Shelter in Playlist: “Sunny Afternoon”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the sixth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Sunny Afternoon,” The Kinks

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite its upbeat rhythm and title, the opening bass-heavy notes of “Sunny Afternoon” spell doom. “It starts off descending and just floats on down for another 3.5 minutes,” Paul Williams once said in a Crawdaddy review in 1967. The protagonist’s lyrics are confessional about his woes, like a blues song—Kinks frontman and composer Ray Davies mentioned he was listening to Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home as he was composing, which features “Outlaw Blues,” for example, and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Dying)”and yet the complaints are delivered with a tipsy, Sinatra-inspired Old Hollywood croon, backed by the clean, angelic oohs and ahhs of a Lawrence Welk chorus. You can picture the dude Davies put at the center, a ruddy aristocrat on the sweeping, lonely veranda of his estate, drinking a Double Diamond and complaining to the one loyal butler who remains about not being able to take out his yacht.

The first time I really paid attention to The Kinks was in high school, and it was this song got to me. It somehow inhabits the state of its speaker so fully that when I hear it, I feel sunlight on my closed eyelids no matter where I am, damp cotton on my back, a wet heat that’s not too suffocating, slowing the thoughts so that all you have the energy to do is nod politely at your existential dread. In “Sunny Afternoon,” there are problems, sure, but nothing to be done. This is the final battle cry of the human animal, resigned to having a beer as the forces beyond his control rage around him.

Meme courtesy of Know Your Meme, adapted from the work illustrator K.C. Greene.

There’s also another version of this song’s main character who I’ve watched from my window during social distancing: the regulation-bucking Oxfordians who own and rent houses in my neighborhood. While scientists predict a more brutal wave of the virus ahead, my neighbors have maskless keggers, instructing their delivery drivers’ Civics and Nissans to pull up next to their Benzes and Lexuses, tipping in dirty cash. Just as the American now moans about federal safety measures that protect the very workers who bring food to their porches, Davies referenced the woes of titled, landowning feudal-lord families as progressive postwar taxes swept Britain—the backbone, it should be noted, of the current relative strength of the NHS. Across history and nation, the song critiques those who mourn privileges that were never really theirs to begin with, the absurdity of those who think that their personal longing for their yachts (or in our case, dining-in at restaurants and partying) somehow outweighs the labor (and now risk) it takes to maintain them.

And yet, “Sunny Afternoon” might also highlight the luxuries that can’t be taken away so easily: the sun on your face, a cold beverage, a bit of quiet time. The loneliness of the speaker, abandoned by his girlfriend, mirrors those of us isolated from our loved ones; replace “sail my yacht” with something like “see my mom,” and the song equalizes somewhat, taking on heartbreaking relevancy. When the only thing to do in the face of a contagious killer is to stay home, most of us are lazing on a sunny afternoon, whether we like it or not.

Ray Davies was both sick and a new father when he composed the song, two conditions that keep one confined, sleepless and bored. He began to play around on his upright piano and invited his brother Dave to help him work out the instrumentation. “You listen to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and you can see the light coming through the curtains…” Dave once told Kinks Fan Club Magazine. “It’s got that kind of magic to it because that’s what it was like. It was like Ray’s front room.”

I can attest there is magic to be made in a room. I’m always wary about having favorite quotes—it feels like rummaging through someone’s drawer of consciousness—but there’s one about the creative process that I live by like gospel, always attributed to Gustave Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your art.” Patti Smith has a variation of this, too: “In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.”

Balance, stealth, regularity, order. In a room, or in your corner of a room, there are small doses of what we crave from the world: a sense of belonging, a place for everything, protection. In routine, there is something we can’t get from the larger passage of time: a small assurance about what will come next. When you know how and when your leisure ends, you can enjoy it, rather than fearing it will be taken away. When you know the distance from one spot to the next, you’re more likely to leap. In safety, there is play. In play, there is [   ]. Whatever you can dream up, fill in the blank. Your version of a sip from a cold bottle.

I would put spontaneity, or curiosity, or beauty, but it changes from day to day. Afternoon to afternoon. Anything I can think of, really, that I know will survive the fire.

Shelter in Playlist: “Cosmic Dancer”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fifth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

Image courtesy of Sound Opinions.

Are you seeing a pattern yet? Lonesome, surrounded by a menagerie of glittering links to the past, to other worlds. Inconsolable except by the stars. Though I will focus on the lyrics, my favorite part of “Cosmic Dancer” is the sound of Marc Bolan’s guitar. Based on what I hear, I believe (I can’t confirm with a cursory Google search) that these riffs are actually being played backward. The conventional electric guitar is a piercing, jagged sound; people love it because they can practically see or feel the notes penetrating the air. But backward, the riffs of “Cosmic Dancer” sound like they’re being sucked back into the void whence they came. The edges are rounded. Eroding, retreating. Leaping like a gull call back to the beginning of each note.

“Cosmic Dancer” is off of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, an album that contained the one and only hit to cross the pond with American listeners, but funnily enough, the hit wasn’t today’s featured song. Beyond the DJ-favorite “Bang a Gong (Get it On),” the popularity of “Cosmic Dancer” has climbed only in recent years, or at least its use in soundtracks has increased. I first heard the song backing Todd Haynes’ 1998 box office flop Velvet Goldmine, a beautiful, strange, borderline melodramatic retelling of the birth and evolution of glam rock, an aesthetic musical movement of which Marc Bolan was a part. With a plot that’s two parts Citizen Kane, one part Almost Famous, we follow a journalist and a rockstar (a David Bowie-inspired character; so close, in fact, that Haynes had to rewrite the script for fear of a lawsuit) in intersecting vignettes, watching the blooming spirit of British queerness and camp travel in currents from Brian Slade (a la David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Jobriath), to Curt Wild (a la Iggy Pop, Lou Reed). Just as the aesthetics of glam-rock transcend sexuality, the movie is about more than the illicit affairs of its characters. Velvet Goldmine‘s “Rosebud” is a piece of jewelry owned by Oscar Wilde, given from the Iggy Pop character to the rock journalist as a kind of talisman. With this moment as its climax, the movie also seems to be about homage, carrying a legacy of those who live and create outside of convention. Specifically, British and American convention, and more specifically, Haynes’ focus is on the creators who are white men, with the exception of a nod to the late Little Richard. (Speaking of those influenced by Little Richard, I would love to see a version of this homage story with Prince at its center.)

Back to T. Rex: this song strikes me as the melancholy heart of glam rock, the melancholy heart of camp.* If camp is about any style that thumbs its nose at societal notions of “good” or “tasteful,” then “Cosmic Dancer” is about the loneliness of the uncommon. To perform camp, one must be both joyfully accessible and intentionally repulsive. One must beckon eyes and ears with spectacle, but remain impertinent, impenetrable. “I danced myself right out the womb,” Bolan’s speaker narrates in nasally, tremulous tones. A truly camp-y image: the tiny Marc Dolan, soft-shoeing between his mother’s legs, a universal experience that is somehow met with almost universal disgust for its viscera. And there’s loneliness here, too. He danced himself right out. No help implied. A similar solitude hangs over the other mentions of dancing, “when I was out,” and “when I was eight.” I see an eight-year-old boy, alone in his room, swayingplease tell me you see it, too. Just as I see myself when I am a kid, imagining an enraptured audience as I leap about with my chubby body, transporting myself into fantasy scenarios with trips and turns.

