For years, our most important records have been committed to specialized materials and technologies. For archivists, 1870 is the year everything begins to turn to dust. That was the year American newspaper mills began phasing out rag-based paper with wood pulp, ensuring that newspapers printed after would be known to future generations as delicate things, brittle at the edges, yellowing with the slightest exposure to air. In the late 1920s, the Kodak company suggested microfilm was the solution, neatly compacting an entire newspaper onto a few inches of thin, flexible film. In the second half of the century, entire libraries were transferred to microform, spun on microfilm reels, or served on tiny microfiche platters, while the crumbling originals were thrown away or pulped. To save newspapers, we first had to destroy them.
Then came digital media, which is even more compact than microfilm, giving way, initially at least, to fantasies of whole libraries preserved on the head of a pin. In the event, the new digital records degraded even more quickly than did newsprint. Information’s most consistent quality is its evanescence. Information is fugitive in its very nature.
“It would be a D’Anjou or a Bosc, something run-of-the-mill,” he said on a recent afternoon as snowflakes feathered down outside the bakery window. “I would touch it and it would just kind of yield to my thumb, and then I would take a bite of it right there in the store and I would have to make a little slurping sound, so not all the juice would run down my chin, but some would.”
A feeling of deprivation is part of the psychological cycle of life in Alaska. In summertime, farmers’ market tables overflow with greens, and garden zucchinis swell to the size of small dogs in the all-night light. But now is the season of austerity and anticipation. Though each day brings a few more minutes of light, the root-cellar stock has dwindled down to last summer’s dry-skinned beets, gnarled carrots and potatoes with eyes. All those blocks of frozen sockeye in the chest freezer don’t have the same appeal that they did in November.
And yet people who actually like cooking tend to crave boundaries—to want to be, as Julia Child assured us we could be, “alone in the kitchen.” What if you wish to preserve a kitchen secret—to slip, say, the odd, shameful envelope of Lipton’s onion-soup mix into your meat loaf, à la Ann Landers? Radical transparency becomes kitchen exhibitionism: we are all on cooking shows now. The food writer Sierra Tishgart, whose kitchen opens onto her Greenwich Village junior one-bedroom, told me that she dreams of a closed kitchen. “I also don’t have a dishwasher, and part of the horror of my open kitchen (which is basically inside my living room) is that there’s nowhere to hide dirty plates.” One friend told me that she has developed the habit of hiding dirty pots in her oven. We all know, from experience, that the open kitchen is an invitation to guests to hop up, one by one, like whack-a-moles, with their dirty dishes.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
“If I have any gift at all,” Zadie Smith admits in one of the essays in Feel Free, “it’s for dialogue—that trick of breathing what-looks-like-life into a collection of written sentences.” Smith does voices. Sometimes literally: an audio recording of her reading her story “Escape from New York,” includes the treat that is impressions of its three characters, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. Her fiction, of course, is full of voices, but the rendering of this familiar trio and their escape occupies that fertile gray area somewhere between entirely real and entirely fabricated. It isn’t mimicry, which leads nowhere, but a curious sort of imaginary impersonation, which leads everywhere.
It is one thing to read “The Old Man and the Sea,” for instance, when you are 15 and the world lies ahead of you in all its endless possibility. It is another to read it in middle age, when a few big dreams may have died, and by “a few dreams” I don’t just mean catching a big honking marlin off the coast of Cuba, although sure: that too.
It works the other way as well. There are some books you should read only when you are young.
In exploring the creation of art and its purpose, and the authorial risks of cultural appropriation, Halliday has produced a skillfully executed, layered work — a novel about writers engaged in, and contemplative about, the act of writing — without the self-consciousness and overt intention that burdens so much metafiction.