example to spur myself to more and better. Updikein his work I found, though groomed and dressed-up, a sustained lyrical address of self to world, a finely managed convergence of the inseparable responses to beauty: exaltation and sorrow. Like Wallace, I cared less for his characters than for the things they carried, their overwrought longings and their losses. Then there is the disappearance, the evacuation from our common life, of their respective imaginingsso completely unlike, but so insistent, each in its way. Not just the characters and situations, but the disposition of reality, the visualization thatto refer to my examplesin one case would map a beam of light to its destination on the almost cruelly rendered toe, and in the other would ask me to see the Presidents bed as a large Bufferin tablet. The accumulation of all those sightings and presentations is not lost, of coursewe have thembut the loss of their authors forces us to imagine all the features of our world that will escape being seen and served up. Here is the sorrow of reality untransformed, never to be subjected to those specific powerful idiosyncrasies. Finally, though, the bigthe more abstractbereavement: the loss to the language of these makers, these forces of generation. We are fortified by the work of our writers, by their specific books, but no less important is the sense we have, so long as they are alive, that they are with us, in our midst, engaged, taken up with seeing and thinking and processingwith writing. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. When they die we feel a terrible diminution, a suction of available energies withdrawn. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. The air feels thinner, and our gestures of thought feel heavier, more cumbersome, less part of a common purpose. ~ CODA: I have spent the better part of an hour just now fishing through various ad-hoc containers of letters, hoping against odds to find a letter that Wallace once wrote to me, because I had the feeling while writing about him, his presence and use of language, that there was something there for me to find. And I found it, though now, having worked my way slowly through two pages of handwritten prosesmall capital letters on lined paperI realize that I have these last few years misremembered the import. It is less the heady meditation on fiction I thought, and far more Wallace worrying the issue of postmodern irony. But I did find one paragraph on the first page that resonates with what I have been trying to express here: Ill tell you why I dislike writing on a computer. Its just as you say: it makes each line too easy, too provisional. Theres none of the pressure to perfect a line before moving on to the next that script and typewriter enforce. And so on a p.c. I find myself writing way faster, more facilelyI literally think out loud onto the screen. And this fucks everything up, because I can write better than I can think. I like to write not to ejaculate thoughts but to transfigure them through labor and care and the pressure of putting them down on paper where they cant be taken back. I am not a particularly smart or imaginative man, but I find that after much suffering [here Wallace draws one of his signature smiley-faces] and several drafts Im sometimes capable of producing smart and imaginative prose. Writing by hand and typewriter not only brings out the best in meit brings out stuff I never would have dreamed was there. It is thisnot improvement but transfiguration of the contents of my head that I am addicted to. It is astonishing when it happens magicaland it simply doesnt happen on a computer, which makes editing too arbitrary and spatial a business. (posted from Bloomington, Illinois, November 10, 1993) I respond to the pressure, the seriousness, and the effort at modesty, but what I value especially is the emphasis on transfiguration. I have no truck with astrology, but when I read this I had an impulse to check the dates and signs of both writers. Wallace, Updike: two Pisces, their element water, their salient quality mutability.

Bits
by Sven Birkerts
Schimmelpenninck: Made in Holland. A dented little tin taken down from the cluttered top shelf of the bookcase behind my attic desk, a bookcase that has become one of my default reliquaries, kind of like the mesh sieve in the kitchen drain that catches everything left from the wash-up of a family meal, except that the sieve then gets emptied into the kitchen trash while the sentimental refuse of living just accumulates. I picked it up in the spirit of you have to start somewhere, but also with a certain confidence. I am, after all, the writing teacher who quotes to his students the line from Flaubert: Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough. And I do believe it, interest being the discovery of connections that feel as if they are leadingsomewhere, marking a path. It is the product of attention. Look! Look closer! What do you see? Start with the eye and see what happens. Pray, as Lowell did, for the grace of accuracy. Schimmelpenninck. Well, the little tin is there to be looked at, but it would be nothing to mesentimentally, associativelyif it werent for the sound and look of that word. A word that means absolutely nothing to me. A brand of cigarillos, yes. A little choo-choo train of ms and ns. Just above it on the tin a small inset image of a high-browed and peruked gentleman with a stiff collar and a formal-looking flow of white cloth, almost a bib, where a tie would ordinarily go. Herr Schimmelpenninck? Or is this the king of Holland offering his imprimatur on the product? It could just as well be Goethe, theres that same projection of entitled nobility. Doesnt matter. But the whole effect, and probably the reason I kept the thing, is very haute-European. And I know where this threadit is fine and twistyleads. Back to the drawer of my fathers desk, upstairs in our old house in Michigan. That desk, its top right drawer I realize now also a reliquary, was a regular stop for me as I made my way through the rooms. Alone, boredit seems I was both for years at a stretch I snooped and sifted through every cranny of my parents lives, looking for god knows what, looking for