- The Pearl Beyond Price: Integration of Personality into Being, an Object Relations Approach?
- The Lousy Adult by William J. Cobb;
- Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend! (Lord Jesus Christ, Be Present Now), No. 34 (from Das Orgelbüchlein), BWV632.
In a novel, you can build a character, using certain parts or impressions of someone you know, and guessing or inventing others, without having to worry that your guesses or memories or inventions are wrong. To me that makes a richer, more whole story, a story you can get lost in, in a way that I find it harder to get lost and immersed in nonfiction, which is always just a part of a whole the whole of reality.
In short, Dostoevsky has been a strong, sometimes imperfectly recognized inspiration to me, even though because? Nabokov, who always disparaged Dostoevsky in his criticism, was so clearly influenced by Dostoevsky in his work. These are all great, but I was most impressed by the sentence-by-sentence writing—the control of tone, syntax, and rhythm. Who are some of the stylists you most admire? EB: Thank you! Of contemporary writers, I admire Haruki Murakami for his tone—at once hardboiled, bemused, and good-natured, with surprising metaphors.
I also really admire Raymond Chandler, who is important for Murakami. AD: Are there other campus novels that you had in mind while writing this—other books that got across something crucial about being young, interested, and ignorant that you wanted to get across yourself?
What angle of vision on the world does this particular position provide her? What angle of vision on the world does it provide you? Obviously there are many, many ways of being an outsider, but having immigrant parents is one of them. Like many immigrant children, I had the experience of visiting my grandparents every summer, going to a different country, speaking a different language, seeing different stuff in the supermarket, experiencing a whole different way of doing things.
I think that, in this way, I realized the provisionality and contingency of human systems earlier than I might have otherwise. That, too, was something I had to narrate to myself, to make sense of it—to have one story where everything made sense. I thought this was tantamount to a moral obligation for anyone who had advantages at all, and especially for anyone who wanted to be a writer.
I associate it a little bit with being the child of immigrants.
The thought of wasting those opportunities seemed like the worst shame, the worst indignity. More generally, how would you define beauty? Where do you find it in art? In the world? Small questions, I know! In this sense, there is salvation—happiness and virtue—in beauty. I would define beauty in this context as a kind of richness, complexity, mystery, diversity, otherness, and unexpectedness—something that comes from the outside.
He writes Commonweal 's "Bookmarks" column. Please email comments to letters commonwealmagazine. An Interview with Elif Batuman. By Anthony Domestico. Share Share Twitter Print. Batuman is a staff writer for the New Yorker. We recently talked by email. Being a writer is a lousy job The thought of wasting opportunities seemed like the worst shame, the worst indignity.
Published in the May 5, issue:. View Contents. Also by this author The Age of the Crisis of Man. Related Books. By Paul Baumann. A Relentless Interrogator. Must Reads. In the debates about democratic socialism, we need a new idea of utopia. Lee wasn't the worst about this. It was our job to keep our heads low, and he pretty much ignored the world beyond his life. Of course no one expected us to like it.
If you like being the lowest anything there's something wrong with you, right? We were free to resent and we did it with gusto. Mainly we hated people who had it easy, people with family money. But we certainly didn't care for the people who moved into the houses once they were finished, the homeowners. Seeing all the changes did it to us. We watched the transformation of Whispering Pines sourly.
At first there were only fields and trees and meadows divided by paved roads, fire hydrants, and bone-white sidewalks. These had been laid some time before by the developer, the roads full of curves and cul-de-sacs. By the time they got around to building the houses, the sidewalks and fire hydrants were surrounded by thick weeds and sunflowers four feet high. The concrete men then came along and poured the foundations, the framers put up the walls and roof, the roofers covered it, the dry wall men put up sheet rock on the walls and ceiling, then the cabinets and bathrooms and windows and carpets were installed and when it was done, you had a perfectly good, clean new house ready for someone's life.
At that point everything seemed full of promise. Seeing the neighborhoods three or five years old, full of families and kids and dogs, was something of a disappointment. There always seemed to be a car alarm going off somewhere or a baby crying in the front yard full of brightly colored plastic toys. The threat of crime gave the neighborhoods a sleazy sheen. At the edge of things, where the new streets and houses abutted the established neighborhoods, teenage kids smashed the new windows with rocks and snuck into houses to party.
In a back bedroom I once found beer cans and a used condom, cigarette butts soggy in the toilet. As the company gophers it was our job to police the neighborhoods to keep the kids out and the houses clean. We took pride in vacuuming the new carpets till all the fibers swirled nicely, making sure the walls were kept clean and white, the stainless steel of the kitchen sinks shiny, the welcome mats swept. At this stage we felt as if the houses were ours, that there was something noble and fine about our jobs, and that our role in it was significant.