*This paragraph is working with a more general definition of “camp” as laid out Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp.” However, Sontag was wrong: the origins of “camp” cannot and should not be extracted from queer culture, especially from the communities and code invented by queer and trans people of color. Read Moe Meyer’s response to Sontag in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, this 2018 essay by Chi Luu, or check out this excellent overview of the history of camp by Erika W. Smith.


Like Velvet Goldmine, and matching the tone of “Cosmic Dancer”i.e. “What’s it like to be a loon? I’d like it to a balloon”the whole Electric Warrior album questions the origins of one’s perceived strangeness. Brian James writes in Pitchfork, “With the incomparable aid of producer Tony Visconti, Bolan sketches a vast, empty room, where, after the party’s over, he resides alone, wide-eyed and desperate.” I can imagine it, this dark room James conjures, abandoned by the tastemakers, the dotted disco lights rotating around the speaker like the swirling, indifferent cosmos. But I can also see him get up, start to sway as he did when he was a child. While questioning the strange, “Cosmic Dancer” also embraces it, especially considering the speaker dances through life all the way to the end. The mention of “tomb” is paired with heavenly strings, and a senseas I said about the backward-seeming playback of the guitarof the sound rewinding. “But then again,” the speaker says right before the final chorus, “Once more.” Once more through life, indefinitely.

Six years after Electric Warrior was released, Marc Bolan died in a car crash. While his human body expired, the lovely, strange worlds created by T. Rex live on. Or maybe, like the wishes of his glam-rock counterpart David Bowie, it isn’t just music that is still with us. “I always had sort of a repulsive need to be more than human,” Bowie once said. Perhaps Bolan is still here in the form of some astronomical material, some benevolent particle that floats through our houses, that gets kicked up with the dust as we dance.

Shelter in Playlist: “Coin-Operated Boy”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the fourth entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Coin-Operated Boy,” The Dresden Dolls

Image courtesy of MySpace.

I positioned Panda Bear’s “Take Pills” next to “Coin-Operated Boy” motivated by both sound and theme. We ended the last song on a train; we open this song with a similar staccato rhythm. After the staticky revelry of a 303 sampler, the dreamy travel of Monster Rally, and the grand hiss of the locomotor carrying us god-knows-where, we are plunked back indoors for a live performance, featuring the unmistakable tink-tink of toy piano. Yes, in this playlist as in life, we are always compelled back inside. Almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the four walls of our own homes; almost nothing is subtle or mysterious about the instrumentation of this Dresden Dolls song. As the song builds, the percussion can barely keep up to the speed of the singer, crashing down onto the circus melody like a stack of Tupperware from the highest cupboard. Its chord structure plays out dizzy and circular, up and down the stairs like a sea shanty.

Like “Take Pills,” “Coin-Operated Boy” is about using artificial means to find joy. “Sitting on the shelf, he is just a toy,” vocalist and composer Amanda Palmer sings in a wistful, conversational tone, “But I turn him on and he comes to life / Automatic joy / That is why I want a coin-operated boy.” Pardon me while I get NSFW for a second: many listeners wonder if this “automatic joy” is referring to certain machinations of self-pleasure. While I can follow the logic of this reading, the Dresden Dolls themselves refute this in an old, archived FAQ, and I choose to believe them. For the purposes of this playlist, in any case, the coin-operated “automatic joy” is prescient of a much broader force in our current lives, a monetized, ever-ready dopamine-dispenser, the prevalence of which 2007 Amanda Palmer could have never predicted. I am talking, of course, about our devices.

“Made of plastic and elastic, he is rugged and long-lasting…” Though not long-lasting enough not to strategically break so we have to pay to update our models every year, the time we spend with our phones and tablets is likely more continuous than the time we now spend with flesh-and-blood people. Before the pandemic, this was somewhat by choice. Now it’s the forced norm of leisure time, especially for those of us who live alone. Sure, I take walks, have socially distanced picnics, read books, throw things in a pan. But the majority of my connection with others is mediated by screens, the mechanics of which are designed to keep my eyes locked on something or someone while a tax-evading company collects data for targeted ads. When you realize the “coin” of this “coin-operated boy” is paid unwillingly via sleight-of-hand, the dark carnivalesque trilling of the Dresden Doll’s piano becomes all the more appropriate.

The “boy” of the “coin-operated boy” is the promise of love and care behind the tricks. Though I resent my reliance on technology, I still use it to reach people. I feel genuine warmth when I see my friends’ and family’s faces on screen, when I hear their voices on the phone. This kind of technologically-induced joy is real, body and soul, and will endure even after in-person visits are not a risk. New relationships, on the other hand, are a different beast. I admit, on nights when the sitcom on the big screen isn’t enough to keep my attention, I go to the other, smaller screen and root around in the ol’ dating app. The situation for single people during quarantine is a sad kind of funny, or funny kind of sad. For my part, the irony is the worst. Just as I was ready to enjoy my new, post-grad school free time and maybe even find love, it becomes borderline illegal to go on dates.

And yet, there’s a part of me who shares the resignation of the speaker of “Coin-Operated Boy.” Perhaps it’s simpler this way, to keep humans at arm’s length while I enjoy the simple give-and-take of Netflix and The New York Times Tiles game (seriously, Tiles is so fun and relaxing, I highly recommend it). Entertainment on my schedule, according to my whims, adhering to my limits, for mere dollars a month. Nobody else’s dirty dishes in the sink, nobody’s farts to smell, no one’s taste to contend with, no giving up my shows for some organized crime drama, no boring talky podcast blaring from someone’s phone while I’m trying to read. This is lonely, but it’s also “love without complications galore.”

As Amanda Palmer begins listing the benefits of romance with a robotic boy“Many shapes and weights to choose from / I will never leave my bedroom / I will never cry at night again / Wrap my arms around him and pretend”her declarations begin to reveal the desperation of the speaker’s circumstances; “I will never cry at night again” seems more like a wish than a certainty. Just as the health and wealth and desires of a real boy might change, so, too, do the joy-giving capabilities of technology. Mirroring a stuck record, the song begins to repeat, “…and I’ll never be alone.” I agree with Genius contributor Matthew Durant: “Palmer’s broken record repetition of this line suggests something breaking down, like stuck clockwork. Despite all the benefits of a mechanical boyfriend, he’s still only a machine, easily broken – and she knows it.” Perhaps our pleasure-giving devices are subject to failures both mechanical and existential because, after all, they were invented by humans with their own existential and mechanical failures. 

Though the song’s predictions laid out how seamlessly we can begin to eschew messy, everyday meatspace and instead occupy ourselves with coin-operated systems, the emotional breakdown and general self-convincing tone of Palmer’s lyrics also suggest there will never be a satisfying substitute for loving a real, live person. What Palmer couldn’t account for, however, is the seduction of control in the midst of chaos. Pressing play and swiping left ensure that automation and algorithms stand in for the risk of failure, the vulnerability of choice and consequence. Sure, randomness can sneak in, but when it does, there’s always a back button. Always a back button on the micro level, that is.

