JUNE 7, 2017
EARLY ON in his mostly nonfictional The Correspondence, J. D. Daniels’s girlfriend asks him: “What happened to the bookish layabout I fell in love with?” Daniels has just taken up Brazilian jiu-jitsu, purportedly for reasons of self-discovery — “You learn a lot about yourself when you train to failure, when you go out to the edge of your ability,” he writes — although a cynic might say it’s just run-of-the-mill midlife thrill seeking. His instructor nails the motivation in a monologue that is all the more potent and communicative for its broken English:
And without fighting, when you feel this in your life? For someone else, is once in ten years, when he get marry, when son is born, when his father die. Two, three days in life, he feel this. Here you feel every day. Fear, happy, anger, strong, can I do it. No, I can’t do it. Yes, I did it.
At this point, it is probably pertinent to point out that Daniels has not consumed an alcoholic drink for 10 years, a detail that is only fleetingly alluded to but appears central to the sense of nervous energy that pervades this odd little book. The Correspondence comprises six pieces of writing — it would be a stretch to call them essays — framed as “letters from” this or that place (Cambridge, Majorca, Kentucky, Level Four, Devils Tower, and the Primal Horde, to be exact), which combine breezy gonzo reportage with brooding introspection, flitting capriciously between opacity and specificity.
There are elements of the kind of travel writing you see in the features sections of glossy magazines. For example, a scene from an airport terminal in London, where Daniels observes a passenger nonchalantly downing an entire bottle of Worcestershire sauce (American readers: it is not supposed to be consumed in this way). Later, we get a brief snapshot of low-rent Americana in a poverty-stricken district of Kentucky, where Daniels drives past “Liquor Palace 5 and Discount Medical Supplies, past Furniture Liquidators Home Center, past Cash America Pawn and Cashland.” But these are a mere foil for the anecdotal digressions that compose the true meat of the book. Indeed, such is Daniels’s low regard for textual unity that one of his chapters departs from the format altogether: “Letter from Devils Tower” is a short story told in the third person, in which a man experiencing marital difficulties throws his mobile phone into the road in a gesture of defiant rage, only to retrieve it moments later because it’s ringing. (It’s his wife on the phone.) A change of medium, perhaps, but not a change of tenor: the thematic through-line in this fragmented collage is a nebulous, restless ennui which is finally explicitly spotlighted when, in “Letter from the Primal Horde,” the author checks himself into a group psychoanalysis session. “I entered psychoanalysis,” he confesses, “because I felt I was becoming intolerable to the people around me.”
That admirable self-awareness notwithstanding, he cannot quite find it within himself to treat the process with the seriousness it deserves. In no time at all, he has set himself up as a prickly wisecracker in the mold of R. P. McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, appointing himself a spokesman for the patient group and pushing against the therapists running the program. It is this defensiveness and insecurity that Daniels tries, with only flickering success, to interrogate. There are brief, pregnant references to a difficult relationship with his priggish father, a Vietnam veteran who may well have suffered from PTSD. (“I dared my father to cut my hair, and he picked me up by my throat and smashed me against the wall, then threw me through the doorway into my bedroom and leapt on top me.”) There is a passing reference to Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, as is customary — indeed almost obligatory — in such meditations. But there is no elaboration or embellishment, no elucidation.
Daniels hypothesizes that his hostility toward the therapists has its roots in a kind of professional jealousy: “psychoanalysts and writers are natural enemies precisely because they cover the same territory.” This, ultimately, is where all this existential floundering is taking us — the author is agonizing about what it means to be a writer. He recalls how, after an evening listening to relatives exchanging embellished anecdotes, an aunt told him, “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you go get a pen and paper and write down all these lies?” Daniels took the advice. But he grew disillusioned at the chasm between his idealized conception of the noble writer — part storyteller, part heroic adventurer — and the reality of the jobbing hack, whose role, in the age of Twitter, is to churn out opinionated click bait: “Now it looked like what a professional writer did was pontificate, you know, like the Pope, about social justice and foreign affairs and the Internet and the energy crisis.” He alighted on a formula that worked for him, dividing his time between having experiences and writing about them in a 1:2 ratio: “we might call it the emotion-recollected-in-tranquility racket,” he cynically remarks.
So why so jaded? The stress gnawing at Daniels is not, it seems, confined to the usual moral-philosophical fretting about what one ought to write about, the responsibilities of the author, and so on. Rather, the experimental, patchwork structure of this text suggests an attempt to get beyond all of that, to transgress the limitations of the various commercially viable literary formats, in order to produce something that feels authentic and faithful to lived experience. In this respect, The Correspondence is a perfect marriage of form and substance; it is, or aspires to be, the antidote to the condition it laments. Whether there is quite enough beauty in the prose to carry it off is another matter. A work of this type needs sentences you can really swoon over; the prose here is brisk and engaging, but it rarely soars. Daniels is nonetheless to be commended for his ambitious reimagining of the memoir form. He is not entirely alone in this project: The Correspondence recalls a couple of other recently published memoirs — most notably Howard Cunnell’s Fathers and Sons and Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be — that eschew conventional nonfiction narration in favor of stylized, novelistic vignettes. Like those works, this book is deceptive in its brevity — it demands attentiveness and effort from its reader. In an age of passive consumption and easy rewards, that is something in itself.