Every evening we drove home hammered in our lowly fate. The house where we lived, where we ate and slept and watched a little TV, was not new, clean, noble, or fine. The ceilings were low, the windows were small and fogged, and the living room always smelled a bit rank from poisoned mice decaying below the wooden floor. The patchwork roof leaked during the worst thunderstorms and the toilets was always getting clogged up.
Like a ghost with leukemia, Lee's mother floated through the rooms, always home but rarely visible. Her door was closed. Lee, Joan, and Pint seldom knocked on it. She came out when she had a mind to. She had something seriously wrong with her kidneys, but no one ever offered an explanation of what exactly it might be and I never asked.
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It was that bad. She never left the house and every day wore the same faded crummy house robe. I'd say it seemed she'd given up on life but that wouldn't be true. No doubt she'd given up on the image of a glorious and rewarding and satisfied life, one that I still fantasized about, but I don't honestly think she'd had such dreams in a long time. She was resolved to something less than that, and perhaps was wise enough to realize that's what many of us have to deal with, if not to be happy with, at least to accept.
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And once I moved in she was kind to me. That first day I called she'd been razzing me, her sense of humor, and I didn't get it. To her I was a visitor and you had to act a certain way toward visitors. She insisted that I get preferential treatment. For instance, I was always first in line for the bathwater. This was a big deal. Their hot water heater was small and weak. Each night there was only enough hot water for one bath, and it took a good hour and a half to heat more, so we drew one bath and shared it, everyone who wanted a bath at the time of the night, taking turns.
As the guest, I went first, then Lee, Joan, and lastly, Pint. Lee and I were often filthy from working outside all day, especially if we'd been carrying cinder blocks to the foundations and squelching through the mud, spattering it in our hair and into the pores of our skin. By the time Pint reached the tub the water was reddish brown, soap suds congealed on the surface like toxic waste bubbles. As gofers, Lee and I worked twelve hours a day five or six days a week and with two hours of commuting had no time but to eat and sleep. On weekends we hung out with Ladonna, Lee's girlfriend, and her sisters.
Ladonna was short and sexy in a farmer's simpleton daughter way. She was a guileless, good-natured person, sweet to a fault. She carried around a stuffed rabbit with one eye missing, even when we went out to eat or went to a bar and played pool. She had just graduated from high school when I arrived and it was still slightly scandalous and rebellious that she was having sex with Lee unmarried. Her parents were smiling Christians always thanking the Lord for this and that.
For dinner, for the car not breaking down, for rain when the lawn was looking kind of parched, for a sale at Wal-Mart. Before I met her, the only thing I knew about Ladonna was that she collected rocks. In his letter Lee advised me to bring a special rock from Texas, that Ladonna had never been outside the state of Colorado but to Ohio once, a long drive with relatives, but that really didn't count because she went with her aunt who got spooked immediately, thought they were going to get lost and sexually assaulted by ghetto kids in Cincinnati, so they turned around and came right back.
But she had a collection of rocks from all over the world. Shale from Mexico, two polished river stones from Canada, and a piece of quartz from Peru. Or at least her Uncle Dan had said it was from Peru, but Lee didn't exactly believe that story. Ladonna's face, I'll have to admit, was rather plain and ordinary. She held the rock in both hands, cupped it there, as if it were a baby bird or a rare jewel, and smiled. She told me I shouldn't have, it was too beautiful to give away, and I said don't be silly.
She asked where I found it. Lee rubbed her head affectionately and said he didn't know why she loved rocks so much, just funny that way. It was a gentle but persistent form of torture, sleeping in the same room with Joan, a big teenage tomboy of a girl. She was tall as a man, with long straight brown hair, long fine hands and brown eyes that always seemed on the verge of tears, even though she smiled most of the time that I was in the room.
Though I was usually exhausted from work, I'd had insomnia all my life and even dead bone tired, lay awake for a time each night before slipping to sleep. Lee and Pint dozed off immediately, but I could tell by the sound of Joan's breathing she was still awake. She wore an oversize T-shirt to bed and was always as modest as possible when I was around, and out of politeness I left the room when she needed to change or primp, but on certain nights her face was clearly illuminated by the moonlight. Lying on my side with my face soaked in shadow, I watched her, admired the plastic light on the curve of her cheeks, forehead, neck, and collarbones.
When Lee and I came home from work late in the evenings, she offered us iced tea because she knew I liked it. Between sharing the bath water and sleeping in the same room, I started to experience a nagging compulsion to reach out and touch her skin. One night close I couldn't sleep, couldn't stop the wheeling of my mind, couldn't think of anything to do but lie there in bed and wait for the tiredness to set in, wait for the summer to end, wait to get back on schedule in my life.