Globally, we’d probably all like to press rewind on the last three months. Then we’d know how to prepare. Protect loved ones. Isolate cases. Gather supplies. Pressure our politicians to shut the country down earlier. But we can’t do that. So, I press play and let the four walls of my house disappear into the four sides of a screen. I watch people laugh and hug and fight and kiss. I let my attention drift from one screen to the other, where someone is on the other end, reaching out in the best way they know how. I type something in reply, bracing as I send, knowing I can cut him off at the first sign of anything disagreeable, anything that might interfere with my reality.

Meanwhile, on the other screen, romantic miscommunications are being cleared up. Rivalries turn into allyships. Wounds heal. If I’m worried my attention is too split, there’s no need. When I miss something important, I can always go back.

Shelter in Playlist: “Take Pills”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the third entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Take Pills,” Panda Bear

Image courtesy of Pitchfork.

We’re all hermits now, to a certain degree. I grew up a musical hermit. While the village of my peers went about their errands singing along to Mariah Carey and N’Sync and Ludacris, I lived in a hobbit hole on the edge of town, listening to oldies. (Maybe you can remember the bumper from your local oldies station. Mine is Good times and great oldies: Oldies 95! To-PEE-ka!) Notes and riffs from contemporary tunes drifted past my cave door, and some like OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” and Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” drew me out to dance, but for the most part I was busy in the dark, dusting off relics from Motown and psychedelic rock and the British invasion.

Whether my hermitude was a product of actual preference, or simply an effort to be in harmony with my chauffeur, who refused to listen to anything past 1973 without a skeptical grimace (hi, Dad), I don’t know. With this listening partnership came an ear for bricolage. Riding in the front seat along the capillaries of Midwestern interstates, I was taught to appreciate the components of songs just as much as the sum of their parts; the vocal techniques, the chord progressions, the out-of-the-ordinary instruments. At fifteen, the last year before I got my learner’s permit, we had a morning drop-off ritual: two cereal bars to-go, windows down (weather permitting), and George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs,” one of my favorite songs off tour-de-force solo effort All Things Must Pass, as well as a lesser-known Beatle single called “The Inner Light,” also written by George. My dad always says that among the post-1970 solo efforts of the Fab Four, Harrison took most advantage of what made the Beatles special (the genius sound engineering of Sir George Martin, for one*), and that All Things Must Pass feels like a logical continuation of The Beatles (the White Album) and Abbey Road, with its sweeping orchestral ebbs and flows and an emphasis on instrumentation and quality, like a chef who prioritizes his ingredients over his personality. (It should be noted that The Beatles’ first whiffs of instrumental experimentation on Rubber Soul were partially inspired by the sitar artistry of Ravi Shankar, The Kinks [who we’ll cover later], and Donovan, who, according to my mother, also belongs on this playlist. You’re not wrong, Mom!)

The deconstructed ingredients of Beatles songs, the drop-off rituals and highway music lessons, the hermit’s cave echoing with the rotation from Oldies 95: all led me to a deep love I didn’t know I had of repetition, of song structure and production. Following the breadcrumbs of the familiar, I began to creep out of the 1960s cave. It started with The Grey Album, the hip hop masterpiece by Danger Mouse, combining samples from Jay-Z’s Black Album (itself a sample-heavy work) with the White Album. Then there were the beats of De La Soul, Danger Doom and Madvillain, Gorillaz, and even Girl Talk, an understandably divisive mash-up artist who combined contemporary hip hop and dance tracks with classic rock. This would soon expand into a general enthusiasm for sampling and electronica, indie psychedelia, and atmospheric albums, anything with some sense of patchwork patterns, anything where the sound is recognizable but slightly estranged. Like the acoustic guitar, beat looping, and clandestine recordings of The Books, or the distorted synth, Beach-Boy-harmonies, handclaps, and off-kilter rhythms of Animal Collective. These artists poked windows in the hobbit hole, letting the air of the moment in, swirling the dust motes of past and present, blurring memories and genre.

Now, in a different kind of hermitude, I try to remember to open my doors and windows every once in a while to avoid stale air and malaise. Those of us with depressive or anxious brains might find the refrain of “Take Pills” familiar. “Surely there’s no substitute for company,” Animal Collective member Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) sings, and advises himself, “Take one day at a time / Everything else you can leave behind / Only one thing at a time / Anything more really hurts your mind.” Inspired by his difficult relationship with the dull blade of anti-depressants, Lennox used a 303 sampler to make Person Pitch, “inspired by hip-hop producer Madlib’s work under the Quasimoto moniker… which eventually birthed the swirling, chromatic hues.

The sampled percussion is also a vivid, echo-y slice of the mundanity of being inside. The song opens with what sounds like a fuzzy recording of some sort of machinery, a whispering hiss and click that resembles the quiet chorus of appliances in a still house, the hums of fridges and gurgling of coffee makers. Eventually the hushed clicks build and break, morphing into an upbeat, layered menagerie of cowboy backbeats, staggered choruses, muted explosions.

As “Take Pills” fades, we hear a train leave the station. Like anyone struggling with their mental health, and all of us uncertain of the future, we might try to “take one day at a time,” to not let the weeks slide so quickly past our windows. From some distant corner of my musical cave, George begins to sing with the sarodshehnai and pakhavaj: “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth. The farther one travels, the less one knows.” And Panda Bear’s train plods on into the next song, its sounds muddying the difference between inside and out. We’re invited to wonder where we’re going, and if we’ll ever find the familiar again.

*A reader (…okay, it was my dad) pointed out that this makes it sound like George Martin produced All Things Must Pass, and he’s not wrong. I meant to say that George Harrison kept up the multi-layered, cross-category feel of Martin’s production style though, yes, it was Phil Spector who produced All Things Must Pass. 



Shelter in Playlist: “Cherry Blossom”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the second entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” If you’d like to read the posts in order of how the songs appear on the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy.

“Cherry Blossom,” Monster Rally

Image courtesy of Monster Rally’s Bandcamp page.

From the beaches of California, we travel to the non-place of exotica. Adjacent to Mike Love’s longing for escape through suggestive nostalgia, the nostalgia of Monster Rally is quite literal, constructed through producer Ted Feighen’s sampling of his “collection of [old] records, combining his interests in Hip-hop, Exotica, Tropicalia, and Soul.” From this combination, exotica has always stood out to me. Birthed from a 1957 album by Martin Denny, virtual record store Hip Wax calls exotica “a narrow slice of popular music or mood jazz, means very specifically tropical ersatz: the non-native, inauthentic experience of Oceania (Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Southeast Asia).” Inauthentic is a key word here. Musicologist Phil Ford says exotica “sounds like movie music without the movie,” and without the the movie, there are no images to anchor the imagination, no real setting or people through which to trace the sounds. Now, we can look up the sites of appropriation, finding the roots of exotica’s “variety of instruments: congabongosvibes, Indonesian and Burmese gongs, boo bams (bamboo sticks), Tahitian log, Chinese bell tree and Japanese kotos.” When first produced, however, Ford poses exotica as an invitation into the colonial white imagination, a place that can “conspire to make a kind of ethnographic pulp fiction” if not checked. It is the poison of vagueness when speaking of cultures with real people with real histories. It is the power of self-soothing delusion in music form. All brightly colored and warm as a bottle of spray-tan.