confirmation of something, maybe the concealed document testifying to my true origins, I dont think it mattered what, only that I keep alive the feeling that there was something to be found. As if in the scattered stuff of my parents lives lay the secret, the missing card that completed the deck. I never found it, but the charged-up idle investigating brought me right up against all sorts of thingsI mean literal things, bundled letters, peculiar artifacts of completely mysterious provenance, like a tiny elephant figurine, and an ancient cigarette lighter that I was clumsy in disassemblingthat I brokeand that my father confronted me with in a fury, How dare I? Did I have any idea what that meant? This was a lighter he had found during the war, while he was making his way from one place to another, escapingHe wouldnt tell me the story he added it to the pile of things he would one day explain about his life. And I nodded solemnly and promised to leave his things alone, knowing as I did that I would be back, only more careful. The point is that I was right! These things of theirs, throughout the house, but in this drawer, were soaked in significance; they held clues. At least some of them did. How to know which? Without the stories I couldnt. So I had to imagine everything there was a possible clue. I can hear the sound of that drawer rolling open. And there was the tin of Schimmelpennincks. With real cigarillos in it, just under the stiff waxy paper. Maybe a few missing. I can pictureor imaginemy father lighting one in the late evening, with a whisky drink. But really he smoked cigarettes, a few a day, Benson & Hedges, also there in the drawer. The Schimmelpennincks must have been a gift. From a client, a European friend. They had that feeling. I probably took one out and put it between my lips, then carefully replaced it. Much as a girl might try out just a bit of her mothers lipstick. We want to pretend, but really we want to get in close, as close as we can. But this tin here, my tin, is not that. I cant remember how I came by it, but I know it was not from my father. I think I may have bought it during one of my attempts to quit smoking, figuring I could allow myself one cigarillo a day, my reward for restraint. If I bought themIm pretty sure I did, from Leavitt & Pierce in Harvard SquareI would have done so both for the association and for the fact that the cigarillos themselves were the length and basic shape of cigarettes. Enough about that. There are other things about the tin. The fact that I have things in it. When I picked it up from the shelf of course I gave it a shake. Coins. And maybe something else. But I wasnt holding my breath with any thought of treasure. I have little gangs of pennies everywhere. Pennies flock to me. I empty my pockets at the end of the day and leave them on the nearest surface, and then the clutter gets to me and I sweep them in to jars and tins. Nothing unique here. The Schimmelpenninck is just another container with stray pennies. Not like that little boxand where on the crowded planet is it now?that I had all through my later childhood with my Indianhead pennies. Such aura they had, and would have nowcompounded by time and lossif I were suddenly to find them now. But no, once I had the tin on the desk in front of me, I opened to confirm. Pennies, penniesand a button, the kind you clip to your lapel, with a rainbow design and the words Mikrofons and Aptauja and the number 81. And: a neatly folded scrap of thin beigesalmon paper that I recognize instantly as Latvian. I have never seen paper of this color and consistency anywhere else. The button I place right awaya small souvenir from a trip I took to Latvia, by myself, in the early 1980s was it 1981? Mikrofons refers to a pop radio station in Riga, I think, and Aptaujahere is one of the many words that marks the line of my outsiderness. I grew up speaking Latvian at home, I remain moderately fluent, and older Latvians often remark with surprise how well I speak for someone who doesnt use the language regularly, but there must be thousands of words like this one, Aptauja, that I just dont know. And because of those words I feel at a permanent remove, lacking some secret password, the very same thing I remember feeling on the playground when kids used tags and phrases I hadnt learned yet. How did they know to be yelling batterbatterbatter so confidently at our recess games. I mouthed the syllables but felt completely exposed Finally, that folded scrap of paper. Unfolding it, I see that its a ticket: Andreja Upisa LPSR Valsts Akademiskais Dramas Teatris.The theater. Stamped for October 10, 1982. I remember being taken to a play, I dont remember what it was, not a hint of anything that might have transpired on stage, though there is a secondary sensory memory, a small cloud of feeling: the space was plush, baroque-feeling; the lights were warm. And I know that when I later read Chekhovs Lady With a Lapdog, when Gurov travels to the provinces to find Anna and attends the theaterwhere he first sees her againit is this place I picture. But so is everything I read of Russian literature somehow embellished by my

various Latvian exposures, whether memories of being in Riga at different timesthe feeling of stairwell, the look of windows and sills, the Slav faces at kiosksor my own imaginings projected into the stories I heard growing up, from my parents, but more richly from my grandmother, Um, who had such a store of memories from her life, and who trumped other tellers just by reaching farther backher tales of the farm, of trains, soldiers, there was the real redolence. 1982. Set against those stories of Ums, the reach they offered into what felt like the timeless time when things had weight and the world was the way it had been foreveran illusion!not changing every minute and becoming wispylight, 1982 is nothing at all. And for a long time it wasnt. 1982 was around the corner, just down the street, right here. But right now it is far away as a lit auditorium in Riga in what was still the Soviet era, marked for me now by that offtextured paper with its date and place, which I have just now refolded along its creases and replaced in its Schimmelpenninck tin.

