There is a passage in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” that has always haunted me. (The story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, can be found in The Stories of John Cheever. It’s narrated by a middle-aged high school teacher, an optimistic and unreflecting man. The setting is a family home on the shore of a Massachusetts island, where the narrator’s mother and siblings get together for a summer holiday. Three of the siblings get along reasonably well, but the fourth, Lawrence, is disliked by everyone because of his pessimism. The siblings refer to him, variously, as “Tifty,” “Croaker,” and “Little Jesus.”) Near the end of the story, the narrator tries to talk Lawrence out of his gloominess:
I let him get ahead again and I walked behind him, looking at his shoulders and thinking of all the goodbyes he had made. When Father drowned, he went to church and said goodbye to Father. It was only three years later that he concluded that Mother was frivolous and said goodbye to her. In his freshman year at college, he had been good friends with his roommate, but the man drank too much, and at the beginning of the spring term Lawrence changed roommates and said goodbye to his friend. When he had been in college for two years, he concluded that the atmosphere was too sequestered and he said goodbye to Yale. He enrolled at Columbia and got his law degree there, but he found his first employer dishonest and at the end of six months he said goodbye to a good job. He married Ruth in City Hall and said goodbye to the Protestant Episcopal Church; they went to live on a back street in Tuckahoe and said goodbye to the middle class. In 1938, he went to Washington to work as a government lawyer, saying goodbye to private enterprise, but after eight months in Washington he concluded that the Roosevelt administration was sentimental and he said goodbye to it. They left Washington for a suburb of Chicago, where he said goodbye to his neighbors, one by one, on counts of drunkenness, boorishness, and stupidity. He said goodbye to Chicago and went to Kansas; he said goodbye to Cleveland and come East again, stopping at Laud’s Head long enough to say goodbye to the sea. It was elegiac and it was bigoted and narrow, it mistook circumspection for character, and I wanted to help him. “Come out of it,” I said. “Come out of it, Tifty.”
I have seemingly nothing in common with Lawrence, not even this tendency to say goodbye to everyone and everything. And yet the impulse behind his saying goodbye is one that I recognize, one that I have lived with and struggled with for many years. I think it comes from expecting so much from oneself, from others, from the world in general, which is nothing if not a guarantee of disappointment. But I also have moments when I identify with the narrator, who seems to enjoy the life he has—he swims, plays tennis, goes to a party with his wife, and generally tries to have a good time—without expecting anything else. By the end of “Goodbye, My Brother,” the narrator lashes out at Lawrence, who leaves the island. Only then does the narrator reflect:
Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.”
One brother is consumed with obsessive rumination; the other is after constant gratification. One is given to despair; the other to hope. One lives in the past; the other in the present. Perhaps the reason I identify with both is that I see myself in both.
I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which novelists use prologues or author’s notes to frame the stories they tell, to emphasize particular readings of the novel, to draw attention to stylistic devices they intend to use, and generally to place the book in a specific context. (Think of the foreword to Lolita, for example.) One of my favorites is the prologue of Don Quixote, where Cervantes pleads with the reader to be indulgent toward the story, because it lacks much of what he may expect from other novels of chivalry, and because it is not a fictional story at all but the true history of a knight’s adventures. Cervantes shares his concerns with a friend:
“Because how do you expect me not to be worried about the opinion of that ancient legislator called the general public when he sees that after all this time sleeping in the silence of oblivion, and burdened by the years as I am, I’m coming out with a book as dry as esparto grass, devoid of inventiveness, feeble in style, poor in ideas and lacking all erudition and instruction, without any marginalia or endnotes, unlike other books I see that, even though they are fictional and not about religious subjects, are so crammed with maxims from Aristotle, Plato and the whole herd of philosophers that they amaze their readers, who consider the authors to be well-read, erudite and eloquent men? And when they quote the Holy Scriptures! Anyone would take them for no less than so many St Thomases and other doctors of the Church; and here they maintain such an ingenious decorum that having depicted a dissolute lover on one line they provide on the next a little Christian sermon, a pleasure and a treat to hear or read. There won’t be any of this in my book, because I haven’t anything to put in the margins or any notes for the end, still less do I know what authors I have followed in my text so as to list them at the beginning, as others do, in alphabetical order beginning with Aristotle and finishing with Xenophon and Zoilus or Zeuxis, even though one was a slanderer and the other a painter. My book will also lack sonnets at the beginning or at least sonnets whose authors are dukes, marquises, counts, bishops, ladies or famous poets; though if I asked two or three tradesmen friends of mine, I’m sure they’d let me have some, every bit as good as those written by the best-known poets in this Spain of ours. In short, my dear friend,” I continued, “I have decided that Don Quixote shall remain buried in his archives in La Mancha until heaven provides someone to adorn him with all these attributes that he lacks—I’m not up to it, because of my inadequacy and my scanty learning, and because I’m naturally lazy and disinclined to go hunting for authors to say what I know how to say without them.”