How to handle the pleasure I get when listening to Monster Rally, or even one of the original exotica offenders like Les Baxter, I do not know. How to curb the need to escape into fantasy when it feels as if the world is getting smaller. The saccharine siren song of this particular exotica is cut with actual tropicalia and hip hop beats, so at least it’s pulled from its original othering context, distorted, dressed up new. At least its collage is visible, I tell myself, and it doesn’t pretend to be a singular truth about the non-Western world. Those who needed no erzatz for tropical places made exotica music, too. Take the work of Yma Sumac, born Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo, a Peruvian colorotura soprano.

I was once in love with a man who was obsessed with the music of Les Baxter. Seems fitting the love was unrequited. Now whenever I play “Cherry Blossoms” or anything other exotica-inspired tunes, I try to stay put, let the track weave through where I am. Let us repurpose and make the world out of the ceiling. This is the soundtrack for drifting and touching things absently, not being afraid to turn a carpeted floor into a dance floor. My friend told me that lately she realized she hasn’t stared off into space so much since she was a child. Me either, I told her. Newness can be achieved through stillness. I never knew how many things in my very own house have a texture. A smell. A sound.

Shelter in Playlist: “Do It Again”

This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. Here is the first entry about a series of tracks of I’m calling “Lovestuck.” Hope you enjoy.

“Do It Again – A Cappella,” The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys performing in Central Park, 1971. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

We open with a track from I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions, a collection of demos and backing tracks from 1968, re-released in 2018. When I found it I knew immediately it would set the tone for this playlist. Regardless of how much a listener knows about the Beach Boys, “Do It Again” would strike anyone as inspired by nostalgia. The speaker mentions “old friends” in the first line, and is immediately overpowered by memories of “girls we knew,” when “the beach was the place to go.” It’s “automatic,” he says, this longing for the past, triggered by conversation.

On the Beach Boys’ real timeline, these were the words of Wilson cousin and bassist Mike Love, harkening back to innocent, sunkissed hits like “Surfin’ USA” and the charmed life from which these songs were inspired. Like their Brit-rock counterparts, 1968 rolled off the wake of a period of experimentation and failure for the Beach Boys, their most creative members weathering difficult public transformations, romances, and substance abuse issues. For our country, 1968 meant a spike of US-led aggression in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the violent battle between police and protesters in Chicago. The optimism of post-war America was fading and twisting, dissolving the utility of “peace and love” as a viable safety net against racism, corruption, war-mongering, and greed. Like other 1968 hits like “People Got to Be Free” and “Those Were the Days,” the plea of “Do It Again” is tragic because it is futile. You can’t go back, Brian and Mike. No matter how much the song resembles the hits and of the early 60s, the band would leave the studio and walk into a chaotic 1968 world. The desperation for the past as utopia is palpable. It wasn’t even the end of the decade and already the culture was looking back, longing. Reminds me of the evolution of 2000s hipster culture, with their centerpieces of vinyl and vintage; a nostalgia that felt to many to be unearned, too quick.

Now, our nostalgia is compressed into a matter of months. In “Do It Again,” I couldn’t help but recognize my own futile plea for the not-so-distant past of public life before quarantine. The song references the hazy, youthful freedom of simple pleasures of the California outdoorssurfing, warm weather, moonlight, bodies (and here the gentle misogyny of the Beach Boys ethos, placing female bodies as part of the landscape, springing from the sand fully formed with “long hair” and sun-bronzed skin rather than human beings in and of themselves)not unlike the longing I feel for my own simple joys. The smell of a coffee shop. Chatter and laughter. Hugging a friend. The harmonies of this acapella version are both haunting and delicious in their simplicity, like the sharp, sweet whiff of honeysuckle on a summer breeze, but a bit lonely without back-up instruments. And yet this arrangment of voices, especially in this stripped down version, also conjures what we long for, past and present: companionship, a sense of people being in the room together, making something beautiful.



Things I’ll Miss: An Updating List

Among the list of Questionable Habits I have been chipping away at for the past few years is the tendency to stage a dramatic breakup with the places I call home. A few months or weeks before I’m set for departure, I will begin cataloging perceived flaws of my living situation, incompatibilities with the city or neighborhood, sites of friction between who I want to be and what the surrounding community has to offer me. Sometimes, the stories told to motivate these transitions are true: “I just want to live somewhere habitable,” I said as I left the bedbug-ridden, smoke-choked apartment complex in Stevens Square. Seems fair. Or later, after I was sexually harassed and groped next to my bus stop on North Broadway, I was ready to move somewhere where that didn’t happen so much. Also fair.

But there were other times when I was in pain, or unsettled, or just plain bored, and I splashed my discomfort onto my surroundings for no good reason. No good reason except I was wounded, and scared, and broke. Maybe moving felt like a way to be mobile when I felt trapped by my financial circumstances. Without realizing it, I was straight up chewing and swallowing the cliche of “you can never escape yourself,” dipped, of course, in the irony that moving is really expensive. At 21, I left a fully furnished $275/month bedroom in a house full of kind, cornfed college boys for roach-hotel floors and scratchy couches halfway across the country in New York. Two years after that, I left a wood-floored apartment on a tree-lined street, complete with a balcony and dishwasher, because Saint Paul had “too many families.” When I was 26, I left a whimsical, high-ceiling-ed room in a refurbished mansion after a year of living there because I was “tired of the Uptown hipsters.” I moved every single year of my twenties, except for twenty-nine. According to one story I told about that first cheap apartment in Lawrence, things were “too slow.” I wanted to be a writer, and in order to do that, I couldn’t sit around, killing mosquitoes on the porches of my childhood friends, working the counter at a burrito place. Now, that’s all I want to do. I want to be a permanent fixture. I want to know a place so well, I notice the slightest change in my surroundings. New checker. New addition to a neighbor’s garden. New spiders. Sometimes I worry that this desire to be permanent is only one of many novel desires (I’ve never wanted permanence before), and my desire for permanence won’t be permanent, after all. We’ll just have to see.

Leaving Minnesota in 2017, I was more careful to give thanks as I said goodbye. I knew I was doing the right thing, but for the first time I wasn’t belly flopping into the next phase. My life in the Twin Cities had been complicated and rich and heartbreaking, and the state spoiled me rotten with amenities. I took a long time to say goodbye to the cool mossy lakes and big fat bike lanes and glittering frost. The corny yellow trains and long, wild nights and backyard fires. It was not a perfect place, but it was a good place for me for a while.

