Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My Life as a Man

If I ever felt superior to you and your way of life, I don’t any longer. Besides, it’s to you that I may owe my literary career. Trying on a recent afternoon walk to figure out how I got into this line of work, I remembered myself at age six and you at age eleven, waiting in the back seat of the car for Mother and Dad to finish their Saturday night shopping. You kept using a word that struck me as the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and once you saw how much it tickled me, you wouldn’t stop, though I begged you to from the floor of the car where I was curled up in a knot from pure hilarity. I believe the word was “noodle,” used as a synonym for “head.” You were merciless, somehow you managed to it stick it somewhere into every sentence you uttered, and eventually I wet my pants. When Mother and Dad returned to the car I was outraged with you and in tears. “Joannie did it,” I cried, whereupon Dad informed me that it was a human impossibility for one person to pee in another person’s pants. Little he knew about the power of art. (114)

In My Life as Man, Philip Roth, again as he does in just about all of his fiction, contrasts the adult life of his altar ego narrator with that of his narrator’s idyllic childhood, how with the complexity of sex, relationships, and the burdens of adulthood, he fails miserably. In this novel, the first to make mention of Nathan Zuckerman, he also starts to flesh out a theme that he works at for the rest of his literary career, the question of identity and the relationship between fiction and real life, whatever that term means, actually whatever either means, both fiction and real life.

The book is a choppy format for the first hundred or so pages and is hard to get into until you realize what the format of the book is, which is that the first section, two stories about Nathan Zuckerman, are thinly veiled fictions written by Peter Tarnopol, mirroring his life, which also mirrors what we, as readers, know to be the life of Philip Roth. The second section is about Peter Tarnopol and his struggles as a writer, but more so as a husband trying to divorce his wife, and to take it out one level further, as Roth does in the title and later on in the book, it is about his struggle to live as a man.

This novel is meta on top of meta, Roth as a series of Russian dolls, Peter Tarnopol, a smaller version of himself, and Nathan Zuckerman, a smaller version of Tarnopol, and yet it suffers from none of the lack of grace that the meta-fiction appearing around this same time and following would suffer from – the ham-fisted cynicism or unreadable prose.

Though obviously an emotional trainwreck and probably doomed in relationships for the rest of his life, there is something completely appealing about Roth’s altar ego, as sexist and neurotic as he occasionally may be, that his doubts and insecurities, and the fits of mania they produce, are just escalated versions of ones that I also experience. And through this character and this sometimes manic and caffeinated voice, prose that reads super fast, flying past you are sometimes amazing insights into human life, into art, America, how one goes about living a life, and how one goes about living life as an artist.

Peter Tarnopol is a young hotshot writer, who found fame at an early age, much like Roth’s own situation, winning the National Book Award at the age of 26 for his first book. He comes from “a nice Jewish family” and has not really experienced much drama outside of the stuff he read in his college studies. He meets Maureen, a psychopath who becomes his wife through trickery, and soon he is living a life of intense drama, such as one would find in the fiction he adored and in the fiction he aspired to write. Maureen is aware of this and sometimes hints in rages that she is real life, that she is giving this sheltered boy who hopes to write about real life a dose of it. Again, there is this tension between life and its representation and from whence forms of representation come.

My trouble in my middle twenties was that rich with confidence and success, I was not about to settle for complexity and depth in books alone. Stuffed to the gills with great fiction – entranced not by cheap romances, like Madame Bovary, but by Madame Bovary - I now expected to find in everyday experience the same sense of the difficult and the deadly earnest that informed the novels I admired most. My model of reality, deduced from reading the masters, had at its heart intractability. And here it was, a reality as obdurate and recalcitrant and (in addition) as awful as any I could have wished for in my most bookish dreams. (195)


Something similar, something not too distant from that desire to have a life with as much poetry and meaning as the ones I read about in the novels I love, is present in this activity I do here and which I have been a little neglectful of lately, that being the activity of diary writing, of recording my life perhaps as a method of bragging about it to whomever may be reading, trying in some ways to make my life seem thrilling or cool if not to you, than at least to myself. There is that potential reading of what my intentions are with this act of diarying, though I think that that would be a cynical one and miss much of what my true motivation is here.

It is that I read all these things, all these amazing books, and sometimes (though far more rarely) I will see an amazing movie that makes me long for a certain type of living. The most recent ones to do this are the series of Eric Rohmer films that I have been watching lately. There is this desire to live a life of meaning, of beauty, and yes, that is surely done in those actual moments of living, but those moments, those instances of beauty become amplified and things take on more meaning in the recollection of those things, of those moments; that when we sit back and think it over, that is when we actually begin to fully appreciate the thing that transpired. There is that Wordsworth quote, which I always tended to disagree with, which I found perhaps just a little too mannered, but which comes back to me verbatim in various moments and which I am becoming more and more sympathetic to; he said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

And the sentiment is certainly one that Roth, in a decidedly unmannered way, mirrors in this novel and also perhaps is the impetus behind my own love of this diary project.

Last night (always with the last nights, the yesterdays, here; never the nows), I went to this crazy Italian restaurant in Bay Ridge, Tommaso’s, for Carvnevale dinner with Gabriel and Ben, treated by these two older gay men and this straight couple. This recollection might be more attributed to that first mentioned motivation rather than to aspiring to live and relive a life of meaning. Here it might be that I just want to mention how amazingly delicious this food was, how good the wine, and how pleasant the evening. The amount of food I ate was truly obscene, quite a few courses of cheese heavy and meat heavy food. The owner was dressed as a clown and was singing opera and would occasionally rest his hand on my shoulder when talking to our table in a way that made me feel at ease in this world. There were several other people, an amazing old lady being one of them, also singing opera.

Toward the end of the evening, drunk on all the food consumed and all the lovely Cabernet in my belly, one of the singers broke into “New York, New York,” and that moment right then is what I want to capture, what all of this is being mentioned for, what a picture could never capture, nor even video. The pleasure of all this stuff coursing through my body and the proximity of friends I cared deeply about became all the more pleasurable, all the more special, and the focus of my thoughts as this woman was singing about how great New York was, how if she could make it there, she could make it anywhere. And I got totally giddy, thinking back to how I felt, approaching four years ago now, when I first moved here and what that meant, what the idea of New York meant to me then, how in many ways it was the place of that particular song, and how it appears to me now, how sometimes I forget that earlier giddiness I had about the place, but in certain moments, last night for instance, I get those butterflies again, knowing how special a place this is.

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