The Nobodies Album
By Carolyn Parkhurst
Hardcover, 320 pages
List price: $25.95
There are some stories no one wants to hear. Some stories, once told, won't let you go so easily. I'm not talking about the tedious, the pointless, the disgusting: the bugs in your bag of flour; your hour on the phone with the insurance people; the unexplained blood in your urine. I'm talking about narratives of tragedy and pathos so painful, so compelling, that they seem to catch inside you on a tiny hook you didn't even know you'd hung. You wish for a way to pull the story back out; you grow resentful of the very breath that pushed those words into the air.
Stories like this have become a specialty of mine. It wasn't always that way; I used to try to write the kind of story everyone wanted to hear, but I soon learned what a fool's errand that was. I found out there are better ways to get you. 'I wish I hadn't read it,' a woman wrote to me after she finished my last novel. She sounded bewildered, and wistful for the time before she'd heard what I had to say. But isn't that the point—to write something that will last after the book has been put back on the shelf? This is the way I like it. Read my story, walk through those woods, and when you get to the other side, you may not even realize that you're carrying something out that you didn't have when you went in. A little tick of an idea, clinging to your scalp, or hidden in a fold of skin. Somewhere out of sight. By the time you discover it, it's already begun to prey on you; perhaps it's merely gouged your flesh, or perhaps it's already begun to nibble away at your central nervous system. It's a small thing, whatever it is, and whether your life will be better for it or worse, I cannot say. But something's different, something has changed.
And it's all because of me.
The plane rises. We achieve lift-off, and in that mysterious, hanging moment, I say a prayer — as I always do — to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day. My good will knew no bounds; or maybe I thought that the generosity of such a wish would gain me extra points and thereby ensure my own safety. But I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because, if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world's travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That's not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort themselves out. Better to say a prayer for your own wellbeing and hope that, today at least, you'll be one of the lucky ones.
It's a short flight: Boston to New York, less than an hour in the air. As soon as the flight attendants can walk the aisles without listing too much, they'll be flinging pretzels at our heads in a mad effort to get everything served and cleaned up before we're back on the ground, returned to the world of adulthood, where we're free to get our own snacks.
I have in my lap, displayed rather importantly, as if it were a prop in a play no one else realizes is being performed, the manuscript of my latest book, The Nobodies Album. This is part of my ritual: there's my name, emblazoned on the first page, and if my seatmate or a wandering crew member should happen to glance over and see it — and if, furthermore, that name should happen to have any meaning for them — well then, they're free to begin a conversation with me. So far, it's never happened.
The other rite I will observe today concerns what I will do with this manuscript once I arrive in New York. This neat stack of white and black, so clean and tidy; you'd never know from looking at it what a living thing it is. Its heft is satisfying — I'll admit that to hold its weight in my hands gives me a childish feeling of look what I did! — but the visuals are disappointing. Look at it and you'll see nothing more than a pile of paper; there's no indication of the blood that circulates through the text, the gristle that holds these pages together. This is why, when it comes time to surrender a new book to my publisher, I make it a rule to do it in person; I want to make sure no one forgets the humanity of this exchange. No email, no overnighting, no couriers; I will carry my book into those offices, and I will deliver it to my editor, person to person, hand to hand. I've been doing it since I finished my second novel, and I have no intention of stopping now. It makes for a pleasant day. I will have a fuss made over me; I will be taken to lunch. And when I leave, I will keep my eyes turned forward so I won't see the raised eyebrows and the looks exchanged, the casual toss that will land my manuscript in the exact place a mailroom clerk would have dropped it, had I saved myself all this trouble. My idiosyncrasies are my right, and as long as everyone does me the courtesy of not mocking them to my face, we'll all get along fine.
Excerpted from The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst. Copyright 2010 by Carolyn Parkhurst. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.