Lee and Pint were already snoozeville but Joan was out on a babysitting gig. When returned home I was still wide awake and heard her unlock the front door, heard her step through the house. She floated into the room and set her purse on the bed, then disappeared down the hallway. I got out of bed in my boxers, pulled on a hooded sweatshirt, and followed her.
I figured she would be in the kitchen snacking. She wasn't. I pulled on my work boots and stepped out the back door to smoke a cigarette. The air was warm and wet, the world cloaked in folds and swells of darkness, clouds muffling the moon. The ostrich corral was quiet and still, only the smell of it rich and sweet. The bathroom window cast a bright butterscotch rectangle of slanting light onto the dark yard below, the yellow curtains drawn on the lower half, though in the upper half was visible the rising mist of steam.
When I finished the cigarette, I walked quietly back through the house and paused at the bathroom door. A moment's hesitation stretched as I listened to my heartbeat, to my heart, to the sounds soft and wet of Joan soaping herself in the tub. Then I opened the door and went inside.
She didn't move. But she didn't freeze. She didn't reach to cover her body. She was not frozen.
The Poet's Poet
Her chest rose and fell with her breaths. The veins in her neck pulsed visibly. Steam rose off the hot water white as weak milk from her bath oils. Her hair was twisted into itself and held in place with a pencil, feathery at the back of her neck, drooping down in arcs held heavy where wet. Beside the tub was the toilet covered with a fuzzy yellow cover. Above the sink was a large mirror, all fogged with condensation. I walked to it and wiped a circle to look at myself, to keep from looking at her. The glass squeaked as my fingers rubbed against it.
From the angle of the mirror, looking into it I could see her in the bathtub.
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I looked at her that way, her looking back. Joan shaved her underarms as I stood there watching her in the mirror. She did it slowly and carefully, only the sound of dripping water off her hands and the swishing of the razor in the tub water breaking the silence. When she was finished she stood up, the soapy water sheeting off her body. I told her I guess I should be going. I turned around and she was staring at me, a twisted shadow of the look she used to give me all the time when Lee and I were friends in junior high and she was in grade school. I took a towel off the back of the door and turned around.
I stepped across the room and held the towel open. She wrapped her body in it and thanked me. I didn't know what to say or do. I'm the state champion in the The mosquitoes were bad and the beer tasted sour, but I was tired from a day of carrying cinder blocks and glad to relax somewhere outside, glad to be off before dark. The asphalt was cracked and gray, weeds shooting up knee high over most of the rows of humps, the speaker posts like columns of short telephone poles, some snapped off short where kids had driven through in old cars, bashed-up bombers smashing up the place for the hell of it.
The screen looked like the side of a dilapidated barn, a row of horizontal beams with only a few panels left, crisscrossed by vertical posts made of rotten wood. In front of it was a dead playground made up of a rusted slide, swings, and merry-go-round. Lee explained this was where he went parking with Ladonna. He shrugged. But that's why I like it. I like abandoned things most people won't go near. I like the stuff other people don't like. You see, that's the point. That way I can have them all to myself.
He was getting married. At the end of the summer, in a couple of months. He wanted me to be the best man. It had happened a few weeks before I arrived—in fact, the night I'd made the final plans for the visit. He didn't have condoms and at the last moment forgot to pull out, so now he was going to be a papa. And there wouldn't be no abortion talk around him. Neither he nor Ladonna were going to kill no baby. They were going to do the right thing.
The right thing. Which in this case would be to raise little Betty or Bob to be a working stiff like momma and daddy. I told him she was a good woman. If he was prepared to get hitched and have a litter of rugrats and everything—that was a lot to swallow, a shitload of responsibility—then I was sure he'd make a good husband and father. What I really believed was you might as well throw yourself in prison, lock the door, and throw away the key. What I really believed was he was inviting Slow Doom into his home. Some days later Lee and I got home after eleven and he just dropped me off, then drove over to see Ladonna at her parents'.
The house was quiet as I crept in and tried not to bang into anything and wake everyone. While I changed clothes in the bathroom and took a cold sponge bath, Joan got out of bed to fix me something to eat. She wore her oversized T-shirt slipping down to reveal one shoulder.
Her long hair was twisted into a knot and hanging down on the same side, and her eyes were sleepy liquid chocolate. I stuck my front teeth over my bottom lips and made a high-pitched sucking sound, imitation of gopher. It made her laugh. We were quiet for a moment as I ate the fried chicken and potato salad she'd warmed up for me. I thanked her and said it was delicious.