Oxford. F**king Oxford. I hated it within a month of living here. If you know me, you’ve heard the list of things I hate. Everyone drives. People talk at grown women like they’re toddlers in a beauty pageant. You can’t walk anywhere without the sidewalk ending or a truck with NRA stickers revving at you threateningly. Starts and ends with the residents aged 18-24 who are going the same weird, selfish phases that I went through, but are doing it with double-parked Range Rovers, unironic Reagan Bush t-shirts, racist Snapchat filters for their Greek events, and an open disdain for the very values that allow them to cheat their way through a Marketing degree. “Socialism Sucks” is a popular sticker I see on laptops here. At the willing blindness of parading that mindset in an institution literally funded on the collective backs of taxpayers, I bite my tongue. It’s not like these people didn’t exist in New York or Minnesota. There’s just a higher percentage of them here, and the city’s infrastructure, its policies, the very social fabric of this community is built around their whims and the whims of their parents. Their parents are oil barons and old money factory owners with slave-owning ancestors, who fly to Atlanta for plastic surgery, who keep condos in Oxford stocked with Tito’s for football weekends where they drink with their spray-tanned children until they’re red in the face, ready to descend on public spaces, shouting slurs at anyone who doesn’t conform to their idea of personhood (read: white, wearing gendered clothing), ready to relive the antebellum glory they never knew. The next day, they begin again at 8:00 am, eating shrimp and drinking overpriced cocktails on balconies until the sun sets, at which point they go into the local bookstore, asking for Tami Lahren’s autobiography (is that how to spell it? I’m not going to Google her name). None of this is exaggeration; all of this I’ve witnessed over the past three years. I hate it here. Not everyone is like this, but the majority are, and too many forgive them. I never will, even though I don’t know the worst of it. I hate it here. I will say it until I’ve pulled my U-Haul across the county line, and then I will never think of it again. (I wish.) I hate it here.


I started writing this post before the streets and the grocery stores emptied. Oxford without its people is usually the best Oxford. Now, the quiet is a little stranger. Now, you can walk everywhere. My plan for this post was to focus on the things I would miss about this place, to give thanks for what the good parts have given me. Those parts have abruptly changed, and will continue to change, in the aftermath of coronavirus precautions.

The Oxford Canteen would have top of my list of places I would miss, the restaurant where I’ve staffed the counter for three years. But we had to close. Listing its wonderful qualities seems too much like a eulogy right now. I’ll come back to it.

The second would be the Whirlpool Trails, where I run, but I stopped running outside. Being out is still allowed here, but I began to want every moment I spent out of my apartment to be calming and slow and spontaneous. I can take the world for what it is a little easier when I’m not panting to house music. So I do workout videos inside; my favorites feature some very fit New Zealanders who come with my membership to the YMCA. You haven’t lived until someone yells keek, keek, uppah-cut at you while they float through a Peter Jackson-esque green screen landscapes.

Sometimes the main walking paths are too straight for my anxiety, too narrow, too many people there. I like to dip and scurry through lonely routes in my neighborhood, between graves in Faulkner’s cemetery, through the overgrown lot where they said they were going to build a church but never did, up the back stairs, under the canopy, behind the Lamar House.

The birds are so loud lately. The air is so wet and fresh. The lilacs are blooming. I saw a fox. Twice! Here are some photos from my walks:


Sometimes I don’t hate it here.



The Rules

I’m typing this with one hand because I jammed my left pinkie during an intramural basketball game. We got beat so badly the refs invoked the “mercy” rule. There were only five of us from the English department, and only one of us under 30. Our team name is ‘As I Lay Dunking.’

Last week was our first game and I yelled at the refs a lot. Later I felt deeply ashamed. These refs were just kids. They were training to be refs. They were terrible, but they were supposed to be learning. Instead of laughing off their calls and enjoying my remaining mobility, as I should have done, I stamped my foot with impatience and made exaggerated official gestures of the calls they missed: over the back! block! double dribble! I asked what? what? are you kidding? a lot. When someone on the other team stepped a few times before taking a shot and no travel was called, I re-enacted the young man’s steps, narrating my disbelief. The refs-in-training ignored me, as they should. After the buzzer sounded, I gathered my shoes in my arms, hurt and biting, yelling across the floor to where they had gathered in their striped shirts. Go to bed! I said.

This week it was my goal to not yell at teenagers so much. I did okay. Most of the kids were just having a nice time. They leaped around us like antelopes, delighting in their dominance. But one kid in particular started running up to me during every shot I took, screaming nonsense sounds. There was no reason to do this; he and his team were beating us, and I was missing my shots, anyway. Though he wasn’t assigned to me, he continued to jet my direction and scream in my ear. I ignored the kid’s behavior once. I ignored it twice. The third time, I had to walk away quickly. I could feel my heart sending drumbeats to all the emergency outposts. My temples, my lymph nodes, my stomach.

No one was following the rules, and no one was enforcing them. No one had enforced them last week, and no one would enforce them next week. Competent refs would have spoken to this kid, and if he’d continued, given him technical. But these were not competent refs. They were darlings who might have never seen a basketball game in their lives. Soon, I knew, I would lose control completely. I imagined yelling at him that if he didn’t stop, I would call his dad and tell him he was failing calculus. I could see the boy try to and fail to laugh, and his teammates laughing. The pleasure I would get in his humiliation both warmed me to my core, and disturbed me. I called a timeout on myself. I breathed.

Intramural games don’t matter, but rules do. Rigorous, attentive care by officials keep boundaries in place so we can enjoy the game within these boundaries. Last week I was so upset at the chaotic game, I cried. It wasn’t just the game, I told my friend Joshua, who was kindly listening on a bench as we were passed by taut people in expensive workout gear. This kind of protection, the protection the rules provide, seems to be eroding everywhere around me. There is a lack of agreement on a shared reality. The illusion of fairness is gone. A necessary shedding of false narratives in some cases, and in others, a crumbling definition of justice, reciprocity, responsibility. My classroom, my department, the University, the country. No one seems to be in charge. I used be able to play in blind faith, and I was privileged to play. I don’t get to anymore. Grown-ups have to show up, to be careful and rigorous, to keep order. Always for the sake of kids (even rude-ass kids like the screamer). Always for our fellow adults, who are children, too, at times. And I’m not blameless in the realm of irresponsibility. I almost lost control, and it wasn’t the first time. I have work to do about where I put my anger, how far I let myself go. I need to figure how not to weave anger so deeply into the pleasure of words. Anger is not a place to play, either.

After the timeout, the yelling-in-my-face boy came over and offered us oranges from a bag. We all looked at him, some of us still panting with effort. This juvenile, affectionate gesture could have been a peace offering, or it could have been mocking, I didn’t know. He was nervous. He tried not to look at me, but I found his eyes. I refused his offer, and as he walked away I pledged to never to come near him again. He didn’t quit screaming, but I kept my word. I ran away from him for both of us. I made a single basket. Small victories.


Art and the Market

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to an old friend.  

I had an incredible workshop leader a couple years back that was a bit precious about his approach to writing. He was all about guarding his time with his “craft” at all costs, protecting it from the demands of the market, insisting that writers should find other ways to feed themselves to make sure their art remains art. At first I was like sure, being a purist about one’s time is seductive, but it is also privileged and assumes that one gets no satisfaction from art one gets “commissioned” to do. Why does stuff that is accessible to consumers have to be in a different category than stuff one does for oneself or fun or “art”? Why not both? 