Photo: Father-in-Law. We have framed photographs of parents and grandparents from both sides of the family in various parts of the houseon the downstairs bookshelves, over Lynns desk, and along the dresser top in the nondescript room that is really more like a wide passage to our bedroom than anything else. They are so familiar that I rarely look closely, though when I do its like a porthole suddenly opening onto some very deep business. You can only have so many full-strength visitations in any given period, when you look and really grasp someones likeness in its place and time. Its like breaking into a different zoneyou actually feel what that person was like when you were with them. But it never happens the same way twice. If the photo doesnt change, we do. Take the small framed color shot of my parents standing together on the bookshelf downstairs. This would have been taken ten or fifteen years ago, and for the longest time I thought of it as a recent picture. But then suddenlyI dont know what happenedit stopped being that. At some moment when I was not paying attention, the two of them took a full step forward and took up their same pose. Everything looked the same, except now photo felt archival, loaded with change. And when I pass by it now and have it in me to stop, I always remark how young they look. A few years back they were my familiar parents, safely older, but now its like I can reach right over. They are closing in on me. One of the photos on the dresser outside of our room, the one closest to the door, and therefore right in my line of sight day after day, is of my father-in-law Earl Focht as a young man. I knew Earl for several yearshe died some years ago, in his 70s. Looking out is a young man, twenty or so, wearing suit and tie with a pocket handkerchief. His hair is nicely combed, as hair always was, and he is staring steadily out of the frame. Handsome. Earl was often called, with joking familiarity, Earl-the-Pearl by members of Lynns family. The tag catches something of the pretty-boy quality in the photo, and also the sense that he was a favorite, eager to please, much liked by the many women in the extended family and beyond. His mother-in-law, Mag, adored him, to the point of pestering Earl and Delores, her daughter, to go along on their outings. And it was much contested by his six daughters which of them was his favorite. Those were not the only womenand one other in particular nearly broke up his marriagebut the young man in the frame knows none of that, which is of course part of the reason these innocent images can overwhelm us. Lately, though, Im catching another kind of haunt. Every time I glance at Earls face I cant now not see the face of Matt Focht, the grown son of Lynns brother Gary. Ive maybe seen Matt five times in my life, and only twice, really, since he has grown up. But he is there, sure as if he had cut off and combed his long hair, shaved, and suited up. Resemblance, surewhy make a thing of it? But it nags at me. For I knew this photo of Earl for some time before Matt leapt into it, and now that he is there I can no longer not see him. I cant focus in on Earl on his own any more. And something very similar has happened with a framed portrait of my grandparents, Mike and Emilia, that we have downstairs. A classic portrait: they seem to me to be looking out not just from the past, but from a whole other era, like people unpacked from a battered old steamer trunk before the world found color. They stand, so young, but in that way the young once had of seeming old. Formal, unsmiling, probably the same age as young Earl, but historical. That used to be the main thing that struck me when I would study their faces. But now, as with the other photo, all I see is resemblance. My grandmothers face has been taken over by that of my niece Oliviashe is absolutely there, and not just by virtue of facial similarity. Her presence itself feels like a feature of the resemblance. Not that there is any known similarity between her personality and what we remember of Um. Its all so unsettling. As are the flashesat this point they are nothing more than thatthat I get when I look at that picture of my parents standing together. There was a time when I could look at my fathers face and see signs of his fathermomentarily intense traces, as if someone had turned up the volume on resemblanceand that does still happen. But more commonly, and Id say far too often, I am seeing myself. Little glimpses in the photo, and more sustained visitations in the mirror, not during the day, at which point I am habituated to myself, but in that first morning face off, when I step into the downstairs bathroom with its big, well-lit mirror and flip the wall switch. He meets me and takes me in for a second or two before withdrawing. That face, and also the person behind the face. So familiar and strange at the same time. He vanishes, but I know hell come again, and stay longer as time goes on. The photo on the living room shelf is safe by comparison, though its true Ive learned to avoid ambush by moving my gaze selectively when I pass through that room.

