A friend of mine killed herself last year.

We were not particularly close. We went to graduate school together, and had seen each other maybe 3-4 times in the last few years.

I am still not over the shock of it.

If I wrote down a list of everyone I knew, in order of likelihood to commit suicide, she would have been at or near the very bottom. She was so vivacious. Playful. She laughed easily, was cynical at precisely the right times, and equipped with a sharp bullshit detector. She seemed happy. Good. Strong. She was young: just 35.

The shock came with shame and embarrassment. How could this person, who I shared a classroom with, and who’s company I enjoyed so much, have been in that much pain? How could I not have noticed? Was there something I could have done? Would a quick email or text ever have made a difference? Are there other friends in my life who are in similar agony, but hide it so well?

I wanted to compare my inner pain to hers. How bad did it get, and for how long was she feeling it? Have I ever felt that awful? How much do I routinely hide my pain and my true self from others? What would people say if I took my life?

She took hers in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2015. I crave to know more. I want to know why. Asking her family would be wrong. They don’t need their pain dredged up to satisfy my need for an answer. I doubt there is an answer. New Year’s is coming up again. People are asking each other what they are doing to celebrate. Her, and her last days, are all I can think about.

It seems odd to call this feeling “grief”. We were not close. But grief is the only word that makes sense. I grieve that I can never talk to this person again, never empathize with their pain, never smile or laugh with them. We can never connect again.

That is grief. A nagging emptiness. Over time, it shrinks.

But it never fully disappears.

David Shields

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I just got into this writer David Shields. I first heard him on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, in a long interview about books, fiction, and culture. I loved the talk. I have a degree in English, and it was still challenging to keep up with. But it was the good kind of challenging, and a great example of two skilled writers blending esoteric takes on their work with practical considerations. Here’s the podcast:

Shields wrote a book in 2010 called Reality Hunger that apparently caused a little buzz in the literary world. I am 5 years behind in all my literary buzz. I have not read Reality Hunger yet, but they summarized it on the podcast. It seems Shields argues that “the novel” is is an ossified literary form that we keep trying to revive, when what we should be doing is moving beyond it and experimenting with different kinds of prose.  People like Jonathan Franzen are essentially trying to re-write the big, serious 19th century novels. Shields asks: why? Why is this the high water mark of the prose medium? Why are we just doing the same thing over and over again? Here is the Random House blurb for Reality Hunger, which makes me want to read it a lot:

Shields has written the ars poetica for a burgeoning group of interrelated but unconnected artists in a variety of forms and media who, living in an unbearably manufactured and artificial world, are striving to stay open to the possibility of randomness, accident, serendipity, spontaneity; actively courting reader/listener/viewer participation, artistic risk, emotional urgency; breaking larger and larger chunks of “reality” into their work; and, above all, seeking to erase any distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

That’s pretty pretentious. Which makes sense: it was written by a publisher. But the ideas Shields is playing with (spoken with his own words) are not. People want visceral experiences through art, not warmed-over Dickens.

I just read a book Shields wrote with Caleb Powell in 2013. It’s called I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. It’s like a novelistic podcast. Two people (a literature professor – Shields – and his former grad student – Powell) spend three days in the woods arguing. It’s part a Socratic dialogue, part-memoir blend of non-fiction and self-presentation. I read it in two days flat. There are few things better than being so into a book you devour it. Next up: a Shields-introduced collection of essays and prose called Life Is Short – Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity. God bless the New York Public Library.




O Superman

On Friday I saw performance artist Laurie Anderson’s latest work, Habeas Corpus. Performed at the Park Avenue Armory, it was a multimedia hodgepodge of lots of things, mostly music. It was broadly “about” Guantanamo.

The Armory is huge. It’s a giant vaulted space the size of a 10,000-seat stadium. It was almost completely blacked out. It felt like a physical manifestation of the legal black hole those prisoners inhabit. There were two non-blacked out locations: a giant plaster cast white chair, filled with a generically sculpted, seated human figure, and a stage. Onto this figure was projected a live video feed of Mohammed el Gharani, a former Guantanamo inmate. He was captured aged 14 and served 8 years in the prison before being repatriated to Chad.

Laurie Anderson conducted a brief interview with him, and then played a recorded interview. He talked about his relationship with his prison mentor, Shaker Aamer. He broke down while taking about Aamer, doubled over in psychic pain.

Anderson cut the tape. Then Anderson read Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Song”. It’s great. Read it if you like.

A theme of the night was developing. The theme of love. That love is the only thing that sustains us through horror. The love el Gharani felt for Aamer. The love that we all feel for mothers, fathers, friends. The love we felt for others in that space.

The band TuneYards – Meril Garbus and Nate Brenner – took the stage and sang/created (using loops) a strange, Middle East-inspired sound collage. It is strange to completely agree with the philosophical/political intent of a piece of art (“Guantanamo is bad, both for the inmates and for us”) and yet… not enjoy the art. I’m not going to say the sound collage was bad, because I’m not capable of judging the relative merits of avant-garde sound collages. It just wasn’t for me.

Then Laurie Anderson played O Superman.

O Superman is one of my favorite pieces of music. It pulls off the impossible, being at once totally original and totally accessible. It sounds as strange and without precedent as it did 25 years ago, despite decades of electronic music exploring some of the territory it opened. It also meets the definitive criterion for a masterpiece: I feel something different every single time I hear it.

It happened again that night. Superman: the American icon, the pop culture vessel that encapsulates our values. To sing about Superman in the context of Guantanamo felt profound to me. As did singing it in an Armory, a military building, not unlike the military installation of Guantanamo. One line – “they’re American planes” – hit harder than usual. If you like, all the lyrics are here.

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