After ten years of writing commissioned Young Adult novels, and getting back on the commercial train of freelance these past two years, I can say there does appear to be a difference between what people pay you to do and what one does for the hell of it on your own time. Artists have been saying this for years and I refused to listen. I thought my creativity was under my control; or rather, I thought that when I asked it to perform for me, it would, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve procrastinated, sure, and I’ve had blocks, but I’m a pro. I take the proverbial alka seltzer and get back on the ol’ pony, which in this analogy, is an ergonomic chair. Writing rule number one, get your ass in the seat. I can do that. I thought I’d never have any problems producing. Even if it’s shit, at least something’s moving. 

Money ruins everything. At least it has for me. Even though my commercial work played with fun concepts (themes that I, too, might explore on my own time) there seems to be, more and more, a certain point where I realize the core of what I’m doing is empty. Not of content, and not even of value to the world, but of [ something ]. I really hate the word “passion” being thrown about carelessly, like a free t-shirt one gets at a conference, so I won’t use it. Vivre, maybe, because I’m pretentious. Anyway, it’s always at the end of the project, where I need a reserve shot of energy in order to see the project to completion, and what I need isn’t there. This cycle of hate keeps happening. I come to hate the one thing I love above all else, and destroy my body in the process. My friends have seen it, my family has seen it. Perhaps they’re as sick of it as I am. It goes like this:

Phase one: I get the assignment and I tell everyone about it, ecstatic that I’m getting paid to put words together. I explain the project is kind of [insert not-explicitly-negative-but-coded-negative adjective here, i.e. corny, corporate], but I’m excited to collaborate with [editor], and I think (key word: think, it’s probably not that cool) we have an [innovative, attentive, exciting, funny] approach to the usual way of doing [genre / commercial category]. 

Phase two: I run into roadblocks. I had hoped to incorporate [x], but editor tells me that their boss (it’s rarely the editor themselves, and I believe this is true) doesn’t feel my [x] fits with [the y genre / commercial category]. I’m disappointed, but editor and I find a compromise between [x] and [y]. I’m happy; I’m giving them what they want, and I’m still trying something new, something I care about executing.

Phase three: The first draft is complete, but something has gone wrong. I’m new to the [y] genre, so it’s understandable. Or, editor didn’t communicate their desires about [y] well enough. Or, editor thought our [xy] compromise was going to work, but their boss is still not happy. They’re happy with all the [y] parts, though. I’m a very proficient [y] writer, they tell me. Please, keep up the [y]. I’m disappointed, but I want to be seen as a professional. I start adjusting my habits: I have realized I’m not going to be able to have the kind of fun I want, so I need to work harder in order to get it over with. 

Phase four: Working hard has failed. Maybe it starts with sleep: I lose it over stress, which makes me eat worse, which makes me my mood drop. With my mood dropping, I drink more coffee, which elevates my heart rate, but rarely can bear the full weight of my mood. I’m anxious because of the coffee, so I instinctively and compulsively avoid the work that makes me anxious, but I know I have to complete it, so I try to push myself harder into doing what I don’t want to do, which makes me even more anxious. I put a lot of energy into appearing unruffled. The more affected I am, the thicker my professional facade.

Phase five: Reckoning. I admit to my peers, and eventually my editor, that this is not turning out how I’d like. That’s how I phrase it: how I’d like. This, too, is a lie. I’m in a daily battle with the fact that what I like doesn’t actually matter. What matters is completion of [y] according to the rules of [y genre]. I start getting more “just checking in” emails from my editor. We set “drop dead” dates. I miss them. We have more “honest” conversations; we re-strategize; we agree that I need more guidance; we agree I need less guidance; we agree that as long as I can get a working second draft, the third will be easier. The final “drop dead” date approaches, and it seems impossible I will ever get it done. I give myself permission to ignore the rest of my life, my inbox, my phone, my bladder. I go into a fugue state; I dissociate from myself as a human with particular tastes and style. I purposefully become too tired and caffeinated to care what I’m writing (in my 20s, I did this with alcohol, as well) and allow my fingers on the keyboard to take over. Somehow, the dawn of the deadline, a second draft emerges. Somehow, it resembles what they want. As I return to my body, I feel floaty, confused, and a strange sort of pride. I send my editor a manic email as the sun rises: “[Y] DRAFT ATTACHED! *Shania Twain voice* LOOKS LIKE WE MADE IT hahaha, right??? Anyway, THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH!”

Phase six: I feel done, euphoric. I feel like the worst is over. I can do this. I start talking to friends about my journey, about how I didn’t think I liked writing [y], but it’s not so bad! I think I’m getting the hang of it.* A week passes, and I get an email from my editor which starts with something like: “First of all, there’s a lot of great stuff here.” I am overcome with nausea. Any mention of “great stuff” means that moments of proficiency are scattered throughout a large scale failure. I scroll through the emailed comments, which I often think are going to end, but they never do. I try to take it like a pro. I thank the editor. I make a plan to revise. I sit down, and I become angry. I feel my skills are being doubted, my understanding of the assignment turned upside down, the estimate of my abilities shrinking with every highlighted section. I know in my heart that the edits will make the piece better, but a nagging voice in the back of my head asks, Why do I care whether or not this piece is good? I never wanted to write [y]. They asked me to do this, knowing I wanted [x] or [xy]. If they wanted [y] so much, they should have asked someone else. Each small edit sends a spidery thread up to these larger questions, which I have to cut or ignore in order to get through the edits, or else I’m paralyzed by a web of self-doubt and toxic ego. This means double the work: not only am I doing the physical work of revising, I’m doing the emotional work of talking myself down from existential disruption. Earlier in my career, this is when I would start drinking more. I’ll be honest: the drinking helped. But it quieted all inner voices; not just the rude, unprofessional ones. It muted gentleness, too.

*For one miraculous project a few years ago, the beginnings of phase six are where I stopped. The email about the second draft was an email about final edits. They loved my version of [y], and I loved it, too. Oddly, it was also at the lowest point of one of the most depressive states of my life. Fodder for a future therapist.

Phase seven: I cut the whining threads, day by day, draft after draft, and drink up tiny pools of relief in sending small chunks to editors, like those little cups of water they hand out during endurance races. In my 20s, I muted my angst with booze and cigarettes. Last year, with yoga, meditation, and (slightly more) honest conversations with (really wonderful) editors. Either way, I finish. I take off the too-small shoes, and the relief of bare feet erases all memory of the pain. I can see parts I like when I look at the document. I’m able to smile again when I talk about the project. Soon, someone reaches out about [z]. I’ve never worked in [z]. I could do cool things with [z]. They show me what it pays, and even after all a decade of doing this, I’m still dazzled, still feel undeserving. I think, I’ve learned my lesson. I have boundaries, now. I can hold fast to my heart while working my ass off. I shake their hand, and we’re back to phase one.

Last month, I didn’t get through phase six.

