November 11, 2002

Peru

For several weeks now I’ve been looking for something to read, a novel. Nearly every day I’m at the library, searching the stacks. Recently I noticed a familiar-looking woman there and realized that I had seen her before, and that in fact she’s been there every day. Oddly I’ve never seen her holding a book in her hands. Often people stand in the aisle reading a book, but I’ve yet to see her do this. Also there’s something about the way she cocks her head as she scans the shelves that bothers me, although I can’t say what it is. In any case I try to avoid her: if she’s in the C’s, I walk to the W’s.

Most days I return home with three or four books. I’ve yet to finish one. Usually I read a page or two and toss it on the bed. Yesterday’s haul included Asa, As I Knew Him by Susanna Kaysen, The End of the Novel by Michael Krüger, and Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre. I read seven pages of The End of the Novel before slamming it shut. I didn’t like the beginning of the second chapter; it seemed too “written.” Asa, As I Knew Him fared better, although at first I doubted it would because I didn’t like the author photo. Specifically I didn’t like what Kaysen was wearing. Was it a robe? Some sort of jacket? She didn’t seem to have a shirt on, just this jacket, which though nice enough, seemed too much like the kind of thing one wears in an author’s photo. Obviously one wants to appear attractive in such a photo, but it seemed that Susanna Kaysen was trying too hard to appear attractive – or rather failing to hide how hard she was trying. I felt a touch of pity and didn’t like feeling it. On the other hand I liked her book titles. Aside from Asa, As I Knew Him, she’s written a book called Girl, Interrupted, which I believe was made into a film, and another called Far Afield. Far Afield is a so-so title, but I like Girl, Interrupted. I read thirty-two pages of Asa, As I Knew Him. The book concerns a woman, Dinah, who works for a married man, Asa, who is the publisher of a quarterly journal. Dinah loves Asa. Evidently they had an affair, which in the end he ended. Here is a sentence I like: “I may have been born to love him – I’m sure I was; loving him was easier than eating or sleeping – but he was surely born to stomp my heart.” Asa is a blue-blooded Yankee, and frankly I’m not interested in blue-blooded Yankees. Nonetheless I read the first two chapters, largely because they were easy to read. The remainder of Asa, As I Knew Him concerns the youth of Asa as imagined by Dinah. I know this because it says so on the back of the book. Unfortunately I have zero interest in Asa’s youth, imagined or otherwise. This is not the fault of Susanna Kaysen, who did her best to interest me. I laid the book on the bed and opened Nausea. Half a lifetime ago I read several plays by Sartre, and I remember liking them. The beginning of Nausea consists of an editor’s note stating that the notebooks we’re about to read were found among the papers of Antoine Roquentin. To further the conceit, Sartre added a few editorial footnotes here and there, indicating that certain words in the original text are missing or crossed out or illegible. It seemed a promising start, but then I discovered that some cretin had written all over the book, underlining words and scribbling comments in the margin: “Estranged?” “Losing grip?” “Thinks of past, but not now.” “Like mirror.” Disgusted by these remarks, which I knew I couldn’t stop myself from reading and, worse, pondering, I threw the book on the bed (it bounced over) and resolved to look for another copy during my next trip to the library.

Earlier this same day, in the S’s, the aforementioned woman stood next to me, facing the opposite set of shelves. I waited for her to leave, but she did not. Was she standing next to me to stand next to me or was she looking for something on that shelf? Eventually I turned and walked to the L’s to see if there was anything by Gordon Lish I haven’t read. There wasn’t. So far as I know, Gordon Lish has written just four books: three novels and a collection of stories. Sadly I can’t read stories anymore. When I was younger I hardly distinguished between stories and novels. Novels I thought of as particularly long stories. But that’s not how I think today. A novel is a world, while a story is at best a fragment of a world. There is no pleasure like the pleasure of finding a novel you love and settling in and beginning the slow drift across.

I read Gordon Lish’s third novel, Epitaph, first, and read it through to the end – a rare accomplishment for me. The next day I began Lish’s first novel, Dear Mr. Capote, but gave up in the middle. Then I read his second novel, Peru. Peru is what I was looking for. Peru is always what I’m looking for. The last Peru before Peru was The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. Two long years passed between The Loser and Peru. I can’t remember the next Peru after Peru. Perhaps it was David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, although I’m not sure that Wittgenstein’s Mistress was quite Peru. Not that it matters which Peru came last. What matters is which is next. It is, undeniably, an addiction. Once you have the thing, you have to have it again. And once more, each time. And when you do, it is like the early stages of love, when the eyebrows of your beloved appear achingly beautiful, each hair tenderly rooted in its follicle.

Since I was now in the L’s, I continued my search there. In the K’s I found The End of the Novel and Asa, As I Knew Him. Then I found another book, the title and author of which I’ve forgotten. The book had something to do with chess. On the cover was a graphic of chess pieces. This made me think that the book was about some sort of intrigue between people. I turned to the title page and saw that someone had used a black felt pen to write, This book is profoundly boring! The word profoundly was underlined. Naturally I was disgusted by this act of defilement, but still I laughed at the thought of the defiler, a disgruntled person with a black felt pen. This made me wonder if I seen the aforementioned woman holding a pen of this type, and I imagined that I had, and I even went so far as to create a mental image of the pen, cap off, resting, ready, between her thumb and forefinger. Was she defiling library books? Was that what was doing day after day – wandering the stacks looking for books to defile? I decided she was. And then I read the beginning of the book that she had defiled. It was profoundly boring.