• March 15, 2018

    Opening Round

  • Min Jin Lee

    3So Much Blue

    Percival Everett

  • Judged by

    Merritt Tierce

So Much Blue

I hate the currency of favors and I hate the phrase “the currency of favors” and I have been thinking a lot about currency, recently, and although I have always thought a lot, constantly, necessarily, tiresomely, anxiously, about money, I refer here more precisely to currency, that is, the invented representation of money, invented specifically for use in the representation of the exchange of it. I have been thinking about how money is fake and currency is fake and bitcoin, most obviously, is fake, is so flagrantly fake it was clearly, brilliantly created to point directly at the fakeness, the ontological vulnerability, of currency. But of course money is also real and one can trade a fake real dollar for a real real carrot, which one can eat or feed to one’s child, thereby turning the fake real dollar into real real sustenance. Meaning continued existence as organic matter. One can similarly trade a quarter of a million units of (fake) cryptocurrency for 12 months of (real) lodging in, for example, a mansion in the Bird Streets, a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills, a place where the real and the fake define each other to a degree that makes them indistinguishable on the street.

Merritt Tierce is the author of the novel Love Me Back (Doubleday, 2014) and a staff writer on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. Her essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Paris Review, Marie Claire, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I went to grad school with Emily Ruskovich and we had a workshop together.”

I know someone who has done this, the luxury cryptorental, and I have stood with my real feet in the real kitchen between its two dishwashers, looking out at the real view of all of Los Angeles below, even as I have recently purchased real baby carrots (although what are they, baby carrots?) with more traditional currency, albeit transmitted from one banking entity to another via Apple Pay, for my child to snack on, even as I exist as a writer within and because of or in spite of or in refutation of this stultifying biome, the currency of favors.

Not as a writer. As a published author. Anyone can write forever without publishing. Upon publication, what one created alone in a glade lit romantically by lens flare becomes a commodity lit grossly fluorescent, branded by identity, and one must either lean into that identity—rise up and surf it—or beat it back through some kind of prolific proteanism.

I introduce all of the above to peer closely at the types of thoughts I had while reading Percival Everett’s So Much Blue. These and similar eddies had nothing to do with the book, which is the point; the book permitted my mind’s engagement and disengagement, a quality I consider a flaw.        

But during the week before I read the novel, I packed up and moved out of a house I’d lived in for six years—three times longer than I’d lived anywhere as an adult—and I finalized my second divorce, then drove across the country in a U-Haul with my second ex-husband; over the same week my parents were in a bad car wreck (they’re fine), my son turned 18, and my daughter moved from Texas to California to live with me. So perhaps the tendency of my mind to look away from So Much Blue is hardly, I thought while looking away from reading it, the fault of the writing.

When my daughter and I arrived at our new residence I resolved never to move again and spent four days penetrating the enrollment requirements of the very good public high school by proving that I am who I am, my daughter is my daughter and is who she is, which is a person who has been thoroughly vaccinated, and we live where we live. To prove that we live where we live we allowed the entire school board to observe us sleeping in our beds, preparing and eating breakfast, traveling to and from and generally residing at the address listed on four separate documents furnished by disinterested parties. I exaggerate. But on the first day that she attended classes, as soon as she left I finally sat down to read. Read 10 pages and you can unpack a box, I told myself. I did this. Read 10 pages and you can hang something up. I did this. I especially love to hang things up in a new house, because it begins to feel like my habitat, and because it involves math and a level. “I will begin with dimensions”—begins So Much Blue—“As one should. I had a mathematician friend tell me once, perhaps twice, that dimension is concerned with the constituent structure of all space and its relation to time.” I stopped, and considered that, and didn’t understand it, and so was satisfied by what followed: “I did not understand this statement and still I do not, in spite of its undeniable, obvious poetic charm.” Which is not to say that I will be satisfied only by books I can understand but that a book ought to make a wound and then stitch it up.

So Much Blue is about art and secrets and being a man, specifically a husband, a father, a friend, and is told through three self-contained stories set in three different times and places. The narrator, Kevin Pace, and his friend, both grad students, search for the friend’s wayward brother in El Salvador in 1979; many years later Pace, a successful painter and married with young children, has an affair in Paris with a French woman half his age; and 10 years after the affair, Pace deals with a crisis at home near Providence as he perpends upon a large painting he keeps locked in a studio. No one has seen it and he intends that no one ever will. The book asks is my life, my self, my art for me, or for the others?

This is an important, universal question, worth writing a book about. But I put down the book and hang something up: a 1975 Polaroid Automatic 440 Land Camera. I hang the camera itself on the wall by the neck strap and I let the lens all the way out on the vintage bellows. Then I hang a frame around the camera. The neckstrap of the camera extends beyond, above the frame in a tidy loop. “A picture is a secret about a secret”—Diane Arbus, the epigraph to So Much Blue. The irony of framing the camera pleases me and it pleases me that the frame is the exact odd shade of ugly eggshell as the wall. I asked the landlord if he would paint the walls some other color. “It’s a rental,” he said with scorn. “Put down some rugs and hang up some pictures. But don’t make too many holes.”