Lighter. Found things and the stir they make in memorythats one ecology. But theres another, no less important, describing the shadow world, all that we simply lose, or lose and then, on finding, find without spark. As if to say we are as much about our deletions as our accumulations. Yesterday I came home from travels to find a belated Christmas present in my mail, a bulky soft bundle from my brother and his wife. It was a thick fleecy sweatshirt they had specialordered, embossed with my (and his) old high school insignia. But waitsomething else! There was also a small, tightlywrapped packet tucked in, and with it a note from Erik. Something I found in my last sweep through the old place. He was referring to the visit he and Alison had made to see my parents right before they sold the house and moved East. I

palmed and hefted the packet, mystifiedand then I slowly worked the tape loose. The paper-c0vered weight in the hand disclosed a dull silver sheen. A cigarette lighter. AhI felt the quick flash of wires making first contact. The lighter! But then right away was the pause. Wait, where did he get that? Hadnt I destroyed the thingthe relic, my fathers old prize from the war? There was an afternoon maybe fifty years back, me alone doing irresistible demolition, working loose the parts, the little screws and cylinders and laying the whole thing out for study on his drafting table. And there was the scene later, when my father came home from the office. There wasBut no, this couldnt be right. How could Erik know about that? Had I written about it? Well, yes, I hadbut had I written about barely, in passing. I doubt he would have read it, or, having read it, would possibly have remembered. Still, a faint waft of conjectural self-flattery: my brother reads me! But then suspicion comes chasing: if he had read me, had remembered it, then this was a joke, a little brotherly dig. A wink. Except he is not one for winking. Standing there by the counter, I cant help but consider the speed of supposition: this all unfolded in a second or two. Id just a moment ago lifted the thing from its wrapping and was holding it up between thumb and forefinger, inspecting, and for some reason I looked at the bottom first. There I saw a hole, a place for a missing screw. Maybe it had been reassembled, redeemed. And though I knew that if I flicked the lighter bar nothing would happen, I didonce, twice, again, each time imagining the clean leaf of a blaze. Then I gave it another turn in my fingers, another tilt of the wrist, and when I did the whole investigation fizzled. There, plain as could be on the flat side: S P B. My engraved initials. The lighter had been mine. Mine! Clearly once a gift given, received, and put to use. For of course I would have put it to use. But now, in the wake of all that first surmising, I get nothing. Just a blank the size of the lighter, and those three initials like the breadcrumbs that the woodlad birds had gobbled down. No way back for me. I stared at the thing, waiting for some first pulse of recollection, some Of course! But there was nothing right then and no feeling that anything might be en route, and I do trust myself to read these sensations when I have themthe tiny vacuum flutters that are telling me almost and maybe and allow me to hope that later, right before sleep, or while Im stirring rice, the link will be achieved. Nothing. Though in the nothing I cant help hurriedly sorting names, thinking of people who might have given me this gift. Andra, Vicky, SallyWhy am I thinking of women? Am I so sure that no male of my acquaintance would think to get the thing, any thing, engraved? Whatever the reason, each person there are othersasks me to think of a scene, an occasion. Happy birthday! Congratulations! You did it! But notheres nothing forthcoming. Which means that just like that Im hedged on all sides with my doubts and fears. Not just what kind of friend am I? But also, worse, if this, then what else? How much of the rest of my living has moved out of reach? Suddenly I cant help imagining an alternate scenario, a memory film of all that has fallen away, suffered erasure, or simply bit by bit waned. It would be most of my life, I realize. Most of what has been rustling over the sprockets of the projector and flowering there on the screen. Myself in all of my banished incarnations: shaking hands with my parents friends, or my friends parents, shifting my weight from foot to foot in the cafeteria line behind my fourth grade classmates; stomping in my rubber boots past the bus-driver; taking notes year after year in big and small lecture halls as my professors make their points; eating sheet-cake at farewell parties for co-workers, laughing on my end of the telephone at something someone saidSomeonewho was it? What did they say? Why did I laugh? I never had pants like that, glasses that spooned so hugely over my eyes; I never threw my arm around that fat boy and snickered into his ear. What room is that, what house, what little dog am I wrestling with on that carpet? Whose house, whose dog? World without end, amen. I have never said the word corruscate out loud in my life, I will swear on a Bible. I never put those rabbit ears over that girl in that crowd, and who is she, and who are all the others? I never skiied with wooden poles. Did I? It goes on, this merest moments shudder of imagining. And then Im there, here, still holding the thing, and Liam is looking on with interest. What is it, Dad? I smile and hand it over for him to look at. A lighter, I tell him. With my initials engraved on it. He looks impressed. Wowwho gave it to you? I look away, narrowing my eyes the way I do when Im thinking hard. Im really not sure. I say.