Literatainment: A Personal Breakthrough

By Ryan McIlvainFebruary 16, 2018

Literatainment: A Personal Breakthrough
FIRST, the setting —

It’s a good year, year and a half into my “dissertation,” or maybe it’s two years, three years at the time that this scene begins. Probably it’s impossible to know when or how to mark the start of any writing project that fritters back so endlessly in notes, gathered quotes, jotted encouragements and self-chastisements, self-recriminations, deadlines and revised deadlines, re-revised deadlines — but in any case I can tell you that it was summer and I was spending too much time in libraries. By now I think I took a sort of penitent’s pleasure in whiling away beautiful L.A. mornings in the various stacks — at the downtown branch of the L.A. Public Library (Art Deco magnificence outside, wan fluorescence in), or in the flat ugly glare of the Mar Vista branch, with its windows onto sun-soaked Venice Boulevard, or in the Doheny Memorial Library at USC, where a Borgesian labyrinth takes the searcher up to level two to get to stack level five, and so on, and where the plastic-encased overheads click on by motion sensor, dispelling the darkness as you walk into it little by little. Researching by faith, not by sight, it occurred to me one morning, a thought I’d have forbidden myself if it weren’t so obviously true. On this particular morning I did have a tendril of slightly weightier hope in my hand: a slip of paper with a call number on it for Jonathan Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, a collection of his essays on art and literature. Could this book at last be the scissor to cut the Gordian knot of all my notes and gathered quotes?

Maybe it was a kind of hope against hope that led me on, but I followed it. The length of whitish light overhead lit up this swath of American fiction and related non-, but just then the light wavered, and then, as if in choreograph, my eye slipped to the thick blue spine of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike — Updike, a guilty-pleasure author I’d read on and off since high school (and on the manifold guilts in certain pleasures, more later).

I stood shelf-side, dipping into Updike’s first pages, learning (lightly billowing in the wind of my curiosity) how Updike’s ambition to become a “universal artist” had begun at an Updikeanly precocious age: at just five years old, Updike’s mother recalled, “[John] worked.” He spent hours each day on the carpet of his Pennsylvania home reproducing cartoons and making sketches, working in the tradition of his idol Walt Disney, great uniter of different audiences and brows. I couldn’t tell if my receptivity to these lines owed to some inherent relevance in them — relevance to my inchoate, emerging-from-the-mist project-in-progress, anyway — or if I was just overeager to make a connection to one of my ongoing concerns. In addition to my dissertation, I was now at work on a novel that I hoped might draw on this very “universalist” tradition: neither airport nor avant-garde, but somewhere in the happy middle, with compelling plots and compelling characters to match, and all of it packaged in memorable prose. I hadn’t thought to place Updike, the elder statesman of American lyricism, in this hybrid, rather punkish tradition, but maybe I should have.

In any case, I found I’d been “dipping” into Updike for a good half hour. My feet were sore, I’d had to wave my hand more than once to appease the God of University Library Illumination, and my watch showed almost 11. When I came across this example of Updike’s early light verse —

O, is it true
A word with a Q
The usual U
Does lack?
I grunt and strain
But no, in vain
My weary brain

— I tittered out loud, sympathetic, unhinged. Then the lights went out again. Finally, exasperated and excited in equal measure, I took the book over to a reading desk on the far side of the floor and “gave up” on the rest of my morning.


It’s 30 or so hours later and I’m sitting at the same reading desk. The lighting is fixed, unsensored above me, but it appears all the weaker for it: wan, exhausted, blinking. Outside it’s 73 degrees, Los Angeles in all its summer pleasantness — and I’m content to be indoors. Never mind the monkish perversity that must beat at the center of my being; what moves me now is a certain annoyed fascination, directed at a mysterious Other: someone, in the day and a half since I first browsed it, has been at my Updike biography. A little unbelievable, this, a little ghostly seeming, since the campus library in summer is largely abandoned (another source of my contentment), yet the stark pencil underlines scarring some of the same pages I read just yesterday, the circled star of emphasis in one of the margins — it looks vaguely like a sign of Satan — it all attests to another reader’s colonizing presence. I think of the grease stains Billy Collins finds, in his poem “Marginalia,” on a library copy of The Catcher in the Rye. His poem’s speaker finds them, rather (Précisez, mon cher!), and feels a surge of complicated emotion when he notices the jotting in the margin beneath the grease,

