When I reflect on this little blogging enterprise I’ve gotten myself into, and what I get out of it, one of the most satisfying reasons is that it gives me a space – however modest – to highlight and promote the work of scholars, writers, artists and other creative types I think are good but don’t get as much recognition as they should. I’m not sure if the America that Millenial readers is uniquely nepotistic, unfair, or given to gimmickry compared to other eras of American media, but it can be easy at times, as a twenty-something graduate student, writer, or painter struggling for recognition or fame to become aware of the role nepotism can play in the arts, the media, or even the world of foundations and NGOs. Part of coming to terms with the rules of the game is about recognizing that life isn’t fair, and that America has a rich tradition of one-hit wonders and hucksters. But in the meantime, what to do as a not-fulfilled-as-one-would-like would-be-artist in the Berkeleys, Cambridges, or Chapel Hills of the world?
Part of the answer, I think, is finding solidarity and space for criticism of one’s work with other people both in and out of your creative metier: not just historians but also musicians, fiction writers, web designers, and others involved in creative work. With the Internet in our lives, moreover, trying to stage and curate such a conversation is easier than ever. That’s part of what I want to do in this blog post, part of a conversation with the author Tessa Brown, a good friend of mine from Princetonian days whom I have interviewed in a podcast before on Hip-Hop Studies, but whose main shtick (other than teaching at the University of Michigan) is as a fiction writer. Tessa is in the process of revising a manuscript of her recent work, tentatively titled Sorry for Partying, and had the idea of putting up parts of the novel online, in a blog of her own, as she makes her way through an nth revision of the work. Would any of her fellow MFA graduates or, plainly, any readers, be interested in offering serious and constructive criticism of Sorry for Partying?
I thought it was a great idea. On one level, Tessa is setting a wonderful example for how young American authors and creative types are finding ways to use web media to reconfigure and reinvent what had, until our generation, been strictly classroom settings. It’s true that with something which can be as personal as writing, you don’t necessarily want to subject yourself to a digital battering by crowds of mean, insincere anonymous commenters, but there’s also no reason why the writing workshop as an exercise has to be limited to the physical classrooms of an Iowa City or Ann Arbor. There’s also no reason why other kinds of authors – I am thinking in particular of historians here – might not benefit from similar e-postings of their work; I have never totally understood the cycle of spending months in isolation (obscure archives) followed by months of anonymous writing to produce an article. Finally, as a not-so-secret reader of contemporary fiction, I was delighted to get my hands on the latest of work of someone whom I encountered first as a writer before I got to know her better at Princeton.
So – let’s dive in. On her blog, Tessa highlights a couple of points to help structure discussion and criticism of the work:
- The Good: What parts do you like, which parts are working well for you as a reader? Of course this is the best feedback to hear. Not just because it’s gratifying, but because as a writer it’s useful to know which places readers are responding to and why.
- The Themes: What is this novel about? What themes do you see developing? (How) are the characters embodying different facets of those ideas? Which themes need further clarification (or less)?
- Setting and Plot: What is the setting? What is the plot? As an author it’s helpful to know how you’re processing these features, whether they’re unclear, how they’re creating meaning for you so far.
- Questions: Are there places you were confused? Is there a plot hole or a blocking error? Did I misrepresent a culture or a historical fact or is there something I should read?
- Suggestions and Speculations: What do you think will happen? What do you hope will happen? Should something have happened differently? Plot or character issues you have an inkling as to how to resolve? Do tell.
In order to structure my own discussion of Sorry for Partying, I’ll start with some breakdown of the setting and plot first, before moving on more to the themes of the novel, as well as some comments on style. Fortunately, there is plenty of good in the work thus far: after doing the above breakdown, I’ll try to sum up what I liked a lot about Sorry for Partying thus far, along with some thoughts about what I thought could be improved and where I see (or hope) the novel to be heading in upcoming chapters.
Let’s begin with where Sorry for Partying takes place. Pardon this Californian for saying the following, but one problem I think that a lot of contemporary American fiction and film suffers from is the way it forces audiences to become acquainted, and often deal almost exclusively, with a certain set of American urban landscapes and geographies: New York City (but especially Brooklyn, and a very particular hipster, young Brooklyn); the San Francisco Bay Area to a lesser extent; college towns; and generic American suburbs. Jeffrey Eugenides, who succeeded grandly at painting a tableau of 1960s and 1970s Detroit and Rust Belt suburbs in his first two works, for example, went down this road in The Marriage Plot by anchoring the novel too much (in my opinion) in New York and a Cape Cod research laboratory.
A similar issue that I find difficult as a reader – but recognize is difficult to tackle as an author – is not just the physical setting but also the institutional setting in which fiction takes place. What do I mean? Fifty years ago, if you were writing a novel ‘about America’, you faced the spatial challenge in your prose of segregation, and of the lack of women in the workplace. Both women as well as African-American authors faced the challenge of imagining other spaces than the ones they were confined to by social norms and institutions.
