If you ever go to Asia (do not do this, it is too big, and trying to comprehend it will only convince you that your mind was never meant to really comprehend anything) and you want to put all the attention rightly back on yourself, the important American, here is a little trick you can use. First, be in one of the countries that makes really spicy food, and then performatively eat stupid amounts of it in front of everyone. Hurt yourself badly, but pretend like do this all the time. Probably, everyone will laugh and someone will say, “Whoa! Usually Western people don’t like chilis.”
This is your chance. Lean forward, sweating like a giant asshole, wink, and say, “Actually, all spicy food is from the West. Chilis come from Central and South America, and they were brought over here after Spanish colonization. None of your chilis are native to Asia.”
Eight years ago, I decided, very reluctantly, to write a memoir. I had never really planned on it—exploring other people’s lives was always more fascinating to me than openly analyzing my own. Until then, I wrote fiction, where I could hide in plain sight behind the stories I invented, and investigative journalism, where I could delve into the truth concealed within narratives invented by others.
But then, completely unexpectedly, a stranger from Moscow called to inform me that the story of my birth was not what I had known all my life. I was, he said, the child of an American man living in Russia, and the granddaughter of a Soviet spy. Even as he spoke, I felt that whatever the true story turned out to be, I needed to examine it the only way I knew: by writing a book. And I also knew that I would need to write this book—a memoir—before I could go back to writing fiction.
David Sedaris’s partner of 25 years, Hugh Hamrick, calls the first chunk of the essayist’s diaries, published under the title Theft By Finding, “David Copperfield Sedaris”. And it’s true, Sedaris concedes, the book – which covers the years from 1977, when he scribbled his first entries on the backs of coffee shop placemats while travelling around, to 2002 – has a certain rags-to-riches quality. In the second volume, on the other hand, “I just go from shopping at Paul Smith to shopping at Comme des Garçons, and I’m on airplanes all the time”. The thought prompts a memory of a recent plane trip, first class from Hawaii to Portland, Oregon. “This woman said, you are so lucky to be seated up front, it’s a great spot for people-watching. And I said, hmm, it could be, but we don’t really count you as people.” He bursts out laughing, and so do I, even though I know I oughtn’t. What on earth did she say? “She laughed, she knew I was kidding. Hugh was horrified. Horrified.”
“I’ve hewed to what really happens in disasters,” says Doctorow of his latest book, the novel “Walkaway”. Sitting in his Burbank backyard that includes a chrome-colored yurt, basketball hoop and surfboard converted into a coffee table, he continues, “This is one of the first disaster novels that says, ‘Disasters are the places where we put our differences aside to help each other but you still find things you can’t agree on.’ How do we dig out of the rubble?”
The Answers is perhaps the middle ground between what fans loved about her the first time around and what her detractors thought she was lacking. While it rarely has the stunning, labyrinthine sentences of Nobody Is Ever Missing, it directs that energy into an unpredictable, layered plot that will likely take most readers by surprise.
Olden days and sweet thoughts do not come naturally to me, and this long reach back to the Ringling Bros. is, perhaps, only an attempt to escape the greater shows on Earth that now envelop us. Low attendance and our recent knowledge of the deep cruelties of animal training have done away with the glitter of the circus. Larger losses impend. Elephants are disappearing in violent—and perhaps unstoppable—fashion, and so is their habitat, and our own. Elephants, at least, deserve better.