Tuesday, January 15, 2008

a long way up

1. the pit of delillo

Sometimes I miss the days when my New Year’s resolution was just to lose weight like everyone else. I’m still secretly hoping I’ll hit the gym three times a week in 2008, but for some reason I resolved, this year, to Renew My Faith In Art. Abstract much, Cheryl?

For maybe a year or two, I’ve been struggling with the idea that, as much as books/movies/music are important to me, they don’t really Save The World. And aren’t we all in the world to save it?

No, we’re not, AK said when I told her my resolution. As a relaxed second child, she’s not the victim of a ridiculous self-imposed imperative to take care of everything and everyone. Just do what you’re good at and what makes you happy, she advised, and the rest will follow.

So although I could have looked at my crisis of faith as a sign that maybe I should give up this art thing and become a social worker (this random, mostly fake back-up plan that pops up every once in a while), I decided to just put a little more energy into what makes me happy, i.e. reading and writing.

I finally crawled to the finish line of White Noise, the most depressing and painful really good book I’ve read in a long time. It’s all tightly written, semi-absurdist prose about middle class fear of death and how technology interacts with that fear. So timely I wanted to strangle myself with an Ethernet cord.

Plus there was that whole moving thing, that whole Pit Of Despair thing. I haven’t been a happy girl.

2. saint nick

But then—speaking of strangling oneself—I picked up Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, which is about four people who meet while trying to kill themselves. You might argue that this is not a good choice for someone hiking the canyon walls of the Pit Of Despair, but it was actually the best thing I could have done.

Objectively, A Long Way Down is not the literary masterpiece that White Noise is, but subjectively, I had the palpable and only slightly melodramatic thought that This book is saving my life. I hadn’t felt that way about a book in a while, but when it hit, it was a familiar feeling. I had been saved before, and when it was time to be saved again, books were there.

The dialogue was funny, the characters were flawed and loveable and suitably depressed, and despite the subject matter, the book was hugely life-affirming, but not in an annoying or unearned or overly optimistic way. As one of the characters, an unsuccessful musician named JJ, points out, it doesn’t take much to decide to want to live, but—and this was more comforting to him—“happy” people aren’t so far from soul-crushing thoughts either. They’re not so special. They’re not so immune.

So I read A Long Way Down and felt renewed and understood and ready to go out into the world again (well, mostly). And you can’t Save The World without being engaged in it, so in that way books are very, very important. And when I engaged, I wrote—part two of the equation.

I would like to say that the thing I’ve been working on (draft three of the not-so-new novel) will find its way into the world someday and make someone feel a little more engaged with said world. But I may not have any more success as a writer than JJ does as a musician. All I can say is that being in another world for approximately four hours a week makes me like this one a little more.


Jesi said...

i was wondering who are some of your fave authors, fave books? just cuious what you have read.

Cheryl said...

I have way too many for a comments section, but I love Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead for their tightly written, they-just-get-it prose; Michelle Tea and Cynthia Kadohata for their raw and delicious voices; Richard Powers, Susan Choi and Barbara Kingsolver for their layered social novels; and Toni Morrison for her lushness and use of history.

Fiction writers, all, but I also like good muckraking nonfiction (Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and No Logo by Naomi Klein) and contemporary, witty poetry (David Hernandez, Dorianne Laux, Terrance Hayes), although I don't read enough of either because it's always hard to do enough of good things.

Thanks for asking!

Jesi said...

have read any jeanette winterson? gloria naylor? cristina garcia? specifically: the passion, bailey's cafe, and dreaming in cuban? i loved those books! highly recommend them! i'm a bit of a sexist, i think women are better writers. ha!

Claire said...

Renew your faith in art: here.

Teller writes about his experiences preparing a theater production of Macbeth complete with actual bloody knives floating in air and the like. It's not a fave Shakespeare play of mine, but reading about all the prep for the show and the joys of creative collaboration is engaging and infectious.

the last noel said...

I read White Noise. All I remember about it was thinking that I doubt I'd be able to keep a decent conversation with the author.

erin said...

wow, finally i've read something you mention in your blog (apart from your book)! :) i read "a long way down" a few months back after randomly picking it up at the library. i really liked it. it was quirky and funny and, as you said, life affirming without being overly sentimental or predictable or saccharine. i hadn't read any nick hornby before... can you recommend anything else by him?
(oh and btw, thanks for following up on my writing prompt... i loved it. i'm sure your imagined version was way more interesting than the real reason those dudes showed up naked at a convenience store...)

Cheryl said...

Jesi: I haven't read any of those books, and of the authors, I've only read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I hear is really different from all her others. I'm a shamefully, shamefully under-read English major. But thanks for the recommendations!

Claire: I heard about that show on the radio. It sounds pretty great.

Noel: I read Libra and liked it much more. But I doubt I'd be able to sustain a conversation with Don DeLillo either. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield, is more my speed. We could talk about cats and lasagna.

Erin: This was the first Nick Hornby I read, although I loved his short story "Nipple Jesus" (how could one not?) in the anthology he edited, Speaking With the Angel. AK highly recommends High Fidelity. And I, uh, liked the movie (see: shameful English major).

Don Cummings said...

This honesty...
This honesty.
I want to read your book.

Cheryl said...

Thanks. Although the book is fiction, so by definition it's all lies. :-)