Last Sunday evening, shortly after I learned of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I found myself on Twitter, scrolling through my timeline, undoing, by persistent finger-swipes, the accumulation of minutes and hours since the news was reported. In a vague, half-conscious way, I was playing at reversing the passage of time, back to the moments before the world knew it had lost one of its most talented actors. And what struck me as I moved down through the steep vertical of statements, exclamations, abrupt avowals of personal loss, was how profoundly the public experience of death has been altered by social media.
Most days, part of the complex compulsion of Twitter is the fragmentariness of the experience, the way in which, barring some terrible or hilarious or infuriating event, everyone tends to be talking about something different. You scroll through your timeline and you get a witticism, then an entreaty to read an essay or column, then a grandstanding denunciation of some phone company’s subpar customer service, then an announcement of what a specific person’s current jam is, then an accidental insight into some inscrutable private misery. Its multifariousness and thematic disorder is a major element of its appeal. But with the death of someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman or Lou Reed or Seamus Heaney—someone who has left an impression on many, many people—there is a quick and radical convergence of focus. For a short time, Twitter becomes a coherent experience: it becomes a sort of wake.
One of the strange and slightly creepy pleasures that I get from using Twitter is observing, in real time, the disappearance of words from my stream as they are deleted by their regretful authors. It’s a rare and fleeting sight, this emergency recall of language, and I find it touching, as though the person had reached out to pluck his words from the air before they could set about doing their disastrous work in the world, making their author seem boring or unfunny or ignorant or glib or stupid. And whenever this happens, I find myself wanting to know what caused this sudden reversal. What were the tweet’s defects? Was it a simple typo? Was there some fatal miscalculation of humor or analysis? Was it a clumsily calibrated subtweet? What, in other words, was the proximity to disaster? I, too, have deleted the occasional tweet; I know the sudden chill of having said something misjudged or stupid, the panicked fumble to strike it from the official record of utterance, and the furtive hope that nobody had time to read it.
Any act of writing creates conditions for the author’s possible mortification. There is, I think, a trace of shame in the very enterprise of tweeting, a certain low-level ignominy to asking a question that receives no response, to offering up a witticism that fails to make its way in the world, that never receives the blessing of being retweeted or favorited. The stupidity and triviality of this worsens, rather than alleviates, the shame, adding to the experience a kind of second-order shame: a shame about the shame. My point, I suppose, is that the possibility of embarrassment is ever-present with Twitter—it inheres in the form itself unless you’re the kind of charmed (or cursed) soul for whom embarrassment is never a possibility to begin with.
It feels like both an obligation and a frivolity to point out that Teju Cole’s new novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, is neither new nor, by any sort of conventional metric, a novel. The first negation is pretty straightforward: It was originally published in Nigeria in 2007, four years or so before Open City, the book on which Cole’s reputation is largely based. The second is a bit more contentious, in the way that it’s always contentious, and probably finally pointless, to attempt to define what is and is not a novel. Perhaps it’s enough to say—of this book and of Cole’s writing generally—that it leaves in its wake a trail of ambiguities, an artful wreckage of formal expectations.
Open City, one of the more stylish and commanding literary entrances of the last few years, seemed to present itself as one kind of fiction, before revealing itself in its closing pages as something else entirely, something more darkly opaque than the thing you thought you had been reading. The novel’s narrator, Julius, is a young Nigerian psychiatrist in New York, who assuages the stress of his work and the essential solitude of his life by taking long walks and pursuing circuitous, nomadic meditations on the urban environment, the past, the experience of migration. The book exhibits a certain desolate preoccupation with the elision of historical fact, with atrocities too immense to be countenanced by the cultures in whose names they have been committed. “There are almost no Native Americans in New York City, and very few in all of the Northeast,” says one of Julius’ patients, a writer crippled by depression in the midst of researching a book about 17th-century European settlers and their encounters with the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. “It isn’t right that people are not terrified by this because this is a terrifying thing that happened to a vast population. And it’s not in the past, it is still with us today.”
Whenever I read the work of the late German writer W.G. Sebald, I get distracted here and there by a preoccupation with the fact that he worked for most of his life as an academic. Probably this is because I’ve spent many of my years in a similar environment, and I often wonder about the formative pressures this has exerted, over time, on my own writing and thinking. His relationship with the academy was not that of the standard contemporary writer, who is typically housed within the disciplinary annex of “creative writing” and who does not concern himself with the business of academia per se. Sebald, although he did also teach creative writing, was a full-blown scholar, a company man of long standing who lectured in the department of German literature at the University of East Anglia from 1970 until his death in 2001. In ways that are both subtle and pronounced, this shows through in his writing—in his essays and novels (which he preferred to call his “prose narratives”).
