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.
Not that any of these people has ever been anything less than lovely to me. I suppose I’m a little more attuned to these kinds of thoughts today, because I know that there have been a few…questions about the book I’m turning in. This book is different from anything I’ve done in the past; in fact, I’m going to puff myself up a little bit and say that it’s different from anything anyone has done in the past, though there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t thought about it. The Nobodies Album isn’t a novel, though every word of it is fiction; do you see me talking around it now, building up the suspense? Can you hear the excitement creeping into my voice? Because what I’ve done here is nothing short of revolutionary, and I want to make sure the impact is clear. What I’ve done in this book is to revisit each of the ten novels I’ve published in the last thirty years, and to rewrite the ending of each one. The Nobodies Album is a collection of every last chapter I have ever written, each one tweaked and reshaped into something completely new. Can you imagine what happens when you rewrite the ending of a book? It changes everything. Meaning shifts; certainties are called into question. Write ten new last chapters and all at once, you have ten different books.
It’s possible, though, that not everyone sees the beauty of this idea as clearly as I do. When I first mentioned my plans to my agent and my editor, they were not entirely enthusiastic. “People love your books the way they are,” they both told me in their own separate, ass-kissing ways. “Readers might get angry at you for messing with these novels they care about so deeply.” Oh, they were so concerned, so solicitous of me and my legions of fans…it was almost enough to make me reconsider.
But of course it’s all bullshit. It’s true that people come to feel proprietary about certain books, and once the author has done his part, they want him to back away politely; otherwise, he’s an embarrassing reminder that these stories didn’t spring to life full-formed. I suppose that if Shakespeare were to reappear and say, “I was wrong about Romeo and Juliet; they didn’t die tragically, they lived long enough to get married and lose their teeth and make each other miserable,” there might be hell to pay. But I’m not Shakespeare, and nobody involved with publishing this book is afraid readers are going to care too much. They’re afraid they’re not going to care at all.
I’ve planned to arrive early—I don’t love New York, but I respect it, restless beast that it is, and it seems rude to me to pass through it too quickly. So from the airport, I take a cab to the 42nd Street library; I like to poke around their collection of early 20th century photographs and stereographic cards. A crucial scene in my seventh novel, in fact, was inspired by a 1902 postcard I came across here several years ago, though I can’t get too nostalgic about it, since the new version in The Nobodies Album wipes that scene clear away.
My favorite picture today is from the same era. Entitled “Morning Ride, Atlantic City, NJ,” it depicts several couples (and one standard poodle) being pushed down the boardwalk in a fleet of odd three-wheeled wicker carriages. The women are all wearing extravagant hats; the dog, wind in its fur, looks happier than anyone. I doubt I’ll ever use it for anything. I don’t expect to do any period writing in the near future, and the idea of the sheer research that would be necessary to write a single paragraph about this image—are they riding in surreys? landaus? rickshaws?—exhausts me. But I spend an hour making disjointed notes anyway, because you never know where ideas are going to come from, and as my eighth grade Latin teacher used to say, “muscles train the mind.”
I’m a little uncertain, actually, about what role writing will play in my life from this point forward. Working on this last book has allowed me to see certain uncomfortable truths about the whole process. I’ve always known that the best part of writing occurs before you’ve picked up a pen. When a story exists only in your mind, its potential is infinite; it’s only when you start pinning words to paper that it becomes less than perfect. You have to make your choices, set your limits. Start whittling away at the cosmos, and don’t stop until you’ve narrowed it down to a single, ordinary speck of dirt. And in the end, what you’ve made is not nearly as glorious as what you’ve thrown away.
The final product never made me happy for very long. A year out, and I was already seeing the flaws, feeling the loss of those closed-off possibilities. But I always figured that once a book was published, my part in it was done. Finished; time to move on. But The Nobodies Album shines a light behind that scrim. It turns out, there’s no statute of limitations on changing your mind. You don’t ever have to be done. And if you’re never done, then what’s the point in beginning? I drop my notes in the trash on the way out of the building.
It was my son Milo who came up with the phrase “The Nobodies Album.” He’d just turned four. He’d developed an interest in music and often engaged in games to stretch our extensive but finite record collection into something that could match the breadth of his imagination. The Nobodies Album was, simply enough, an album containing songs that do not exist. Have you ever heard the Beatles’ version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”? he’d ask me, walking around our living room in a wide circle. No, I’d say—I didn’t realize they ever sang that. Well, they did. His face would be serious, but his voice would swell wide with the excitement of creating something new. It’s on the Nobodies Album. Oh, of course, I’d say, I love that album, and I could see my words travel through his body, so happy I was playing along he’d almost vibrate, until it seemed like he might just crack open with joy.
Milo is now twenty-seven and the lead singer of a band whose songs most certainly exist, even if they’re not always entirely to my taste. We haven’t spoken in almost three years. My use of this childhood phrase of his is one part appropriation—the writer’s narcissistic view that everything I come across is mine, mine, mine—and one part transparent stab at reconciliation. If I were being honest, I would have added a subtitle: See, honey? See what Mommy remembers?
I walk down the steps, past the lions, to Fifth Avenue. It’s a dim day, early in November, and the sky is entirely without color. The air tastes cold and burnt. The sidewalks are crowded, and I join the moving swell.
