Life, death, brevity — quote of the day

“The world’s small, breathing denizens, its quaking congregations and its stargazers, were fools to sacrifice the flaring briefness of their lives in hopes of paradise or fears of hell. No one transcends. There is no future and no past. There is no remedy for death — or birth — except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall.’’  — Jim Crace, “Being Dead”

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Dying is easy, writing is hard.

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The quote about writing from “Death in Venice” novelist Mann has for decades been my favorite assessment of the craft, even, if you will, my mantra. I present it because just days ago in The New York Times an op-ed writer echoed it crisply: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This is something I have staunchly believed, and still do. Writing’s a bitch.

I’ve written so long and hard that my head hurt, that I’ve become physically wobbly, a wet noodle. And compounding the physical complaints was the inexorably depressing notion that what I just spent hours extracting, exhuming, molding and crafting was irrefutable crap.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway

A journalist colleague once called me a bleeder, because I am so slow and painstaking a writer. I’ve spent six hours on a 700-word article, I’m ashamed to admit. That isn’t the norm, but it also isn’t uncommon. Every word — no: every syllable — counts.

My best friend as a writer is so rudimentary I shouldn’t even have to mention it, and that’s reading. Yet I know many writers who don’t get this. What reliably dumbfounds me is how little so many of them actually, actively read. Television has usurped reading as a cultural pastime, confused as literature as it is. I guarantee watching TV is not going to improve one’s prose skills (teleplay-writing skills, maybe). Too many would-be writers are aspiring illiterates. A fact.

As the greats have harrumphed :

“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson

“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” — Larry L. King

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” —  Stephen King

26stephens-web-blog4277Done correctly, writing is work, grueling toil. It’s fun (when it’s going well), but not that much fun. Still, creating and thinking are so gratifying that it’s worth it. It takes time, hours and hours. Listen to Louis Menand of The New Yorker:

“Writing, for 99-percent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as ‘like speech’ are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, and recalibration. … Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.”

That’s as hard as it sounds, and, without the most gimlet-eyed editor, failure is inevitable. But we try. We do the work. We grind, grope for the felicitous simile and metaphor, strive for the perfect punctuation, the poetic stroke, the tickling aside. We do, yes, bleed. Sympathy is unfitting for such a self-involved venture. The only reward is to be read.

Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst

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 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill

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On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”

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On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet

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On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane

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“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand

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“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

Unsung culture: a reclamation

The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.

unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.

From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.

These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.

Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.

Film

Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.

But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).

 * “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.

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* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.

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* “Wendy and Lucy” —  A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)

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Pop Music

Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.

Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.

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Jellyfish

On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.

“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.

An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”

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Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America,” which seems all but forgotten.

But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.

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Food

For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.

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My bone marrow feast, London.

Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server carefully tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown-pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Excavating the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.

Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.

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Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.

The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.

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Books

“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.

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A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.

Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road, which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.

And, as I’ve mentioned a few times here, seek out Eve Babitz, especially her zesty ’70s novels, freshly reissued, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Sex and Rage.”

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Cities

It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

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My Istanbul, 2008.

Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.

If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.

The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unbudging agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.

For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting again.

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TV

Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.

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Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.

The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a pinch of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.

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And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.

 

Babitz feast: A tart spread of her writerly wit

41cxwwrD0ZL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book I’m having the best time with right now, the one that swings with a driving lyric beat, glitter and spunk, is Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage,” a midsize book with a kingsize subtitle: “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time.” (Why are subtitles so long yet explicate so little?)

Published in 1979, this inebriating, semi-autobiographical novel of L.A. sun and New York fun, of boozing and book publishing, was reissued last month after an overdue Babitz revival was set loose by Dwight Garner’s rave review in The New York Times of her ebullient memoiristic novel “Eve’s Hollywood”.

Babitz, so young, jazzes her already pungent prose with piquant similes and pinging metaphors, snarky observations and laughing surprises that rush you along, flowing and splashing. She’s an effortless, evocative dazzler, both tragically hip and self-deprecatingly down to earth.

Currently in the thick of “Sex and Rage,” I’ve plucked a few chewable excerpts that reveal a stylist’s stylist:

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“In the hurricane, the waves were fifteen feet high and roared like lions and volcanoes.”

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“Gilbert’s apartment was furnished by his landlord in cocoa-brown threadbare fifties’ Modern with a cocoa-brown shag rug and stucco walls, which had been swirled into a pattern so life would be more interesting.”

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“He smelled like a birthday party for small children, like vanilla, crêpe paper, soap, starch, and warm steam and cigarettes. Anyone would have liked being hugged by him.”