Books like The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, for instance, are, in much of their content if not their form, works of deep research. The Sebaldian narrator—let’s just go ahead and call him Sebald—is a meandering presence, of course, picking his way across the secluded routes between landscape and subject; but there is always the sense of him emerging into the world after a long tenure in the artificial light of libraries and lecture halls, breathing the fine dust of scholarship. It’s always tempting to compare Sebald to Borges—among other narrative oddities, The Rings of Saturncontains a detailed synopsis of Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”—but where Borges’ fiction tended to use the apparatus and affectations of scholarship in service of a kind of structural irony, Sebald’s art is scholarly in a much more fundamental way. As Adam Phillips has put it, he was “more like a new kind of historian than a new kind of novelist.”
Stanislas Wawrinka’s defeat of Rafael Nadal in the final of the Australian Open last weekend was a milestone not just in the career of a 28-year-old Swiss tennis player but also in the posthumous life of one of the 20th century’s most unswervingly pessimistic writers. This is the first time a Grand Slam title has ever been won by a player with a Samuel Beckett quotation tattooed on his body (barring some unexpected revelation that, say, Ivan Lendl got himself a Waiting for Godot–themed tramp stamp before beating John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open final). The words in question, inked in elaborately curlicued script up the length of Wawrinka’s inner left forearm, are these: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The quotation is from Worstward Ho, a late, fragmentary prose piece that is one of the most tersely oblique things Beckett ever wrote. But those six disembodied imperatives, from the text’s opening page, have in their strange afterlife as a motivational meme come to much greater prominence than the text itself. The entrepreneurial class has adopted the phrase with particular enthusiasm, as a battle cry for a startup culture in which failure has come to be fetishized, evenvalorized. Sir Richard Branson, that affable old sage of private enterprise and bikini-based publicity shoots, has advocated from on high the benefits of Failing Better. He breaks out the quote near the end of an article about the future of his multinational venture capital conglomerate, telling us with characteristic self-assurance that it comes “from the playwright, Samuel Beckett, but it could just as easily come from the mouth of yours truly.”
This is a shortish extract from a longish essay. The whole thing can be read in the Spring 2014 issue of The Dublin Review.
For the past ten years – that is, for most of my twenties and for the portion of my thirties so far elapsed – I have lived in a medium-sized housing development in Rathfarnham, a few miles south of the centre of Dublin. It’s a very pleasant environment, as these set-ups go: terraces of white-doored red-brick houses arranged along a horseshoe bend, paved common areas with little fountains and gazebos, carefully maintained plants and so forth, all sequestered behind ten-foot electronic gates. I don’t live in one of the terraced houses, but in a ground-ﬂoor two-bed in one of the four apartment blocks that are also part of the development. In keeping with the broadly faux-sylvan theme of the complex, these apartment buildings are named after trees. There’s The Oak, The Elm, The Ash, and The Willow. (I once gave my address to an American newspaper editor so that she could send me a galley of a book I was reviewing, and she replied as follows: ‘Your address is THE WILLOW? Pray tell, are you a Beatrix Potter character?’ Her question haunts me even now.) If you’d asked me, in my early twenties, where I saw myself spending the ﬁrst of my post-college decades, the answer you would have received would not have been ‘A gated housing estate three minutes walk from Rathfarnham Shopping Centre, and within easy reach of the M50.’ I would probably have said London, or New York, or maybe Paris or Berlin. I wouldn’t have foreseen myself staying in Dublin, and certainly not, at any rate, in one of its quieter southern suburbs. But these things happen – by which I suppose I must mean life. The apartment my wife and I live in – and which, at time of writing, we are ﬁnally preparing to leave for a house in the north inner city – is owned by my parents; and so the rent, as a consequence, has from day one been set at an exceptionally competitive rate.
I work from home, mostly, and so when I look out the window beside my writing desk, across at the facing terrace of four-beds with their SUVs and hatchbacks parked in front, I see the comings and goings of young families. There is one young family in particular whose comings and goings have, for years now, been a consistent feature of my days. They have lived in the house directly opposite us since I moved here with my then-girlfriend, Amy – now my wife – in 2003.Viewed, over time,through this window by my desk, these people have always embodied, for me, an abiding archetype of the middle-class family. The father drives a charcoal Volkswagen Passat, which he vacuums and polishes most Sundays; the mother, who seems to be a full-time homemaker, drives a light blue mid-size Honda 4×4, in which she shuttles their four children to and from school and various extra-curricular obligations. She never wears anything that does not seem to have been comprehensively thought through – is always, as Amy puts it, ‘in some type of outﬁt’ – and is never glimpsed without full hair and make-up. For a while there, every Saturday morning at about eleven the father and children (two boys, one girl, all aged variously between ﬁve and thirteen) could be seen emerging through the front door of the house dressed in loose-ﬁtting white martial-arts attire, ﬁling into the Passat, and setting out through the gates in the direction of some local kid-friendly dojo, there to work on the development of self-discipline and hand-to-hand combat skills as a family. I haven’t seen the karate suits in a year or two now, so presumably this is no longer a thing.
