Clerks—pronounced “clarks”—have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League–trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes—they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.
Clerks are by their own cheerful admission “wheeler-dealers,” what Americans might call hustlers. They take a certain pride in managing the careers of their bosses, the barristers—a breed that often combines academic brilliance with emotional fragility. Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English, with a naked class divide seen in few other places on the planet. Barristers employ clerks, but a bad relationship can strangle their supply of cases. In his 1861 novel Orley Farm, Anthony Trollope described a barrister’s clerk as a man who “looked down from a considerable altitude on some men who from their professional rank might have been considered as his superiors.”
But the key was always letting people talk. There's no magic word you can say, no cheat code that hacks the human brain into wanting to live again. They need someone who's willing to listen to them because they probably haven't had that in a long time.
"I like to get them talking a lot more than I'm talking. If they will talk like 80 percent of the time, then I'm doing good. I also take a lot of breaks. I will step back and let them think, and it gives me a chance to contemplate. 'What's my best route here?' You don't want to keep pressing them and chatting, chatting, chatting. They get tired! It's cold, and 99 percent of the time they're not dressed for it. And they're thinking about what might be their last few minutes on Earth. So I give them some time."
Walking through Chicago’s new American Writers Museum a week before it opened to the public, I felt like a cross between that eleven-year-old (wide-eyed, thirstily trying to absorb the canon, inspired by history) and that twenty-one-year-old (tallying up gender and race and queerness on the 100-author “American Voices” wall of fame and doing some quick math).
The museum’s creators faced an impossible task, the same one undertaken perennially by anthologists and English professors: How can we represent four hundred years of American literary history in a way that doesn’t reinforce the unfortunate hierarchies of those four hundred years?
Perhaps my favorite essay in “Aliens: The World’s Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” is by the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, who patiently explains why aliens would not come here to have sex with us or eat us for supper.
I can only assume that he gets these questions a lot.
Fisher always said that her greatest achievement in life was learning how to walk into a restaurant and treat herself as her own honoured guest, ignoring the hostile stares of resentful men and the covertly admiring glances of other women. And this is exactly what she achieves in The Gastronomical Me. To read Fisher is to feel, in Wilson’s words, that “we too should be a bit bolder in feeding ourselves” and a little less bothered by what the world, with its rotten innards, thinks about it all.
In these brilliant essays, which stretch back to the early 1990s and run up to the last few years, Gaitskill explores emotionally charged situations, catalogues conventional responses to them, then reveals their hidden, psychological underpinnings. Her explorations are incisive and unpredictable — she sticks up for Axl Rose, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Céline Dion, and Linda Lovelace, to name a few of the unexpected; she even sticks up for the philandering politicians mentioned above. The last thing you want to do with any topic is say, “I know just what Mary Gaitskill will think of this.”
However, labeling Pirsig “just” a writer ignores the experiences and contributions of his life, especially since they informed his writing so deeply. With an IQ of 170, he was cast as a boy genius, which allowed him to skip several grades and enroll in college at age fifteen. Pirsig was a soldier in South Korea. He studied in Minnesota, Chicago, and India. He taught in Montana. He was a philosopher, sailor, and recluse, rarely granting interviews. His high intelligence did not mitigate a lifetime of mental health issues. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals in his mid-thirties, before he wrote Zen, which cost him his first marriage. During this time he received electroconvulsive therapy. His son, Chris, was murdered at the age of twenty-two. Pirsig’s life was full, very full. He was more than the author of a best-selling book (and a less popular companion piece seventeen years later).
But, oh what a book it is. I’ve never seen ZAMM in a bookstore, which may be because it’s a work of autobiographical fiction, which is oxymoronic and impossible to place in a genre. The plot, such as it is, is the story of a man (who also narrates) and his preteen son’s motorcycle trip from the upper Midwest to the Rockies and ultimately to the West Coast. They are joined by the man’s friends for part of the journey. This resembles a trip that Pirsig actually took with his preteen son Chris. Readers soon realize, however, that the trip and the vehicles being used to make it are really a pretense for a series of philosophical discussion, or Chatauquas, as the narrator describes them.