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“She had heard that an artist was ‘any white person over twenty-five without health insurance.'” 

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“His voice was icy but cordial, a combination she had never remembered hearing. It was sort of like Montgomery Clift trying to be mean.”

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“He was built like a lizard or a saluki. He was narrow and ancient-looking; his skin looked like papyrus, five thousand years old but not wrinkled, just from another age — from an age before they knew about chocolate or Dante or Charlie Chaplin.” 

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“This wave would grow larger and larger, sucking in its cheeks, and, unable to contain itself, finally it would break, thundering with a passion so ruthless that nothing in its way prevailed. To surf such a stampede you had to be alive with balance, for the speed welled up beneath your feet, blooming faster and faster, as the green glass smashed into foam, throwing you into its tangoed embrace. If you lasted and kept on your feet, the wave unrolled until finally it exhausted itself, spent upon the wet shore, softly uncurled like a baby’s smile.”

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“She felt as though she’d been in front of a firing squad that had changed its mind.”

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“Max’s laugh was like a dragnet; it picked up every living laugh within the vicinity and shined a light on it, intensified it, pitched it higher. It was a dare — he dared you not to laugh with him. He dared you to despair. He dared you to insist that there was no dawn, that all there was was darkness, that there was no silver lining … He dared you to believe you were going to die — when you at that moment knew, just as he did, that you were immortal, you were among the gods.”

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Babitz

At a nervous book reading, Nicholson Baker talks writing

I met author Nicholson Baker at a reading of his collection “The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber” some time ago on Haight Street in San Francisco. For me the reading was a sustained 60-minute symphony of emotional unease, toggling from pity, to giddiness, to gleeful recognition, to awe, to depression, to tiny elation, to a momentary lapse into eye-watering hero worship. After the event, as he signed a stack of his books and a framed picture of him that I brought, I told him I thought his work was “astonishing.” I don’t regret it, because I still believe it.

We landed front row seats in the children’s books section, rubbing elbows with Curious George and the kid with the purple crayon. In my lap were Baker’s new book, as well as the novels “Room Temperature,” “Vox,” “The Fermata” and his 1988 debut “The Mezzanine,” which remains my dearest Baker book, an uproarious, undisputed marvel of pointillistic insights into life at its most mundane, consumeristic and miniaturistically magnificent. Aglow with prosy pyrotechnics, it’s the one book I tell everybody to read.

The nifty 2011 reissue cover

(He’s published at least nine books of fiction and non-fiction since then, some of them, including the quietly hilarious novel “The Anthologist,” rather wonderful.)

Baker entered the store, very tall and visibly anxious, and slinked into the back room. Jonathan Pryce’s teetering, disheveled, hand-wringing wreck in the movie “Glengarry Glen Ross” came to mind, and I felt sorry for the man, believing he was perhaps prodded with a long rake by Random House into doing such public readings.

When he first appeared at the podium, his face rapidly changed expressions, almost all of them on his broad red forehead. His entire face was an agitated, chafed pink-magenta, due to psoriasis, the skin affliction he shared with his late literary lodestar John Updike. (See Baker’s marvelous “U and I,” a profound and comical meditation about his tormenting Updike obsession.)

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This tall, frail man filled me with pity; my favorite author, my linguistic idol, quivering up there and my expectant probing eyes contributing to his discomfort. But then he opened the book, complimenting it’s nice “minty green” cover, and began to read. With a sudden surge of surety, he read the title essay and told the gathered crowd that he wrote it in 1982, at age 25. (Twenty-five! Envy gnawed me and my heart sank.) He said he decided on non-fiction essays because, also at 25, he had written a couple of short stories that ran in The New Yorker (25!), and after the third one he ran out of ideas.

As a writer without ideas, you become an editor, Baker went on. He applied at The Atlantic Monthly and told the fiction editor he wanted to see more stories replete with metaphorical language, dense, tangled forests of word vegetation, the kind of stuff he writes.

The Atlantic editor asked if Baker knew that writers are supposed to write every day. Baker’s reply: “N-no.” Now, he said, he writes daily, mostly “journal things.” He carries an 8½-by-11 sheet of paper folded to the size of a Camel box on which to jot thoughts, descriptions and whatever springs to his febrile mind.

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Baker writes about 1,000 pages a year, and most of it is awful. “What is worth writing about” he said is the toughest thing about writing. With a facetious twinkle, he said “The Mezzanine” is the only novel in history with four pages of continuous footnotes. Why footnotes, which appear in many of his books? Because his sentences become too attenuated, stretch to the breaking point, with too much space between noun and verb.

