On the flight back from New York, I was seated next to an eccentric older woman who seemed to think everyone’s job was to keep her entertained, informed, or/and comfortable. She asked a guy across the aisle to help her put her suitcase in the overhead bin, and then five minutes later asked him to pull it back down so she could search through it for reading materials. After she finally took her seat, she looked over at the novel I was reading.
She: “So you like Joseph Conrad?”
Me: “Yes, I do.”
She: “I have a first edition of one of his books.”
She: “I can’t remember the title, though. It’s the one about the boat captain.”
Me: “Several of his books have boat captains. Is it Heart of Darkness?”
Me: Lord Jim?
She: That one. But, you know, I don’t care for his writing.
Me: Oh no?
She: I bought the book because he’s so famous and a first edition of his is very valuable, which is what I’m interested in.
I must have had a horrified look on my face, because she immediately asked, “Wait, are you someone who’s into books? Are you a writer?” I nodded, and then took out my reading glasses to signify that I wanted to read now, and to please leave me alone, but she wouldn’t shut up. I got to hear about her earlier flight, the troubles she had with security people, etc. She complained that the coffee was lukewarm (“It’s a plane,” the attendant quipped), got drunk on red wine, snored when she slept, and woke me up when I finally managed to doze off so she could go use the bathroom. Every time I travel on an airplane, I become more of a misanthrope.
It is about 74 degrees in Los Angeles today and very sunny. Tomorrow, though, I’ll be heading out to Rochester, New York, where, according to the weather forecast, it will be snowy and 40 degrees. (That’s 3 degrees Celsius? Or 4? I don’t know. But bone-chilling cold either way.) The good people at Writers and Books have selected Hope for the 2008 If All of Rochester Read the Same Book. I’ll be doing a series of readings and talks in various venues around the city. So if you’re in the area, do come to one of the events and say hello. I’ll be the one with the blue lips and red nose.
The term at UCR is over, and now I have two weeks (two whole weeks!) before the new one starts. And of course even that little time is over-committed with dentist visits, talks, and other stuff. I want to lock myself up in a closet with my book.
Last April, along with Arthur Japin, Imma Monsó, and Michael Wallner, I took part in a panel on “History and the Truth of Fiction” at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. (The discussion was moderated by the amazing Colum McCann.)
I’m told now that PEN America has collected some of the comments from that discussion (you can read it here: “Inventing the Past” ) as well as fiction, essays and other writings on history and truth in fiction in a new issue of their journal: Making Histories. The journal includes contributions by Chris Abani, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Amitava Kumar, Etgar Keret, Grace Paley, and many others. Check it out.
In response to my post on Tuesday about various ailments missing in fiction, a reader sent me a note reminding me about the horrible toothache in Russell Banks’s Affliction. The story, you’ll remember, revolves around a middle-aged man’s steady descent into murderous paranoia; the toothache he suffers from makes things worse. I leafed through my copy of the book to find this memorable passage, where Wade extracts the painful tooth with a pair of pliers:
He uncapped the bottle of whiskey and opened his mouth–it hurt just to open it–and took a bite of whiskey the size of a tea bag and sloshed it around inside his mouth and swallowed: but he felt and tasted nothing, no grainy burn in his mouth or chest; nothing except the cold steel ripsaw of pain emanating from his jaw. He opened his mouth wider and touched the beak of the long-handled pliers to his front teeth, pulled his lip away with his fingers, forcing a cadaverous grin onto his mouth, and moved the pliers toward the dark star of pain back there. The jaws of the pliers angled away from the handles, like the head of a long-necked bird, and he managed for a second to lock them onto one of his molars, then released it and clamped them onto the adjacent tooth. He withdrew the pliers and set them back down on the bench. The pain roared in his ears, like a train in a tunnel, and he felt tears on his cheeks. (…) He set the bottle down on the toilet tank and looked into the mirror and saw a disheveled gray-faced stranger with tears streaming down his cheeks look back at him. He opened the stranger’s mouth and with his left hand yanked back the lips on the right side, then took the pliers and reached in. He turned the face slightly to the side, so that he could see into it, pried the mouth open still further, and locked the pliers onto the largest molar in the back, squeezed and pulled. He heard the tooth grind against the cold steel of the pliers, as if the tooth were grabbing onto the bone, and he dug further into the gum with the mouth of the pliers and squeezed tightly again and pulled harder, steadily. It shifted in its bed, and he moved his left hand into place behind his right, and with both hands, one keeping the pressure on the tooth, the other lifting and guiding the pliers straight up against the jaw, he pulled, and the tooth came out, wet, bloody, rotted, clattering in the sink. He put the pliers down and reached for the whiskey.
Of course, the toothache here serves a metaphorical purpose, and there really is no symbolic meaning for mine (that I know of.)
And now I must go back to bed, to take care of my own affliction, the flu.
Three weeks ago, I contracted a terrible cold that left me practically deaf in one ear. The doctor put me on a decongestant, but it had the side effect of making me feel like I was on speed. By the time I was halfway through my afternoon lecture, I was ready to climb on top of the class table just to make a point about, I don’t know, characterization. Last week, I cracked two fillings and had to visit the dentist and be lectured about wearing my night-guard every night. I have another appointment today because I broke a temporary crown on a plantain chip. And this weekend, I came down with that terrible flu that’s been making the rounds. I wish I could live in a novel. Have you noticed how book people never get the flu and rarely ever have to go to the dentist?