The rotten feeling I get as I claw toward the finish line keeps getting worse. In my most recent project, I found myself openly weeping more often than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t sit down at my computer without holding back tears. I couldn’t finish; I tried to overcome this lack of ending in every conceivable way. I wrote about my feelings, I tried to eat and sleep better, I tried to give myself small goals. But I was still miserable, and still woefully behind. Not only that, there was a whole team of people waiting on me for this writing; I had to do my job so they could do theirs. There’s an episode of Radiolab where they do a small segment on vocalizations of affection and aggression, and how they’re related. In the segment, they touched on tears, and why we release them, and what different tears mean. Generally, though, good or bad, tears mean the same thing: slow down or stop. Tears were coming everyday to talk to me, and I had no choice but to listen.

So, I quit the most lucrative writing gig I’ve ever had. The reason I gave to myself is that I am currently supposed to be finishing my thesis, not writing the [z genre]. (It is kind of wild, though, and truly was fun, at times, to learn a new way to build a narrative.) I agonized over quitting this for weeks, because I don’t like to be a quitter. But the core reason for taking the job haunted me: I didn’t take the job to “see a personal creative project through”; I took it because I was curious, and I needed money. My curiosity (I guess) was sated, I got some money, and I found I had no will to keep going. Writing in this context becomes a skill that sustains me financially, but not emotionally.

God, I wish I was different. I wish I could have just seen it through without losing my shit. I still don’t quite understand why I can’t have both, or why I can’t do one, then the other, then back to one. I wish it were that simple, that I could just do commercial work for good people, get paid, and be proud of a job well done. Then, go home to my beautiful wife, a literary manuscript. But I think my “soul” (whatever that is) is telling me that my writing is for something else. Probably not for something huge, but for some other personal purpose. Though I don’t quite understand all of it yet, I do see now why my workshop leader encouraged the separation of money and art. It’s hard to keep things light and fun and messy when it feels like your livelihood is on the line. It’s hard to play when you’re over-caffeinated, over-worked, or worried about being paid, and play is essential for good writing. Or at least it is for me. 

This slow realization is why I reconnected to my old friend, who I was roommates with for a brief time New York (the friend whose email exchange inspired this post). We both worked a few jobs to pay the rent, but we spent our spare time making stupid videos. We hoped we’d get famous, but really we were just trying to make each other laugh. I was thinking, damn, what a joy it was to make art for no reason with this person. Not no reason, though. For each other. While we guard our time from the market, it’s also true that trusted eyes nourish art, like sunlight. Even if we don’t share everything, I still believe my friends make things for me, and I know I make things for them, and that’s enough to keep us going. We write because we love to write, and we love to write because we write to each other, as I’m writing to you, and that’s enough. 

The Topeka School

Some friends and I got together virtually to write our “real time” reactions as we read Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School. As native Topekans and graduates of Lerner’s high school, we thought it would be fun to explore our reading experiences of a book set in our childhood home, lauded by The New York Times Book Review asa high-water mark on recent American fiction.” Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t publish my friends’ thoughts, but here are my half-baked parts of the exercise. 

The geography is actually a good starting point for discussion. I’m on page 57 and I wonder when the involuntary thrill of recognizing landmarks is going to fade. The book is chock full of them! With the exception of Dr. Jonathan’s early narration in New York, you can’t go two paragraphs without running not only into street names but actual businesses I have patroned, like Kaw Valley Hunt and Gun (or whatever it’s called), where we used to take my brother to get hunting bows on his birthday. I remember the dirty tile and the smell of rubber and the men who were chewing and spitting while they checked people out in hunter’s orange behind the counter. And Wolfe’s Camera. My parents always made it a point to take us to Wolfe’s Camera to get photos developed rather than Walgreens.

The thing is, I kind of want the novelty of knowing where I am (and where Adam is) to fade, because one of the pleasures of reading novels is building this whole new landscape in your head, this combination of the author’s description and whatever reference point you have for what they’re describing, i.e. all high schools mentioned in books become, in my imagination, a combination of Topeka High, Hayden, and whatever details about the fictional high school are mentioned. But now, I have a literal, physical connection between Adam Gordon’s Topeka and my Topeka. I was there when he was there. My subjectivity, my memories and understanding of these places, gets in the way of the narration sometimes. And by “gets in the way,” I mean like a half second of memories, at most. But it’s still not as smooth reading as I would like. 

In comparison, the opening sequence when Adam gets lost on the lakefront, that hurt me it was so beautiful. I knew it was Sherwood, of course, but I don’t have enough reference to Sherwood to have any sort of claim over it, and yet it seems a pillar of Midwestern adolescence and young adulthood to be disoriented up on some inland body of water, uncomfortable in the quiet, not really sure what to do with the unadorned, uncommercialized flatness, the bareness of all that natural beauty. (I remember looking at the Mississippi River when I was 18, trying consciously not to be contemplative, because I thought it was a cliche to look at water and think about one’s life. And then I found myself being contemplative, anyway, because natural beauty does that to everyone. It’s a cliche like death, unavoidable.) 

And the suburban home, God. The home among all homes where he imagines simultaneous, almost identical lives. The photograph of young people playing football in the leaves. It made me think of the ways in which we use photographs to place ourselves within desired national and cultural narratives, and how Instagram and Facebook have not necessarily brought us into new territory in this practice, but have made the process faster, more automated, more tied to self worth (symbolically, chemically). To make this commentary on American life within a trippy, high-suspense, and comical scene is number one, fantastic, and number two, could only be done with a novel. 

I’ll wrap up with that thought: Being in what some might say is the “golden age” of television, for the past couple years I’ve been focused on trying to pinpoint what parts of literature cannot be translated to the screen. Without some kind of narration over top of the visuals, or without a scene of dialogue after-the-fact explaining what Adam was thinking, the many layers of Adam Gordon’s consciousness during the accidental break-in would be impossible to manifest.

To your question, T (and I realize I’m treading some of the same ground here, but bear with me): in some cases, I can’t escape the urge to put my own singularity of experience on certain place settings where I spent literal days and hours; for the amount of time I played at the Randolph playground and in Westboro Park, Lerner might as well be describing the hallways of my own house. I’m trying to unpack why I am so bothered by this, not necessarily in a bad way, but not in a good way, either. I have no, like, immediate literar-ily sophisticated response to explain these emotions, which I don’t like. I suspect I’m upset for the following reasons, which may bring a more expansive answer to your question: 

  1. Like an infant, I feel like an object has been swiped from me. He took my places. This is further deepened by my profession; I think there’s a part of me that’s resentful he wrote about my childhood before I did. 
  2. But even so, it’s not like Darren’s voice particularly illuminates these places. These are mostly reference points, there for the sake of lending some kind of geographical authority to the narrative voice, and definitely not receiving the same kind of descriptive attention given to, like, say, the Sherwood section, or Dr. J’s walks through Potwin with Klaus. 

So that’s where my brain starts to hurt: if Lerner (specifically in Darren’s voice, but also in all of these characters’ voices) isn’t really interested in the placeness of the places (or even if he is), why does he need to be accurate to Topeka? Why couldn’t he call Greenwood Lockwood? Why couldn’t he call Huntoon Hestoon? He could write about the heat and the cicadas and the neighbors without naming it Potwin, without it being Greenwood. (And yet: he does he not call Menninger’s by its real name, another mystery. Maybe that’s for more practical copyright purposes.)