   written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

Poetic empathy and connection on the heels of my annoyance — I’m duly chastised. Besides, if pencil-marking a library book is defacing it (and look, it just is), I’ll have to accept my complicity in the crime, since I was the one who left the book out on the desk yesterday, too lazy or too afraid of the dark to seek out the reshelving area. I left the book out as a big, important-looking temptation, and I imagine my marginaliast must have picked it up on the way to some other task and gotten waylaid like I had.

I find that certain passages that initially earned my mental underlines now bear the carbon imprint of my apparent kindred counterpart’s attention. On other pages further on, I notice all the things she’s noticed for me, in a sense (and yes, I suppose I also think of her as a “she”), all the things I would have mentally underlined if I’d read as far or as thoroughly as she did. (It’s obvious that my counterpart is a faster reader than I am, more retentive too, probably, quicker on the uptake all around. If I’m just now discovering and thrilling to Updike’s “universalist” tendencies, I’ll bet my counterpart already knew about them. Probably she’s already written a dissertation about them.) Just now my counterpart draws my attention to a footnote about Updike’s first disappointing encounter with James Joyce’s Ulysses, a forbidding book that confirmed the young Updike in his preference for escapist reading, and that he only actually finished some 20 years later. This little fact sends me racing off to conclusions about Updike and “the duty to entertain,” as I remember him once quoting Henry James in an interview — sudden energy and expectation, the wind in my face again, until, chagrined, I hear my kindred counterpart calling me back, reminding me that in the same interview Updike mentions his great debt to Marcel Proust, hardly a potboiler, and pointing out that Henry James himself is no simple stand-in for the contemporary notions of escapist and entertaining that I helplessly bend to.

Yet the idea persists — Updike the universalist, Updike the Virgil who can teach me something basic, something fundamental about the genre-mixing urge. In a later chapter of Updike, I see that the novelist’s first big-book effort, Rabbit, Run, poured out of him in only nine months. This page of the biography is heavily underlined, and for good reason: Begley, Updike’s able chronicler, does some excellent novelistic writing to keep pace with the sense of thrill and speed that his subject must have felt:

[Updike] wrote hurriedly, in soft pencil. Under the old-fashioned upright desk with its fold-down writing surface, his kicking feet wore bare spots in the varnished pine floorboards. The momentum of the accumulating sentences thrilled him. Writing in the present tense, an unconventional choice at the time, had a liberating effect on him; it felt “exhilaratingly speedy and free.” At first he thought he was working on a novella, and imagined that the headlong pace of the prose was cinematic; he even considered giving the book the subtitle “A Movie,” to capture the sense of continuous forward motion.

The passage goes on to describe how Updike was excited, too, about the sex in the book, more full and frank than he’d dared before. This writing from the sheets is what thrilled and scandalized a certain Mormon high schooler in Massachusetts, and an aspiring writer at that, but now that I’m a practicing writer, and shed of God, I thrum to different frequencies in Updike’s story. It’s no longer the battle against gatekeeping Puritans that resonates; it’s the internal battle with the notion of high, Proustian art on the one hand, and the thrills and story-driven speed of “A Movie” on the other. Isn’t there more than a faint echo of Graham Greene’s “entertainment” descriptor in this working subtitle — not a freighted “novel,” but a lark? Perhaps Updike represents a fairly typical artistic progression, a seesawing between a younger reader’s jollies and an older writer’s ambitions — a dialectic. Joyce or Woolf or Proust may offput the novice, but a few years later he may credit the same writers with a “considerable expansion” of his literary ambitions, as Updike did in his early 20s with Proust and Henry Green particularly. Then a few more formative years go by and the writer grows tired, or at least a little restless, at the altar of High, Serious Art. He’s explored, à la Updike with Proust, “what words can do, in bringing reality up tight against the skin of the paper,” but what about the bygone page-turning pleasures? What about the mystery and sci-fi plots young Updike devoured? What about the movies?

