What'd I'd say about all of the fiction I see now is that there's never any life in it. Even when one piece is somewhat better than most of the others, it's just words. They're empty. Words must hold and convey life.
I was thinking about this passage yesterday from "Someone Who Knew Things," which will be in No Mercy When We Get There: Stories to Wreck You. The story tells the story of a man's entire life, in narrative-units of days. "One day he did this," etc. That's the construction. It jumps around in time. But it's all about these days.
At the start of the story--which we can figure later is probably in the 1960s--he's wearing this glib/flippant T-shirt that reads, "There is much that I know." A counterculture type of T-shirt a young person could very well wear at that time. We see him at all of these different times. When he wants to watch a Dragnet marathon on TV but can't find the remote and thinks his cat is screwing with him and has hid it; after his mother dies and he has this interaction with her best friend who doesn't like him that much; on a Memorial Day when he cuts an x into his chest; the night before his wedding; a scene with a divorce lawyer in a courthouse; coaching Little League despite having no kids; at a Bob Dylan concert; at his first AA meeting; at his doctor's in his seventies; playing catch with his step daughter; lending out records to kids in town; and the story ends on the day he dies. It will overwhelm you. It's funny, and heartbreaking, and wise.
We live these lives and people who know us think they know us, but usually they know us as we are right then. They don't know all of the things we were before, which can seem impossible to reconcile with what we are at that present time. But that's part of how we became that person. People just don't know that, though. This story shows what that looks like. It moves around in time, but you get your footing and you know where you are. It doesn't do it sectionally, either; the work is an integrated, continuous whole, which is really a difficult thing to do when you're moving around like this, and not specifically spelling out years and such, but you still want everything to be clear.
When he goes to the Dylan concert, it's closer to the end than not. He has grandkids, and the generations are together at this show. It's funny because his family think he's almost quaint in how he talks in some ways, but we know these other things about his past. He's pleased after the show and announces, "Bob was in good voice tonight." But within that day, there's this memory of this other day, involving his step daughter--who became his daughter such that the "step" was dropped and never thought of again--and her best friend from childhood, who was over the house a lot, and he'd come down in the morning and say, "Good morning daughter, good morning unofficial daughter."
But you see the life in that? That's real. That's not just words. At the concert, he's asking after this best friend now. She's not a best friend anymore. Usually your best friend at fifteen, sixteen, isn't your best friend in your forties, but you may keep in touch, especially through social media, as the daughter and the friend do. We know something of the most searing pain about this other person. And there's this Bob Dylan thing in common between the past--he would lend her a certain Dylan record, and then he just bought her a copy as a present--and now being at the show on this day. So he asks how she's doing. And when he is pleased enough to say that Bob was in good voice tonight, we know it's not really about Dylan that's the reason why he's saying this, or can express this happy thought about Dylan. I can't give it away, but my God, it will wreck you. In a good way.
I was thinking about this part in a church where he'd been an altar boy. It goes like this:
One day when he was fifteen he boasts to the punk kids that he hangs around with that he could go into the church and commit a dastardly deed. That’s what he calls it because the phrase was in Treasure Island which some of them had to read recently for English class and they thought it was funny, but he actually likes Treasure Island and wanted to read it again before he had finished it once. He’d been an altar boy in the church. He didn’t have positive or negative feelings about the place. You could go there if you wanted or not if you didn’t. It was kind of like a road that way when you had a choice of going down either of two that went in the same direction though they might be very different from each other.
They bet him he couldn’t do it and he maintains that he can, all the way to completion. He goes into the confession booth and he starts telling the tales of his dastardly deeds, some of which were true and some which are wholly invented. Quite a few involve girls and picking up his sister’s friend’s panties from the floor when they went downstairs for breakfast after a sleepover and smelling them like they contained sweet drizzles of golden honey because that helps him in getting to where he is trying to get as he masturbates in the confessional.
Finally, the priest, sounding fatigued, asks, “Anything else, my son?” and he answers, “Forgive me Father, for I have erupted!” and finishes all over the fake walnut partition between them and runs out of the booth and the church trying to zip what he called the Friendliest Apostle back into his pants while escaping without taking a header.
Take something like "dastardly deed." The phrase isn't actually in Treasure Island. But if you were a kid imitating the style of Treasure Island, riffing on it in the way kids do and trying to talk that way, "dastardly deed" is something you could very well come up with, find funny, which you and your friends would then start saying to each other. This is what I mean by life. These aren't just words. They are filled with life. You can't teach someone how to do that. It's impossible. You can either do it or you can't. And if you can't do it, it can't be great writing that lasts. The things that do last do this. They have that life.
There's just so much here that is full of life and true. Has that deep ring of truth. That he wants to read this book again before finishing it the first time. The little self-discovery--which isn't really so little--that he actually likes this book. You sense that it's not something he'd be able to admit to these friends. The priest who sounds tired--because he's been in that booth listening to people BS him in his view, or enough people anyway to get him down, to cause him to question what he's doing, the decisions he made in his life to go down his path; to ask himself if he, too, is spiritually going through the motions. That's in there. The great lines--the one in dialogue about erupting, the other back in the narrative voice--but with echoes of borrowed internal dialogue--about the apostle.
You just can't fake things like this. You can't fake being able to do it. It's more than words. I'm never just doing words--I'm doing life. And everything I read in modern fiction--even when it's a little bit better--is lifeless. It's never doing life. Because you can't fake that. You can't learn it. It's this totally other thing. And without it, the work will just be words.