In that way, this feels like a deliberate callout to Topekans. Whether it has a broader significance, I don’t know, and I’m not sure I can know. That’s going to be the real test of this novel for me. Can I step out of being a Topekan and just f***ing read it? Did Lerner have Topekans in mind for his audience?  

Update: Jane Gordon’s voice has broken the spell. While her references are no less Topekan, her awareness of the medium through which she’s communicating (to her son, in the context of her son’s potential novel) make the book more of a book for me, and less of a landscape. Where it seems Darren and Adam and Jonathan react and try to place themselves in their surroundings (even in more reflective moments, both the third person and the first really seems interested in control, to narrate, to curate to storytell), Jane Gordon’s section seems more about an amused kind of wonder, taking a reflective distance from the events of her life and seeming to weave in and out of anecdotes by accident, with no lack of sharpness toward the significance of those anecdotes. While this, too, is a form of control, the use of the direct address from Jane to her son, especially the humility of her (wrong) assumptions about which of her stories are worthy of print, gives Jane’s storytelling the air of a conversation. Lerner has been especially praised for his ability to channel his (actual, real life) mother’s voice, and now I see why. It’s the real voice of his mother he’s carried with him. This might be just me projecting, but her voice feels like a stabilizing presence in the novel. A kind of prophet or wizard, only flawed to the extent that she is aware of these flaws, deeply wise and powerful.

This novel left me with a general sense of an orchestra tuning but the symphony never beginning. There’s value to prose pieces like this that have a tenuous relationship to traditional linear storytelling, and as K mentioned, The Topeka School uses techniques that resemble Leaving the Atocha Station: a repetition of phrases and images to create an atmosphere (the cue ball, Klaus’s voice, debate terms: variations on a theme), a sense of time passing but a fixation on certain moments, trying and failing to determine meaning. I also appreciated how these repetitions took an an orbital shape, increasing in speed and frequency as the novel wore on, using narrative less as an exploration in cause and effect and more of a cloud of effect circling central causes: Darren, the Montessori magic, the decline of Klaus. (Lol yes, a rotating cloud. Just realized that. Oh, well.) But unlike LAS, Lerner now seems more desperate to attribute certain meanings to certain events. He seems no longer comfortable with ambiguity, with confusion, with doubt. This is understandable, not only because he is writing about his own life and therefore this becomes a “meaning making” project (a masturbatory project, at times, thank you for that image K, lol), but also because I imagine any thinking person writing about the United States right now has an urge to figure out what the hell is going on. Of course we want to (and should) deconstruct all the weird kinds of whiteness that have grown in us and around us, to wade through the toxic sludge of American consciousness and search for the reasons our house is sinking (only to find that the load-bearing beams are rotten). This is a messy process, as aided by language as it is further poisoned. 

Thinking about Lerner’s seeming discomfort brings me back to one of my initial thoughts about what kind of storytelling novels, uniquely, can and should do, and I wonder if I’m disappointed in Lerner because he’s trying to do the job of pseudo-cultural analysis and autobiography on top of writing a novel. Because of this exercise in triplicate, he might have failed at all three. The failure of TTS as autobiography is that it is presented as a novel, and therefore the expectation is that the text will reveal something about its characters rather than its author. The failure of this book as a novel is not its language (BL’s prose is breathtaking, I’m obviously a fan) but in its poet-fueled faith that language is more important than the world that language seeks to build. And regarding its anthropological or perhaps historical attempts at criticism (references to the Koch brothers, the Brownbacks, the anachronistic breakdown of “man-children”), Lerner’s potentially sharp lens fogs up when autobiography insists that Brooklyn is the place from which this writer tells his story. Like K, I, as a multi-generational Kansan (and who will soon be moving back to Kansas), was frustrated by this. “But what then of Kensinger, who f***ed Kansas far more than this weird Darren character? Why didn’t wealth and privilege save him from being a world-historical shithead?” K’s question here is important not only because it contradicts Lerner’s half-assed thesis about the saving grace of a certain type of education, but also because Lerner seems to toss in Kensinger’s actual impact on KS with an ironic shrug, mentioning it once for shock value and then never really exploring how the Brownback administration affected any of the characters. The final implication that the Kansas suburban white boy rage hasn’t left him, even worlds away in cosmopolitan Brooklyn, isn’t enough to put skin in the game alongside the fates of his parents, or any other Kansans. Even if he is saying through this protest scene that the Kansas of the present still affects him (because KS is full of conservative voters, presumably, and 45 and his supporters are against whom he and his family are protesting), the narcissistic impulse of autobiography again trips him up: it is within his body, his thoughts, his consciousness that “the Topeka School” fights its final battle with the “real” Topeka, rather than on the very land (real or imaginary) that raised him. The present, where are all of the threads meet, is reserved for Lerner. He even gave himself the option of inhabiting characters who live there now (Jane’s narration of the present would have been particularly interesting to me), and instead he chooses himself, in New York. Which is great for autobiography. Not really useful for the kind of historical or cultural analysis he seems to be doing. A missed opportunity for the novel. 

Of course I remain dazzled by his prose, but now I wonder if he received the praise he did because those who didn’t grow up in Topeka don’t know the stakes of him trying to write about a place that, as K argued, he doesn’t consider himself “of.” Critics are pointing to this novel as a gut-punching portrait of the rise of 45’s America, or whatever, and now I see that the reason people are saying that about this book is merely because this book is saying that about itself. It’s funny, K, that one of your criticisms is that Lerner is “just as immersed in the muck” as his narrator, and maybe you mean to criticize the same autobiographical impulses I do, but I would actually argue that Lerner’s narrator is not in the muck enough. Even before the end, he often “zooms out” to Brooklyn for no good reason, where he is safe to monitor his Calibans (to use your term) from a distance, trying to name to what’s wrong with them. I’m thinking particularly of one of the moments where Topekans are featured; a rare, quiet paragraph cataloging what all the parents of the kids in the Topeka West basement are doing on pgs. 123 and 124, where Lerner doesn’t insist on yanking us through his layered cake of these people’s larger societal role. But soon it’s back to business: among all the parents, the author insists on referencing himself and his daughter at the time of writing. What he’s doing isn’t nonsensical; he’s seeding the fact that his relationship to his own story is just as important if not more important than the unnamed parents of Topeka, a dynamic that will echo throughout the book and culminate in New York, where his parents met. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, and it’s actually quite clean and neat. But what does Lerner’s insistence on collapsing time do for us, as readers, other than remind us that our place in the world he’s building is with him, rather than with ourselves? 

For me, this moment and moments like it are are not just simple parallels (the Topeka parents, he is now a parent), they are nervous check-ins, making sure we know he’s still there, that he’s the one controlling our gaze. Why couldn’t he just let us sit in this moment without editorializing? I mean, I think I know the answer, as I’ve laid out above, and perhaps this is a similar frustration to K’s, regarding the uncited occurrences of “private language” and “language games.” I’m just like, why, instead of bringing in these phrases as some sort of secret nod to philosophy of language fans, can’t he just play the goddamn language games? Why can’t he trust his readers to pick up what he’s laying down, to make their own connections between (a small slice of) Topeka and the present political moment? Why can’t he trust us to wade in his characters’ consciousness and find our own way out? Why can’t he trust himself?