Happy Accidents

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On the pleasures of stumbling upon books in the wrong places.

Jean Stafford, in 1945.

I found Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion at a thrift in Marfa. I thought, I ought to read some Western fiction, you know? It just seemed like, The Mountain Lion—who could be interested in that? I almost bought it as a joke. I don’t like reading logically. I love having a library of lots of odd books around me, and whenever I’m staying somewhere for a while, I buy a ton of books; I like to reproduce a kind of mini used-bookstore experience wherever I am. So I picked this book up on a whim.

Right away, I could see what a fine stylist she was, though there were so many things that were of the period, including amazing racism, just casual racism. But as the book proceeded I began to see a doubleness there—Stafford’s speaking truthfully about her era without being simply of it. I started to realize that this is an astonishing writer.

The Mountain Lion is a family novel, and it starts with four kids living with their widowed mother, who’s been through a couple of husbands. They’re in Los Angeles, and then they have this opportunity to go to Colorado to live with their booze-swilling, big-booted grandfather, who their mother disapproves of. The family’s sort of divided into two older, perfect, preppy daughters and two confused, skinny, slightly ailing younger kids who are the narrators of the book—Molly and Ralph.

At some point the two of them go there for a whole year, and in that year their very close relationship falls apart. Molly keeps getting weirder and weirder, while Ralph quickens and thickens and starts to become a man. The grandfather kicked off on their porch maybe the year before, so his son, Claude—who’s sort of a dumber, less sophisticated version of him—becomes their guide through the western world. He takes up with Ralph, starts to take the boy hunting; ultimately, the great hunt becomes about a mountain lion, which the two of them have spotted near the ranch, even though there haven’t been any mountain lions in the area for decades. When Ralph gets told by his uncle Claude that they can share in the pursuit of the mountain lion, he, for a second, fantasizes that he might be the one to kill her. It’s a great moment of imaginary triumph, one that kicks us into this passage:

For a few minutes his joy was immediate and unspoiled, and then it was smashed and he remembered again what he had said to Molly in the tunnel, for through the quiet—all other noises were suspended for this new sound—came the roaring of the car, tearing along the road with the cut-out open, and he could see it, a scarlet Model A roadster with the top down as it appeared and disappeared in the lacy sarvis berry that grew along the bank.

This seems so cinematic to me, the activeness and the complete momentum of the roadster appearing and disappearing. It’s such a modern perspective on detail in fiction. The car is there, and the car is vanishing, and that’s how we know something is actually moving, that the place is a real place. It designates time and space in one swift gesture. We all participate in primitive ways of thinking about time and space, ways that are really childlike and peekaboo. Is the thing gone? Is the thing here? That’s what drew me to the passage initially.

But when I went back and looked over the whole thing a second time, I realize the incredible complexity of this passage, this single sentence. There’s the flicker of the roadster against the daintiness of the lace, that butch/fem combination. And then the fact that time exists in multiples. There’s the time of the train moving. The time of the berries growing. And the time of the roadster, moving and then disappearing down the road. It’s exacting, vivid, and real in a way that just seems very post-painting—post-literary, even. She allows so much unknowingness, too. I didn’t bother looking up what a sarvis berry was, but somehow that detail adds to the reality of the moment.

If you’ve read the book, you know that, just as the train is about to go into the tunnel, Ralph says to his sister, “Tell me all the dirty words you know.” That interaction is the beginning of the end of their relationship, which you sense here: the moment starts with this kid’s great joy, which is then smashed by the offstage revelation of what he’s just said to Molly as they go into the tunnel. Stafford never describes it, but I imagine a look of horror on her face. It just perfumes the whole last quarter of the book, this feeling that her brother is dirty. And he feels enormously guilty himself. He’s just discovering sex, and he wants to know what his sister knows. What this hot car is about, by the way, is that the girl Ralph has a crush on has a boyfriend who has a roadster. The flickering roadster, it’s like sex and guilt. Just waves of it.

It’s so emotionally true: the high of joy, and then suddenly that shitty, dirty feeling, and then quiet. It pairs pleasure and shame, interior and exterior, nature and the machinic. And suddenly, along comes the girl that he loves in a car, and it’s like he’s being betrayed or robbed of his future love even, all so swiftly, in one sentence. It seems incredible that she did so much at once, like a scene from a movie. That filmic quality is probably not an accident: in 1947, when she published this, every writer and every consciousness was completely imbued with the cinematic. You couldn’t look at the world anymore without looking at it like a movie. And yet text is the higher movie, somehow: Here, multiple times are collapsed into one in a way that would be hard for any film to accomplish so fluidly.