While we live in a much more tolerant (if less economically equal) America today, the fiction writer today faces a different spatial challenge. Today, many young people – or at least those who are likely to have the professional space or leisure time to write fiction – are sluiced through a common set of institutional spaces. You go to a private school. Then, if you’re lucky, you go to a liberal arts college or an Ivy League university. Your choices then branch some, but they’re still quite limited: Teach for America. Go to graduate school. ‘Save the world’ in a place like Niger or Cambodia. Work for a bank or a consulting firm.
Somehow, however, you might find yourself coming back to the same wedding receptions as friends who did what were ostensibly totally different paths, and it’s still possible to have a coherent conversation with these people, because you still inhabit a world of institutions and experiences – from élite selective universities to consultant-speak – that’s shared. Whether or not that’s a good thing socially is one question, but if I were an author writing fiction today, one challenge I think I would find difficult is how to escape not only the geographical but also institutional constraints of my own experience and imagination. How does a guy who fundamentally only knows about Los Angeles and higher education write about something other than those geographies and institutions?
I think that Sorry for Partying in its current form does a really nice job with playing with this tension surrounding setting. The novel begins in ‘a walk-up in Pilsen at 19th street and Loomis’, referring to a neighborhood on Chicago’s Lower West Side that was once populated by Czechs and Germans but is now largely a Mexican neighborhood. We learn more about the chief protagonists of what we read thus far – Alaia, Carmen, and Wallo, three young teachers of different races who are all working at one of the area public schools (ostensibly through a program like Teach for America). The first sections of the novel focus on Carmen, a Mexican-American whose mother fled with him inside of her across the border after being lied to and impregnated by the coyote who was his biological father. A peripatetic childhood in a variety of unpleasant towns across the American Southwest followed, until, the novel reveals to us, Carmen got a scholarship to Oklahoma State, majored in Indigenous Studies, and eventually ended up teaching in Chicago. Things aren’t going wonderfully for him – he is fired from the school because of funding issues shortly into the novel and makes his way to the Occupy protests in New York City – but he’s propelled by the thought of his mother’s act of sacrifice for him. In much of what we read in what Tessa has shared thus far, in other words, we find ourselves on a journey from the Mexican borderlands to Oklahoma to Pilsen to a Megabus to New York City.
This works for me. We’re finding ourselves, as (presumably) yuppyish readers, in some cities and places that we think we know well – New York and Chicago – but I’m grateful to be able to experience them through micro-settings embedded within them that I otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. Perhaps it’s because the novel moves away from Pilsen later, but I did think that I could have done with another paragraph or two in the earlier parts of what was posted giving me, a non-Chicagoan reader, a better sense of Pilsen as a neighborhood would have been great. A lot of the descriptive language that Tessa lays down in these first chapters is used, importantly, to establish Ali and Carmen as platonic housemates – their worship of Howard Zinn, for example – but I find myself feeling trapped within their apartment in these first chapters. More of a sense of Pilsen – whether in terms of how they get from the school they’re working at, or just the food and smells of neighborhood – would have been great. Some sense of the anchoredness of the Mexican-American community in Chicago, as opposed to the first generation experience that Carmen comes from, would also come from this, helping the novel move away from too much of a focus on immigration and flight, rather than community and rootedness, as core parts of this Mexican-American experience that comes out to me as something that interests the author.
Other moments where Tessa is dealing with place and setting are simply delightful, though. As someone who was, not too long ago, subjected to a hellish early-morning bus ride from Ithaca, NY to New Jersey, and who rides the Oxford-London bus on occasion, I though that the following description of bus travel was not only a neat way of moving us into a part of New York City the trustafarian crowd doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about – the Port Authority Bus Terminal – but also captured that mixture of bad air, not enough space, and the trauma inflicted by other passengers’ lack of consideration.
He awoke in New Jersey to find that, by the perverse physics of humanity’s public transportation habits, by which people group themselves according to race, age, and size, an obese man had wedged himself into the seat next to him. Carmen gave himself a moment to stare at the fine stubble along the man’s neck-chin, the nose hairs that darted in and out of heavy nostrils with each cycle of sleeping breath. Carmen could feel the man’s wide thighs pressing into his own, secretly, beneath the canopy of the armrest.Carmen twisted toward the window and winched his right arm from the vise of the fat man’s weft. Jamming his elbows between his knees, Carmen sent his hands down into his duffel bag. In a moment they reemerged into the recirculated Megabus air with their desired objects, a small notebook and a pen. Outside the window Jersey arranged itself in gas stations and stripmalls and signs for confusing left turns.
While it captures all of those terrible parts of bus transportation, though, what I also enjoyed about Carmen’s journey to New York (similar to the episodes in Pilsen) is that it exposes us to some of those public, non-élite spaces in America that, I sometimes worry, fiction today is getting away from. (I recognize the irony in a college-educated reader who has spent the majority of his adult life in university settings writing this.) I think it’s really important that authors are able to locate those places and spaces in American life that aren’t just part of the K-JD-consultancy career trajectory I described above, or that haven’t been turned into day trip destinations by The New York Times, and finding ways to do justice to them in fiction even if they are not from those communities themselves. While I think that improvement could be made to the descriptions of Pilsen (as well as the Oklahoma university campus, the scenes at which seem used primarily to set up plot), the manuscript is definitely making solid progress towards doing justice to those kinds of public places, those local cultures, that haven’t been turned into élite transit stops or Instagram-filtered posts yet.