Milo’s band is called Pareidolia, and they’ve had a fair bit of success, though whether they’re here to stay or are simply the taste of the moment remains to be seen. I can never be certain when I open a magazine that I won’t come across his face somewhere inside. Not that it’s unwelcome when it happens—of course, it’s most of the reason I buy those kinds of magazines—but it’s jarring, and it leaves me feeling hollow and unsettled for the rest of the day. Still, it’s allowed me to keep up with him, after a fashion. I know that he’s bought a house in San Francisco, and that he’s been dating a pointy-faced little mouse named Bettina something. I’ve seen them dancing together at a club he owns a piece of; I’ve seen them walking on the beach, throwing sticks for dogs whose names I may never know.
I turn right onto Forty-Second Street. It’s almost time for my meeting, and I should get a cab soon, but I’m feeling suddenly apprehensive, and I’d like a few more minutes on my own before stepping into my public skin. A few minutes in the visual chaos of Times Square, where I am nobody to no one, and this brick of a book I’m carrying holds no more significance than a pile of handbills. Perhaps less, because who can really say what’s worth more in the cool of the day: a parcel of story fragments, or the promise of remarkable prices on electronic goods?
It’s extraordinary, this assault of color and light, this riot of information, though the people moving through it seem barely to notice. I try to absorb it all—the neon, the colossal ads, the day’s news moving past on the side of a building. I dabble in a bit of time travel: if I were a woman from the 18th century (or the 17th or the 5th), and I found myself suddenly in the middle of this tumultuous place, how would I respond to a landscape so terrible and bright? For a moment, I’m able to fill myself with wonder and fear, but I can’t maintain it for long. My 21st century eyes are jaded, and in the end, this is nothing I haven’t seen before.
Several of my novels have had their origins in game playing of this sort. My last book before this one, a spectacular failure entitled My Only Sunshine, came into being when I had occasion to hold a cousin’s new baby and I began to wonder what might be going on inside his soft, slightly conical little head. The most basic of human mysteries—how do we think when we have no language, when we know nothing more than how to swallow, how to suck?—and yet every person on the earth has the answer stashed away in some jellied gray furrow of brain. Not such an original thought (quite a banal one, really), but on that day it seemed as if I had discovered something new. What if, I thought, which is the way books are always born. What if I wrote a novel from the point of view of a newborn baby? Start in the womb and carry it through the first six months or so. Finish before she can sit without toppling, before she can lift a cup or blow a kiss. What will she make of the family she’s been born into? What will the reader understand that the protagonist herself cannot?
Not much, according to critics and consumers alike. Except for one reviewer, who said a few nice things about the way my books succeed at capturing “the texture of life,” the response was fairly tepid. I’m sure that people will see a link between the failure of that book and my decision to write The Nobodies Album, and it’s true that My Only Sunshine was the first book I thought about revising post-publication. But I’m not that easy to sway. If writers ran to change their books every time they got a few bad reviews, then libraries would be very confusing places.
I check my watch; it really is time to get going. I hail a cab and get inside, tell the driver the intersection I’d like to go to. As he’s pulling away, I happen to turn and look out the window, and the news crawl catches my eye. The tail end of a headline pulls at me, but I can’t be sure I’ve read it right, and then it’s gone around the side of the building.
“Wait,” I say. My voice is strange. “I need to get out.”
The driver makes a noise of disgust and pulls over to the curb. Even though he’s only driven me thirty feet, I take a couple of dollars from my bag and drop them through the slot in the plexiglass partition. I notice with some surprise that my hands are shaking.
I get out and stand on the sidewalk, watching the news stories slide by. People push around me; I’m touched on every side. There’s a headline about the salaries of professional basketball players and one about wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. And then the one I’ve been waiting for comes around again, and the world changes in a series of cheery yellow lights: “Pareidolia singer Milo Frost arrested for the murder of girlfriend Bettina Moffett.”
In the moments that follow, as I stand mute in the middle of the humming crowd, the thing I’m most aware of is my own response to this news. I don’t scream or faint or fall to my knees; I don’t burst into tears, or lean on a wall for support, or worry that I’m going to be sick. I feel utterly, pervasively blank. I’m consumed with trying to understand what I’m supposed to do. If I were writing this in a book, I wonder, how would my character react? But this isn’t fiction; apparently, if my senses are to be believed, this is life.
For a blink of a moment, I think about getting another cab and continuing on my way to my meeting. But of course, I don’t. I find my phone in my purse and call my editor; I tell her that something’s come up and I won’t be able to make it to lunch. I don’t say what’s wrong, and I can’t tell if she already knows or not. As for the manuscript—which I suddenly resent for the weight it’s exerting on my body, the way the straps of my bag bite into my shoulder—I tell her I’ll drop it in the mail.
And then I’m free and lost. I force myself to begin walking again, though I have no idea where I’m going. Sometime soon, I’m going to feel this blow, and I’d rather not be standing on this radiant bruise of a street corner when that happens. I count out the things I’m going to need: solitude, a telephone, access to a computer where I can read the rest of this story. Someplace soft to lay my body when the spasms finally hit.
I see a hotel down the block, and it gives me something to work toward. Don’t crack apart here in the city’s guts; it’s not going to be much longer. Keep it together for the length of time it takes to talk to a desk clerk, ride an elevator, walk an anonymous hall. Swipe the card and feel the door click open. That’s all you have to do.
This is happening; this is not fiction. And the thing about life? It doesn’t have texture at all. Go ahead, feel the space around you. Do it now. See? It’s nothing but air.