I think about how I hate the currency of favors and wonder why I’m doing this unpaid thing, reading two books and writing about them, while I apply for food stamps (again) and unemployment. It’s not a favor to anyone (or if it is, it’s a favor to me, to be allowed to participate) but it goes in that category because I did it hoping to make friends with the book people of Los Angeles, where I know few individuals outside of my work colleagues, a guy I met on Tinder, and the random handful of friends and acquaintances maybe anyone on Earth could expect to find in LA County, since 10 million people live here. And each of those people I know lives 30 to 70 to 90 minutes away from me, depending on traffic, even though we all live in Los Angeles. It takes heroic effort to prioritize anything over proximity here, so you have to try very hard to make people like you. To be a person who is worth the trip, and to find people who are worth the trip. You tell yourself: You have to do things for free because social isolation leads to death.

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I also hate to blurb, and I hate not to blurb, and I hate blurbs. I hate reviews, mainly because they stand alone inside a subjective non-system created by one writer for the one-off purpose of speaking about one book. There’s no database of blurbs or codified mandate for reviewers. The only rule is say whatever you want, just don’t jeopardize your own career in the process.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the book. Percival Everett is so smart, so attuned, and so under-read. He is probably over it, reading that he’s under-read, reading that his books are cerebral and intricate. I have a great affinity for the intricate and referential and ironic, and a deep admiration for his body of work, which is formidable in volume and so impressively wry. So aware.

It’s that I’m prone to splitting, as the psychotherapists call it. What I want from a book is to be broken and changed, or nothing. Shake me, kill me, I’m not being melodramatic. Otherwise I’d rather go for a walk. It’s a good book, a unique book, but I read until page 72 before I read a sentence I thought striking, a sentence that rang the bell, which is about 70 pages farther than I’d read for a book that wasn’t an assignment.

Here and there he makes some strong observations, calling forth the “Yes, that’s it” you want to feel when you read. But my positives are all setups for buts. And I’m not in favor of the “nice sandwich” approach to criticism. Fuck the nice sandwich. Fuck the false balance of “impartial” journalism. I just didn’t like it and it didn’t move me. My marginalia is a lot of question marks where the writing wasn’t clear enough, and a lot of x’s where the writing was weak or careless or the argument made via character or plot didn’t hold; the sentences I underlined for their beauty were too few.

But really, fuck me: As I was reading this book by the successful and vaunted Percival Everett, the scope of whose career and legitimacy I can probably never hope to come near, the postman delivered my new hamlet’s local paper. On the front page a headline about Percival Everett, who lives here. Of course he does. In this village of 25,000. I read his book so I could make friends with the book people of Los Angeles, having no idea that he was one of them, and the one book person I actually live around the corner from is a person whose book I am in this moment publicly saying I didn’t like.

Pachinko is about such meaningless interconnectedness, constructed by ego and abstraction and coincidental convergence, and how the meaninglessness is held and created collectively, like currency, meaning the only source of meaning is actually the interconnectedness itself, as arbitrary and impossible to explain as it is. And yet this book explains it. Lays it all out. Yes, it is about Koreans in Japan, about immigrants, about Korea occupied by Japan and Korea before the wars, about poverty and striving—yes, multigenerational epic historical sweeping whatever everyone has said about it. It’s about the meaning of nation. But that doesn’t tell you anything. I sat in my chair and I didn’t unpack a box or hang anything up or eat or think any petty stupid circular thoughts about favors or currency or writing. I didn’t think about what Min Jin Lee was doing. I forgot myself, and I forgot that a book is a made thing. I underlined sentence after sentence. In 479 pages, I wrote three question marks in the margin. I never wrote an x. When I finished the book, I immediately sent a text message in the imperative to one of the smartest, most emotionally woke people I know, to whom I have never recommended a book: Read Pachinko, is all I said.

The book is about money, how it rules lives and determines fates. The book is about work, but work is about money. Life is about money. Money is fake. But if you have it, that fake thing, you can make your real life better.

Sunja opened a blue tin of imported butter cookies and put some on a plate. She filled the teapot with hot water and floated a generous pinch of tea leaves. It was easy to recall a time when there was no money for tea and a time when there was none to buy.

This is how you live, preparing food, making tea, and always in the presence of your past. In awareness of it.

The book is about how destiny is a glamorous ageless gangster who impregnates you with your entire future against your will and in the fullness of your ignorance. How you will be responsible for decisions you made without any facts or resources or assistance, how for much of modern history most people have had no good choices in every next situation. How your life is controlled by strings you can’t see and forces you wouldn’t condone, but that is irrelevant because you are irrelevant. Your relevance is a creation of your mind, and if it extends beyond that it is only in the ways that, and because, you have given up your relevance for the sake of those you care about. It has taken me 18 years of trying, and working, and proving myself, and all the coin I had to spend, to fling us, me and my daughter, into our scornable rental in this sunny valley where she can go to the first school of the eight she has attended that I would not call mediocre, that I would call very good, and everything behind me somehow went into that, and into her, and still who knows if it will benefit her, if she will thrive, if it will mean anything. That’s what Pachinko is about. It’s about how you do something out of a base but human motivation and you have an unexpectedly sublime experience, and how you do something out of what you think is a noble motivation and it goes unnoticed or hurts someone. It’s about how you have no control, nothing makes sense, and life is suffering, and how all that, together, is incomprehensibly beautiful. Read Pachinko.


