- Reading in the ’60s
Overnight to Many Distant Cities.
It happened on a Saturday foray into the metropolis, where as a high school student I would hang out in that now irretrievably lost Greenwich Village, trying to imagine a life for myself. All I knew then was that I wanted to be free, and that I was not.
I had gone into the Eighth Street Bookshop where I would mystically pick books from the shelves—opening to a random page in hopes of a revelation.
That Saturday, opening a book, I was met by a kind of musical banter, a prose at once sweet and slightly dissonant. On another page I found a list, a joke, a column of numbers, Robert Kennedy, a flurry of ampersands…What was this? Did I gasp? I may have gasped. I looked at the title: Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts (1968). In an instant something dormant in me sprung awake.
I had been ever so slowly being etherized (like a patient) on a steady dose of high school staples: The Catcher in the Rye (1951), To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Lord of the Flies (1954), Flowers for Algernon (1959), A Separate Peace (1959), well meaning perhaps I don’t know, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964), made all the worse by the meanings and interpretations foisted on them. They were teachable I suppose and they were taught to death. How did any of us survive I wonder?
But here in an afternoon all was changed. That day I bought all the Barthelme on the shelf. Was it not a carnival, the circus come to town, was it not a magic show? Not since Doctor Seuss, not since Through the Looking Glass (1871), not since the glittery darkness and thrills of the daydreaming years of my early childhood had I experienced anything like this. This was nothing like the narratives I’d ever seen, that’s for sure, and coming into school I read aloud to my English teacher from “The Balloon:”
There was a certain amount of initial argumentation about the “meaning” of the balloon; this subsided because we have learned not to insist on meanings and they are rarely even looked for now, except in cases involving the simplest, safest phenomena.
As you can imagine this went over—well—like a lead balloon.
Oh but how all Possibility seemed to open in an instant! There were breathtaking changes in register and tone—stories that freely ranged across a wide variety of fields—art and music and the life on the street. A story might use any means, well why not? Deliriously I entered into the dislocations, dissolutions, the fracture, enraptured. Also there was an incredible poignancy. A sadness I had held inside, a sadness we all held back then, as the nightly drone of names and numbers of the dead were read on the television. Vietnam. Somehow the war existed in those pages too. An overwhelmingly melancholy syntax. Something of the way the world worked in me seemed to find a shape on his page. How?
Gone the unifying principles, the fixed meanings, the solid characters. Welcome doubt, welcome contingency. Knowledge, as I knew first hand from school was dubious, what could be known, unclear. The cohesive version of self we were asked to chart that year in English in the unending unit called Who Am I? I could toss that out now.
I adored the hilarious metaphysics, the negative epistemology, none of these words did I use or know back then, but that is what I loved. The idea one could invent the world on the page out of this and that, and presumably invent oneself in the process. A [End Page 6] bricolage, I could be heard saying (I was in French III at the time). I was exhilarated. I felt improbably endless. Limitless. I was boundlessly joyful.
I was alive.
I knew nothing then about anything, but eventually, over time, one book has led to another. Barthelme pointed me to Borges, Mallarmé, Joyce, Stein, Kafka, Kleist, Flaubert, Beckett, Eliot, Sterne, Cervantes, Sei Shnagon, Madame Murasaki, the Surrealists, Ashbery. I found out about his pals: Coover and...