We said goodbye to S. last month at a stone church on a side street on the Upper West Side. Actually, we said goodbye to her back in January, when Alison from upstairs called me late one night to tell me that my next-door neighbor had passed away while we were out one day, I’m not sure now for what, perhaps a run to the grocery store or a visit with out-of-towners. What I do remember is the call itself: I was sitting on my couch in my living room with the not-enough light and the too-small rug, my back to the wall that my family’s apartment shared with S's. Our front doors stand side by side, less than a foot away. To say she was the closest thing to me in my building, literally, would not be an exaggeration.
Two winters ago, I stayed temporarily in a bee-infested cottage in the swamplands of Florida while teaching and writing at an artists’ center. Each morning, I opened the cottage door to a swarm of fist-sized carpenter bees so thick it seemed to cloud the humid air, then slammed the door, heart racing. The bees were not my only problem. In fact, they seemed like such a perfect metaphor that I began to wonder if they were real at all. My work had skidded to a painful halt. My mind was . . . well, my mind was buzzing. I was stuck. There was something invisible and dangerous at the center of everything I tried to write, something I didn’t yet understand.
Over the course of three extremely isolated and challenging weeks, my inner world seemed to tilt and reorient itself. I hardly left the cottage except to buy coffee, milk, yogurt and wine. I ripped up the essay I had been struggling with for many months, and realized with a thudding sense of horror what I had been avoiding. The subject of my next book was going to be marriage. As in, my marriage. I was going to write openly and honestly about my marriage to a man I loved and to whom I had every intention of staying wedded for the rest of our lives.
Had I lost my mind? Why would any sane person do this?
It pains me to say it, but I am a failed artist. “Pains me” because nothing in my life has given me the boundless psychic bliss of making art for tens of hours at a stretch for a decade in my 20s and 30s, doing it every day and always thinking about it, looking for a voice to fit my own time, imagining scenarios of success and failure, feeling my imagined world and the external one merging in things that I was actually making. Now I live on the other side of the critical screen, and all that language beyond words, all that doctor-shamanism of color, structure, and the mysteries of beauty — is gone.
I miss art terribly. I’ve never really talked about my work to anyone. In my writing, I’ve occasionally mentioned bygone times of once being an artist, usually laughingly. Whenever I think of that time, I feel stabs of regret. But once I quit, I quit; I never made art again and never even looked at the work I had made. Until last month, when my editors suggested that I write about my life as a young artist. I was terrified. Also, honestly, elated. No matter how long it’d been — no matter how long I’d come to think of myself fully as a critic, working through the same problems of expression from the other side — I admit I felt a deep-seated thrill hearing someone wanted to look at my work.
In addition to its many other virtues, Hourglass underscores the tightrope tension of trying to support a middle-class lifestyle on writing. Shapiro admits she and M have "First World problems." But she's also ruthlessly clear about the trade-offs they unknowingly made in following their literary ambitions: She tells us they work seven days a week and have no savings, no retirement plans, "nothing to fall back on, but each other."
Elizabeth Strout's new novel-in-stories, Anything Is Possible, is welcome literary salve for these alarmingly acrimonious, anxiety-inducing times. These nine linked tales about people who overcome miserable childhoods, severe losses, disheartening marriages, and war trauma to experience moments of amazing grace offer comfort and reassurance. They remind us that a little kindness and compassion can open up surprising possibilities.
Post-apocalyptic fiction too often pays lip service to serious problems like climate change while allowing the reader to walk away unscathed, cocooned in an ironic escapism and convinced that the impending disaster is remote. Not so with Lidia Yuknavitch’s brilliant and incendiary new novel, which speaks to the reader in raw, boldly honest terms. “The Book of Joan” has the same unflinching quality as earlier works by Josephine Saxton, Doris Lessing, Frank Herbert, Ursula K. Le Guin and J. G. Ballard. Yet it’s also radically new, full of maniacal invention and page-turning momentum.