Writers, he said, stop writing each day when the writing starts getting really bad. So the next day you have to face the last shit you wrote. When it’s that time, he plays Suzanne Vega extremely loud to drown out the re-writing of the leftover shit. When he’s finished, he returns to silence and begins fresh writing.

Book readings are like rarefied mini-salons, enriching and, if you’re lucky, enlightening. You get to meet your heroes, interrogate them, get a glimpse inside their minds, see what they look like beyond their blow-dried jacket photos. I’ve attended swell readings by Lorrie Moore, Michael Chabon, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and, as a sweaty-palmed teen, Allen Ginsberg at San Francisco’s fabled City Lights Bookstore.

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But my favorite reading is still the one by the wry, shy Baker. He was the funniest (DeLillo was so serious), the warmest (Moore was downright frosty), the most self-effacing about himself and his art (Franzen’s, well, Franzen) and the most self-conscious (Chabon, the cheery nice fellow). He was as good as Ginsberg, who was a gigantic spirit, radiating a Buddha’s benevolence and inclined to chat you up when he signed your copy of, in my case, “Howl.”

Of course he was hugely different than Ginsberg, too. Baker was the introverted version of Ginsberg’s enveloping holy hippie. But he also chatted amiably with me when he signed all my books. He thanked me for reviewing “The Fermata” in the newspaper I worked at. And he thanked my brother for asking a question during the Q&A session. And then he said something I thought was immeasurably kind. Looking at me modestly, even diffidently, he said, “Good luck with your writing.”

It’s my journal. If only it were more.

“Journal entries, those vessels of discontent, are notoriously fickle, subject to the torque of mutable feelings; without caution, speculation falls into usurpation.” Cynthia Ozick

I’ve kept a journal for more than 22 years. It’s mostly electronic, tip-tapped on my computer, though I’ve printed out hundreds of pages from the first decade or so and bound them in a plastic spiral binder, as if I wrote a book. It’s quite fat.

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A big hunk of my journals, bound.

(This word barrage, incidentally, doesn’t include the stacks of Moleskin notebooks deliriously filled during my extensive world travels.)

What I write in the journal is hardly revolutionary. I report, remember, ruminate, philosophize, complain, yearn, whine and woolgather — all that human stuff. Most likely it is ravenously narcissistic, disgustingly self-obsessed, irretrievably solipsistic. (And how.)

Some of it’s pretty juicy, even naughty, but I’m careful not to get too personal about others. For one, I’m not comfortable anatomizing friends and family; second, I wouldn’t want to injure feelings of someone who pried where they weren’t supposed to. (Once, someone did pry where they weren’t supposed to. A romance that was in its death throes was instantly snuffed.)

It wants badly to be literary, more narrative than journalistic, even occasionally novelistic, lyrical, with cartwheels and curlicues. This means a lot of it is dreadful. Perhaps what I’m aiming for is the memoir-y fictions of writers like Ben Lerner (the astounding, erudite “10:04”), Karl Ove Knausgård (the granular, un-put-downable “My Struggle” series), Teju Cole (“Open City,” a minor masterpiece), and Eve Babitz (“Eve’s Hollywood,” a delicious, decadent Didion), paragons of the form, of living, breathing autobiographical novels.

And then there’s one of the Platonic ideals, Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” the first half of which is the faux-memoir of a blustering, philosophical nihilist, spittle flying with frothing apoplexy. It’s nuts, pure sulfurous id.

And, three attempts in, I still can’t surrender to this undisputed (until now) classic novel. Despite its machine-gun stream-of-consciousness, “Notes” is a grinding slog. The book rushes headily but incoherently, a corrosive rant by its nameless protagonist that loops-the-loops, caroms, careers and pinballs. Zesty, it’s also strangely insipid. I don’t know what the character is on about most of the time, but there’s a zing and energy propelling his transgressive thoughts.

About putting it down, yet again, I am conflicted, though I am mostly just bored, and that — boredom by a work of art — is unforgivable. I persevere for my friend Sativa’s sake. “Muscle through,” she, a fan of the book, tells me. But I can’t.

Still, I wish my journals were as combustible, as gnarly and smart. Sylvia Plath’s published journals, so frank and vivid, have inspired me, told me how to limn a banal day, galvanize a simple gesture. Lerner, infusing the quotidian with ballistic intelligence — he’s something else. (I’ve twice read “10:04.”)  I return to my bloated journal, its thirsty computer pages, recording the day, feelings, longings, and do what I can, all the while hoping for something approaching, or just faintly grazing, art. Ha.