It’s a ceaseless tide, I suspect, a ceaseless back and forth. It’s also the subject I seem to keep veering toward (just now I’ve decided to commit myself to it, once and for all), a subject that already wakes me up in the morning and tucks me in at night. “Hybridity,” it might be called. Or genre mixing, “register” mixing — the shaking up of categories, the alchemical stirring together of “high” and “low.” Certainly this project animates the fiction and exhortatory nonfiction of genre scofflaws like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem (whose collection of essays I did get to eventually, by the way, and loved). It’s also an obvious animating principle in David Mitchell’s opus, Cloud Atlas (not to mention Cloud Atlas’s spiritual source-text, Ulysses). The principle is at play in variously subtle, covert, and accidental ways in the work of writers as different as Kate Atkinson, Richard Price, P. D. James, China Miéville, Ursula K. Le Guin, Junot Díaz, Cormac McCarthy, and more arguably (stretching the category perhaps to its breaking point) in the work of hybrid essayistic fiction writers like Marilynne Robinson and Saul Bellow. In Zadie Smith’s celebrated “Two Paths for the Novel,” a sort of alt-universe contribution to Lethem and Chabon’s exhortation literature, hybridity is less the subject of Smith’s thinking than the delayed effect of it: she sees two forking paths for the novel, ably describing the limitations of the more accessible, more-traveled road, the harder virtues of the lonelier one, and then taking what reads to me like a clear “middle way” in her next novel, NW, a remarkable compromise or hybrid offering to the gods of Smith’s own pantheon — E. M. Forster and George Eliot on one side, and on the other the austerer influences of Woolf, Joyce, Barthes, Nabokov, et cetera.

Suffice it to say that Smith wears this two-paths idea on the sleeve of her own work and that in practice it looks less like an ultimatum than an ambitious, both-ways-is-the-only-way-I-want-it desire. Suffice it to say, too, that Smith isn’t alone in this desire. Its marks are all over the novels and essays (and films and songs and other works of art) that I’ve keyed into over the past several years. At times the marks appear like gouges in the imaginative landscape, deep holes, and at others like deep beautiful reservoirs, best appreciated from a plane’s-eye view (I think of the Midwest’s winking shining lake country, carved out by a retreating glacier). A blessing and a curse, in other words, and mostly, it should be said, a self-sought blessing, a self-sought curse. This isn’t a desire that exists globally, inevitably — but then it isn’t the exclusive property of the experimentalists either. If my experience with Updike and Updike has taught me anything, it’s that the universalist urge can hide in plain, prominent sight. You see two paths, two modes that have traditionally split off, and you ache to walk them both. What could be more natural, or more potentially fraught?

For my part, I betray my own double-mindedness in the way I can cringe and thrill at the same time to the music of a writer’s “universal artist” ambitions. How bombastic this music can sound to contemporary ears, out of touch with the realities of the digital age, and perhaps a little “masculinist,” a little social Darwinist. Yet the desire to swing beautifully and for the fences, to innovate the form in the presence of a large, pleased audience, to put on the pyrotechnic prose mantle of a Joyce while channeling E. M. Forster or George Eliot, or a James or a Faulkner while channeling Raymond Chandler — isn’t great art sometimes forged from this muddle?


Ryan McIlvain is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa. His debut novel, Elders, was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize in 2013 and his next novel, The Radicals, hits shelves on February 13.

LARB Contributor

Ryan McIlvain’s debut novel, Elders, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize in 2013. His other work has appeared in print and online in the Paris Review, The Rumpus, Tin House, Post Road, The Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues, and has received honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. McIlvain’s second novel, The Radicals, is due out in February. A former recipient of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, he now lives with his family in Florida, where he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Tampa.


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