I love how Cervantes so humorously ties every writer’s worry (being found a fraud) with every writer’s ambition (writing a great book that will earn acclaim), and, by so doing, prepares the reader to enjoy his unique book.
The waning days of August have brought with them another bout of nostalgia–I keep thinking of childhood summers in Rabat. And in honor of those, I thought I’d share this poem by Agha Shahid Ali, “I Dream It Is Afternoon When I Return to Delhi”
At Purana Qila I am alone, waiting
for the bus to Daryanganj. I see it coming,
but my hands are empty.
“Jump on, jump on,” someone shouts,
“I’ve saved this change for you
for years. Look!”
A hand opens, full of silver rupees.
“Jump on, jump on.” The voice doesn’t stop.
There’s no one I know. A policeman,
handcuffs silver in his hands,
asks for my ticket.
I jump off the running bus,
sweat pouring from my hair.
I run past the Doll Museum, past
headlines on the Times of India
building, PRISONERS BLINDED IN A BIHAR
JAIL, HARIJAN VILLAGES BURNED BY LANDLORDS.
Panting, I stop in Daryaganj,
outside Golcha Cinema.
Sunil is there, lighting
a cigarette, smiling. I say,
“It must be ten years, you haven’t changed,
it was your voice on the bus!”
He says, “The film is about to begin,
I’ve bought an extra ticket for you,”
and we rush inside:
Anarkali is being led away,
her earrings lying on the marble floor.
Any moment she’ll be buried alive.
“But this is the end,” I turn
toward Sunil. He is nowhere.
The usher taps my shoulder, says
my ticket is ten years old.
Once again my hands are empty.
I am waiting, alone, at Purana Qila.
Bus after empty bus is not stopping.
Suddenly, beggar women with children
are everywhere, offering
me money, weeping for me.
The poem appears in his collection The Half-Inch Himalayas. You can find out more about Agha Shahid Ali here.
Every few months, an editor will say in an interview that he or she can tell, after reading only two or three pages of a submitted manuscript, whether the writer can write. These pronouncements are usually met with a good deal of skepticism and even some anger. After all, applying this rule provides the quickest way to go through the submission pile. But it’s probably true that, for some writers, you can tell. Take the opening few paragraphs of Invisible Man, for instance.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of biochemical accident to my epidermis. That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then, too, you’re constantly being bumped against by those with poor vision. Or again, you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy. It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world, that you’re a part of all the sound and anguish, and you strike out with your fists, you curse and you swear to make them recognize you. And, alas, it’s seldom successful.
I think you’ll agree that the voice of the narrator is so powerful it compels you to read what follows. I remember when I read Invisible Man the first time, I felt almost overwhelmed by its artistry–how deeply layered the writing was and how character, voice, setting, time and plot all worked together completely seamlessly. I couldn’t stop reading. And I suspect that that’s what these editors have in mind when they say you can tell.
Photo credit: Library of Congress.