Let’s move on to another one of the questions that Tessa posed, namely that of themes. What do I think this novel is about? No single answer comes into my head, but there are a couple of issues I see emerging in the first twelve chapters. One, I think, is the intersection, on the one hand, of Carmen’s first-generation immigrant quest and the search for some justification for the previous generation’s journey to America, with the emergence of the Occupy movement. ‘Forward’ is a theme that comes up with Carmen a lot throughout, in particular the image of someone just throwing their body forward: in one generation it’s his mother crossing the border, in Carmen’s generation it’s him going up the escalator of the Port Authority and heading to Zucotti Park. Carmen is on a quest for meaning, however inchoate, and like his mother he’s just trying to keep moving forward in search of that something. Whether he finds it, and how any participation in the Occupy protests intersects with that agenda, is something I’ll be following in upcoming installments of Sorry for Partying.
Tied with this, a second theme that I get from my reading of the manuscript is the mood of malaise that hangs around many young Millenials today, particularly those who have moved to big (and high-unemployment) cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Living in a place like Oxford and spending as much time as I do around Rhodes House – which is inhabited and frequented by a coterie of impressive, ‘high-flying,’ as the British like to say, people – I am grateful to Tessa for being able to introduce me to another part of the experience of young Americans. They live more modest lives, living in lower-rent neighborhoods like Pilsen and don’t think in terms of five-year plans or where they want to be twenty-five years from now, after the next fellowship or consulting gig.
The issue isn’t necessarily that Carmen, Wallo, or Ali are unambitious or lack idealism; Carmen and Ali spend the first several chapters thinking about how to write an appropriate social history for today’s generation of students, unaware of what Zinn would have seen as injustice after injustice after injustice in the American experience. Rather, part of what I took from Sorry for Partying was a certain mood of malaise – the sense that there is little room for advancement within the teaching bureaucracy in the public schools, that all one can really count on is their friends and lovers in the shitty apartment in the low-rent neighborhood of the city. Unlike, say, Leonard or Madeleine in Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, characters like Ali or Wallo in Sorry for Partying never, ever seem to think in terms of their future – graduate school, fellowship, or marriage? The main thing this generation of liberal arts graduates has are their friends and relationships – but even that seems in peril, as the firing of Carmen illustrates. One passage in particular, which comes after Carmen has left for New York, captures this for me:
They filed into the lounge and each pulled a paper bag from the fridge. Wallo unwrapped two turkey and salami sandwiches, two apples, and a bag of Chex mix, which he’d prepared before arriving at her apartment last night. Ali had a large square of vegetarian lasagna she and Carmen had cooked a few nights ago. She warmed it up in the microwave. The lounge was empty and the lovers took in the silence graciously, chewing.
Part of what’s going on here – and I suspect is the author’s main intention – is expressing the sanctity of the moment of silence that Wallo and Ali can have after dealing with their classroom of dozens of unruly children who need to be managed if not saved by these young teachers. But what arrested me here was the contrast between what Wallo and Carmen eat and the kinds of relationships they maintain. Wallo and Ali are, as the first chapter of the novel highlights, sleeping with one another and are ‘together’ in that sense. But every aspect of his meal underscores a particularity, a granularity about him: two sandwiches, two apples, and a sealed bag of Chex pieces, all put together by himself. Ali’s meal, meanwhile, is the product of something that she and Carmen made together. It’s not sealed off and it’s not pre-packaged – it’s just there. And yet by this point in the narrative, Carmen has already split for New York without Ali knowing.
The point, and what I found beautiful about this particular description, is that it captures the confusing and overlapping relationships of empathy, cohabitation, and sex that seem to characterize our generation: you sleep with someone, but they live in a totally separate apartment from you and cooking something together never seems to happen. You live with someone of the opposite sex, and make a home of sorts with them, but when your job disappears it’s time to abandon all of that and move on to the next city where work can be found. Sometimes it seems that making a home, or being in a relationship – which once might have attended following someone around, living with them, or breaking bread together is become more and more fractured every day. Again, this is just a small moment from what Tessa has shared thus far, but I think it’s a fine illustration of what came out to me as one of the two big themes just far.
I’ll leave it at that – I don’t want my discussion of a manuscript that I obviously enjoyed quite a bit to become longer than the work itself. On my end, this week sees more revision and editing of my own work, putting some polishing touches on dissertation chapters as I get ready to return to the West Coast a week and a half from now. (Given the incredibly depressing rainy weather we’re looking at on this Jubilee weekend, a trip to Palm Springs or even to friends in Phoenix sounds great to me at this point.) As for Tessa, however, who I hope has even more readers after this shout-out, according to her latest blog post, the next installment of the novel comes out tomorrow.
If the above sounded interesting to you, why not check it out?