Amy and I have a strange, entirely impersonal relationship with these people across the street.We see them every day, and yet have never had even the most perfunctory interaction with them. We don’t know their family name. We do know that one of the sons, the eldest, is called Eoin (or Owen), and that he seems to be exceptionally popular, because the other kids from the estate are always petitioning his attention by shouting his name, which with their genteel South Dublin vowels they pronounce as an almost Francophonic ‘Eau-ouenne’. When we ﬁrst moved here, young Eoin (or Owen), who was then maybe two or three, could frequently be seen sauntering abroad in full Harry Potter get-up – the cape, the wand, the burgundy-and-mustard scarf – and so for want of any more solid identiﬁer, we started calling the family ‘the Potters’. This has long been standard practice with us when it comes to our neighbours. (In fact, I don’t feel fully comfortable using the term ‘neighbours’ here, because it implies a certain base level of community fellowship; something like ‘co-residents’ would probably be closer to the mark.) We know hardly anyone’s names. So there’s the Potters across the street, whom you’ve met. And then there’s the Frys, a couple in their early sixties who have lived in the apartment across the hall from us since we moved in, and who for a long time seemed to be constantly frying up all-day breakfasts that would stink out the ground-ﬂoor hallway. At one point, a letter intended for the Frys was mistakenly put in our letterbox, and we thereby found out that their real name was the Smiths, but by then we were used to referring to them as the Frys and didn’t see any need to change. Then about a year ago, perhaps on the recommendation of a GP, they knocked oﬀ the fry-ups and switched to stewing meats, often at perplexingly early hours of the morning, at which time I suggested it might be more appropriate to start referring to them as the Stewarts, but this was an idea in which Amy showed little interest. And then there’s the apartment directly above us, where there lives a young man, about whom I know next to nothing apart from that he lives alone, appears to be gay, and that his water pump makes a slow rhythmical wheezing noise whenever he leaves a tap dripping, and that he seriously needs to get it sorted. We refer to him, for reasons that I can’t now recall, and perhaps for no reason whatsoever, as ‘Our Friend’.
I’m intrigued, generally, by this socially demilitarized zone between the vague acquaintance and the total stranger: the sort of situation where you have enough contact with a person to need to refer to them by some kind of name, but where you’ve never had an actual conversation, and have no mutual acquaintances, and so don’t know what to call them when you’re talking about them. When I was in college, before I moved to the residential development that is otherwise the topic of this essay, I lived in a mews in Rathgar with my friends Aideen and Dylan. We did most of our shopping (pot noodles, sliced bread, instant coﬀee, cigarettes) in a place called The Late Shopper on the corner of Harold’s Cross Road and Rathgar Avenue. For most of that time, there was a rotating cast of people around our own age who worked in the place, and for whom we came up with cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. Ofthese, I remember two: Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy and The Fat Robot.
A couple of years after we moved out of the house, Dylan bumped into a drunken Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy at a Dizzee Rascal gig. They recognized each other instantly, embraced warmly, and immediately began to reminisce about the days of The Late Shopper, which had just recently become a Spar. It’s important to note here that our interactions with these guys had never gone beyond the level of small-purchase chit-chat and phatic communication. At some point during this brief, drunken reunion, Dylan confessed to the whole nicknames thing. Apparently, S-FHB reacted to this admission with gleeful wonderment, and then informed Dylan that the staﬀ of The Late Shopper had, in their own right, nicknames for us. And then, at this crucial point of intersection, some distraction or other – possibly the insistent opening breakbeat of Dizzee’s ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ – interposed itself between Dylan and S-FHB, and the encounter was cut short, never to be resumed. I have never quite been able to forgive Dylan for not pursuing the matter further, for failing to bring back solid intelligence from the parallel universe where we were the familiar strangers aﬃxed by cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. I consider it a signiﬁcant loss that I never got to learn the name by which these strangers referred to me; I can’t help feeling that, in some enigmatic but crucial sense, this would be my true name.