The Rooster needs your help


Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: Holy cats that was a barnburner of a judgment! You won’t find a more visceral example of the particularities and peculiarities of the ways human beings intersect with art and literature. We’ve talked a lot over the years about the joining that happens when a specific book connects with a specific reader, and here we have a wonderful object example.

I used the publication of So Much Blue to declare Percival Everett the “Great American Novelist” in the Chicago Tribune last year and I haven’t read Pachinko, but I still couldn’t gainsay this judgment. I’m convinced.

That said, people should really read more Percival Everett. My favorites are Erasure and I Am Not Sidney Poitier, but all of his books are worth your time. There’s often a certain coolness or maybe headiness to his books, but this doesn’t mean they’re emotionless or distant by any stretch. They’re also often funny and playful.  The protagonist of I Am Not Sidney Poitier is named “Not Sidney Poitier,” a device used to more comic effect than you can imagine.

Kevin Guilfoile: Whereas I read Pachinko and not So Much Blue (although now I remember reading your column and also now remember forgetting to pick that book up at the time, and having remembered, now regret it). Reading Pachinko was like falling in love for me. It’s long, and probably took me almost a week to read, but I never wanted to part with it. I thought about it all the time when it wasn’t with me. It is about a place and time I know next to nothing about, but I saw all of it vividly, understood the characters implicitly. As a work of historical fiction it is entirely transportative, and as a work of literature, it is universal and wise. Every time I pick up a novel I am hoping for a reading experience like the one I had with Pachinko. Every time I sit down to write I should be aspiring to create a reading experience like the one I had with Pachinko. I am declaring it my favorite to win this whole thing.

John: Tierce invokes another interesting topic/question, namely, how writers can (or can’t) make a living as writers. In her typical style, she wrote one of the boldest explorations of this conundrum for Marie Claire following the publication of Love Me Back. You look at her bio and Merritt Tierce is a superstar by every possible measurement.

And yet, like a lot of writers, she has consistently experienced the struggle of trying to make room for one’s art while navigating the necessities of supporting oneself and one’s family.

Once or twice a year we get news of a high six or even seven-figure advance for a novelist and my heart soars for them, but this will never be the reality for the vast majority of us.

I think you and I both identify as “writers” as our jobs, that this is how we make our livings, but it’s not so simple. In an average year, I earn something equivalent to a middle school science  teacher’s salary. In a good year, add in a couple of stipends for coaching the soccer team and overseeing the theater program. But the most important part of my ability to spend my days writing (and writing, and writing) is the fact that I am partnered with a woman in a well-paying profession who makes much more money than me. We also don’t have children, which keeps our expenses low.

I also never had student loan debt, my MFA was funded, and I worked as a professional for those crucial post-college, post-grad school years, which helped build a nest egg. I write a lot, and I’m sure my hourly wage is miserable, but I’m squarely on the fortunate side of the ledger.

Kevin: Whenever I do a Q&A after a book signing, someone always asks some variant of, “What are the things I need to do if I want to become a full-time writer?” I always say that the most important choice I made on my path to becoming a novelist was to marry a lawyer who could support me while I write. Everyone laughs, but it’s only funny because it’s true.

The writing class is a privileged class. Just about any time a working-class writer is able to sign a major book deal it makes news. (Even Hillbilly Elegy was written by a venture capitalist who is married to a Supreme Court law clerk.) There are a lot of reasons for this, but I suspect the primary one is simply time. The material costs of writing fiction are virtually zero, but the labor and time costs make it one of the least profitable professions in the world, even if you do publish, which is no guarantee.

Sadly, reading of any kind has become a privileged activity, as well. We live in a culture where reading is considered so unnecessary that the President of the United States seems hardly capable of it. (Even as I write this paragraph, the Washington Post is reporting that Trump has stopped reading his daily intelligence briefing and prefers to have a summary of it read aloud to him in a kind of Oval Office storytime: Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by the CIA.)

In this context it’s worth remembering that Trump has filed for bankruptcy six times. Also, the likelihood that you have even read a book in the past year is closely tied to your income. But is it any surprise that working people (and I’m not actually implying that Trump is one of these) aren’t reading if working people aren’t writing? Would working people read more fiction if their authentic point of view was represented more often in contemporary fiction? I guess I don’t know the answer.

This is all tangential to the real point, which is to claim that Merritt Tierce’s essay above is the best Rooster judgment in the 14 years of the ToB. She is honest about the work, even when that honesty works against her own self-interest, and she further uses these novels to reveal things about herself, things that feel true even to people who aren’t her. This is what all writing should aspire to, even writing you do for free.

John: Kevin and I will be back here tomorrow as Exit West, by returning Rooster competitor Mohsin Hamid, takes on The Animators, the debut novel by Kayla Rae Whitaker. Novelist and private investigator Patrick Hoffman will take his place in the judge’s seat.

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