A week before her husband dies, Lonnie Ali changes the plans for his funeral. The funeral she had envisioned is too big, she thinks. It is too complicated. At her annual meeting with the man who has been doing most of the planning, she says, "Sit down. I have to talk to you about something."
She is making changes because she believes she has time to make them. Her husband is not even sick. And besides ... he's Muhammad Ali. She began working on the plan a decade earlier in response to counsel, and she's come to regard it as part of his routine upkeep, not so different from helping him with his meds. There are just some things you have to do, she says. She is not planning his funeral because she thinks he is going to die but because she has known him since she was a small child -- and a part of her thinks he is going to live forever.
Like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my own voice. When, at a meeting last summer, a member of the marketing team at Farrar, Straus and Giroux told me that more and more authors, especially authors of memoirs, were recording their own books, I nodded politely. But then she asked outright, “So how would you feel about reading yours?”
The response I heard in my inner ear: Are you out of your mind?
The one I offered aloud: “Sure.”
You should probably write something about your book, now that it’s being published. But you are worried because you don’t have anything left to say about your book. The problem with writing is you haven’t really done it in two and half years, since you finished the book, which emptied you out. The space you entered to write the book now feels used-up and potentially noxious, a place of dormant chemicals you’re forbidden to revisit. You picture Pripyat’s hastily-abandoned rooms, its dry swimming pool, rust and grime.
Something like loneliness comes over you, a feeling you recognize and have felt before, something you recognize as productive and motivating. Perfect, you think: you can use this feeling for your writing because you are expected to write more now that your book is out. It should be good writing; the better it is, the more it will help the book. You take a very long shower and bite your fingernails but your thoughts are so broad and vague and involuted you forget all the specifics. You aren’t sure what’s there anymore, and whatever productive loneliness you felt for a moment has gone. As though it decided it didn’t want to see you, after all.
You put off writing the essay.
I’m long past ten, and I live among imaginary friends. As a novelist I spend years unearthing their secrets, their fears, their senses of humor. My characters are musicians, childcare workers, historians — anything other than fiction writers. They’re taller than I am, or smaller; less educated or — intimidatingly — more. Every scene I write through their eyes is a ticket to a different way of being in the world. What’s it like to walk down a nighttime street as a six-foot-three man, women quickening their pace with a nervous glance back at you? What does it feel like to be old; to be an immigrant; to be powerful, powerless?
As a psychoanalyst, and a writer, Phillips is of the “employ anything that works” school. “Like all essentialist theories”, he says of Freudianism, “psychoanalysis makes a cult out of what could be just good company.” Literature, the love of it, risks the same religiosity. “Writing needn’t be a world domination project… but just the attempt to find enough people who are interested in what matters to you.” There is a great deal of what matters to Phillips just now between these covers; that alone should guarantee its interest.
There’s a joke to be made about The Answers not offering up any, but the ideas it interrogates are so immense, and fundamentally existential, that any single explanation would ring false. “Such a serious thing we are doing, and no one really knows how to do it,” Mary says of love, the closest this probing novel comes to a sure conclusion.
“I just wanted to say,” she shouted, “that I’m the manager here, and I can’t believe that you brought your own food into a food establishment.” I offered a sort of strangled apology, an insistence that the waitress had said it would be OK, and we both stared at the croissant with varying degrees of accusation. A familiar heat settled on my skin, the realisation that I am terrible and have yet to learn the rules of a life. What was I thinking? There I sat, a meat piñata of shame and shock. It was confirmation, at last, that I was made of something less than flesh and conscience, something akin to papier-mâché left outside in a storm. “I’m incredulous. I’m just INCREDULOUS that you thought this would be OK.” I started to stand, gathering my assembled bags. “I’m not kicking you out, it’s FINE. I just can’t believe that a person could do this.” “It’s obviously NOT fine, so… I’ll go,” I said, feeling a little better actually. Because something was actually happening. Somebody was properly shouting at me. Not just typing, or rolling their eyes. She was shouting at me, and it was daylight and nobody was high or ill or startled from being reversed into by a slowly parking car. It was just us, in an empty café and something was happening.