Part of what’s so exciting, too, is the consciousness of the writer who made this. We’re talking about a female writer describing male joy, after all (even paired with a kind of sexual violence). The violence of his guilt, the sweetness of the loss of his innocence—all of it comes from a woman writer constructing a man. That’s part of what’s beautiful, and sensitive, and quickening about this passage, too. We’re used to drag in literature, but by and large, when I read male characters written by women in conventional fiction, I still feel just this weighty burden of trying to prove that you’re in a male body and you know it. This must be what a man feels like when he sweats, and so on. Likewise, I was just reading a novel-in-process by a friend of mine, and there was something about the woman going to the toilet that he felt like he needed to describe, and it was written in a way that would just never be female. There’s such lightness in this passage. Stafford just gets the feelings of the man, and it’s a testament to how we’re all pretty gender-fluid. That’s part of what great fiction is, really: transcending gender by anyone.

It’s funny to think I just stumbled on this book by chance. I must have been escaping from something much more heavy—I love the turgid pace of an academic book, if it’s a topic I really care about, about once a year. I think I probably escaped to Jean Stafford from something like that, and I didn’t expect much of her. I thought, Oh, this is just good old-fashioned fiction, I’ll try that for a change. So often you’re just reacting to the last book you read, and you want something that’s a little bit of an antidote to that. I’ve found that if I live a more programmatic life where I’m reading the books that I’m supposed to read—if I’m accomplishing all my little chores of reading what everybody else is reading—I stop having time to read in a way that’s rich and multiple.

I loved college, and I hated college, because for the first time in my life, my reading was being organized in some external way. I was supposed to read these books now. It created a procrastination and an unwillingness about reading in me, and I experience the same thing now. If I’ve got to read a book for a purpose, I start to read other sub-books around it almost out of rebellion, and those sub-books often are the most wild ones. I’d sooner read the books I found on a table on Avenue A last night than the latest thing everyone else is reading.

I never go all the way and read real mass-market crap, but I’ll read things that seem middle-of-the-road or conservative just as a reaction to whatever I’ve been reading. Right now, Thomas Bernhard is who I’m excited by, and I’ve been resisting Thomas Bernhard for about ten years. As soon as somebody’s in the air, I just feel like—no. I mean, I don’t know when I will ever read Karl Ove Knausgaard. I may never get to that guy for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I’m supposed to read him. I need to read perversely. Reading is a space that is absolutely mine, that always was mine, and I’m always reclaiming it. As writers, we just need so much time to lie around, and waste time, and dream, and just be private, and flow. You can’t tell me what to think. You can’t tell me what to look at. You can’t tell me what to know.

I always like reclaiming that perverse pleasure—even reclaiming it from myself. When I was a kid growing up in Catholic school, it was one kind of thing that I was sneaking under my desk. And now, when I’m supposed to be some kind of literary queer, I still want to read something else. As soon as I know who I am, I don’t want to be that person, you know? Part of it is the constant destruction and construction of the self. The texts aren’t changing, but we are—and I think that changing lens is the thing that I’m alive in.

Used bookstores seem like the place to browse most widely now. The commercial marketplaces are just so chosen. As much as all of us want our books out on the table, the fact there even is a table just pisses me off. What I love to do is go into a bookstore right near Café Mogador on Saint Mark’s Place. I think it’s called Eastside Books. I can’t even remember the name of it, but it’s been there forever, and you always go in there looking for something, but you always come out with something else.

With all that’s going on in the abstract web, and with social media, I feel like the grottiness of the used bookstore is more important than ever before. Used bookstores were where I discovered avant-garde literature, even more so than in my college classes. You just picked shit up, and you’re, like, What is this? I think the hand-eye connection is unseverable for passionate readers.

For me, the Internet is more of a writing place than a reading place. I just really don’t enjoy reading on my computer. For a few years around 1999, 2000, I had a loft in Times Square, and it was the best space I had ever had as a person living in Manhattan or in New York. And I remember the moment when I was working on some piece on my computer—and suddenly, I realized that here I was, at last, finally, in this wonderful, beautiful space, and I had turned my back to it in order to inhabit the crappy, abstract space of the computer. The computer managed to take that all away. So I’m always carrying a portable printer around. I’m always printing shit out.

Part of what we love about Europe now is what a world of bookstores it is, especially because our country, in so many ways, is becoming the opposite of that. If I had any money, I would give it to the libraries. That’s something I really feel strongly about. How many writers have I met who found some weird thing in the library, and it changed their lives? Those places have to exist.

I want to be in praise of the happy accident. It wasn’t even a bookstore where I found Jean Stafford. It was a thrift store, and that’s what’s so amazing—finding books in the wrong places. When I’m finished with a book, I often like to put them on a bench of a café outside. It could just wind up in a dumpster, but somebody could find it, you know? I believe in the wrong reader, in the wrong book. We’re just bodies moving in space and just accidentally you sometimes pick something up … just because you like a book’s title, or its cover, or because it just happens to be nearby. You could stay in some guesthouse anywhere in the world, and there’s three books there, and one of them changed your life. I love to be an agent of that. You never know what’s going to happen when you leave a book someplace.

Eileen Myles is a poet, novelist, performer, and art journalist.

From Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler. Published with permission of Penguin Books.

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