The Scream

I know I’m not alone in this because I’ve been hearing it everywhere: It’s really hard to concentrate these days.

“It has been hard to concentrate on reading books and seeing movies since the election,” author A.S. Hamrah writes simply in this excellent essay about Trump and B movies for n+1. Yes, yes it has. In her sweet, intimate email newsletter last month, journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote, “I haven’t had it in me to write lately, dears, and I apologize for it. Democratic inaction on the ACA repeal, the multiply broken heart, and extreme frustration over the fact that MY CORN IS NOT COMING IN has all conspired against our delightful communications.”

I’ve been troubled by this sort of stuff myself for several months now — since, oh, about November. I haven’t written much that I’ve enjoyed writing for a while, I’ve been intermittently depressed—I haven’t been able to find the kind of psychological stillness that you need to GO THERE, to get to that place. That in itself isn’t so unusual; writing is hard, and there are lots of things that, as Moore puts it, conspire against it. The strangest thing, to me, is how hard I’ve found it to read.

Reading is easier than writing—usually, anyway. Someone else has done the work; you just need to show up, and if the story or the language is good enough, unusual enough, and if you stick with it for long enough, you’ll get carried away on that current. It’s a powerful form of escapism, to be inside your mind but not really, to get a break from your own thoughts not merely by being distracted, but by actually inhabiting another person’s mind. It’s magic, when you think of it that way. Some people have compared it to time travel, but I think it’s more like leaving your body and moving along the astral plane, the closest you’ll ever get to being someone else.

For months, as I’ve been unable somehow to access this magic, I’ve felt the loss of it acutely. Sure, I actually “read” plenty: I read online news articles and everything the wonderful Masha Gessen has written for the New York Review of Books about the Trump presidency, and even the occasional personal essay, like this beautiful piece by Laura Maw that was published a few days ago in Catapult, about the film The Shining and the ways it talks about violence in the home, within families. I read the newsletter and essay that I quoted from above, too, obviously. But that experience of picking up a book and disappearing into it for a while? Looking up from the page now and then to think about one of its ideas, and an hour or two later, emerging wholly, refreshed and a little bit changed by the experience? I couldn’t do it. For a while after the election I had no interest, and for a longer while after that I missed the experience but still couldn’t do it. It’s become a problem, the way a bad or nonexistent sex life becomes a problem. You think about it all the time, but as simple as the supposed fix would be, should be, you just can’t make it work.

I remember that for months after my father died, almost 20 years ago now, my mother was plagued with the reading problem. She’s a huge reader who always has at least a couple of books going, but when she was in the depths of her grieving, she couldn’t do it. It was a kind of forgetting—not how to read, but how to want to. The desire just wasn’t there. It came back to her in bits and pieces, enough to haunt her for a while before she was able to fix it, and as I recall it was the sweet, clever Precious Ramotswe novels by Alexander McCall Smith that finally broke through and brought her back to the Land of the Reading. Grief is weird that way: It resets everything. You’re still alive but, for a time, you lose your life. If you’re lucky you eventually find your way back, though not everyone does.

My life is still in progress, I’m happy to report, and I’m writing this now because I’ve started to find my way back to it. (I’m also writing this now because writing has always been the thing that saved me, like throwing an ice axe out in front of me, one of those tough-ass climbing tools, and using it to drag myself forward along that slippery mountain’s edge. You gotta hang on, but you gotta keep moving, too.) The book that’s finally helped me remember how to live/read again (they’re the same thing) is called Scream, and it’s Tama Janowitz’s first book-length memoir, published last year by HarperCollins. I got it at the library a few days ago and have nearly finished it, and am totally confident that this time, after reading the first 10 or 20 pages of a lot of other books, I actually will. This small/ huge victory (they’re the same thing) is the result of some combination of wanting my life back and finally finding the right book, though I’m not sure I know what makes this book the right one, beyond the fact that I already knew I loved Tama Janowitz’s essays and memoir-style writing. In fact, she once wrote one of the best and most life-affirming things I’ve ever read about writing, in her 2002 collection of essays, Area Code 212: New York Days, New York Nights:

“But there is one thing I have, no matter if I can’t ever get published, or sell a book, or get an award or money or praise—I CANNOT BE STOPPED FROM WRITING.” Emphasis hers, baby. The emphasis is always hers. (She then goes on to say, “As for advice, I offer only this: Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be writers.” Which I take as the feminism-edged joke that it is, and choose to ignore as actual advice.)

This new book is as deadpan-weird and hilarious as all her best writing, like a conversation with—if not a friend, a person you’d LIKE to befriend. With her stories about her friendship with Andy Warhol and the time she heard the Sex Pistols play their second-ever show at some guy’s house party in London, knowing her seems aspirational, even though she makes it clear that all of this stuff feels accidental to her. At one point she writes something to the effect that everything that’s ever happened to her seems equally weird, surprising, absurd, even the nothing-things. (She writes about those too, complaining lustily about the stupid organization of her local supermarket. She’s always pissed off, always on the verge of giving up, but never doing so.) I loved reading this because it’s a way I’ve felt many times in my life. And if everything’s equally weird, everything’s equally likely, too. Looking at the world like this has a way of making it open up to you.

I’d have to call Janowitz’s writing voice utterly unique because she is seemingly being herself COMPLETELY, all the time, in a way that most people can’t or won’t try to be. It puts me to mind of something I once read in an essay by Dorothy Allison, “Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories,” which was published in an anthology called An Angle of Vision: Women Writers and Their Working Class Roots. In it, she talks about treasuring the early “review” that her partner and the mother of her son gave her after reading one of her first books: ‘“It’s not bad,” she said. “You are the real thing.”’

The real thing. I think about this often. There can be no higher compliment, no worthier goal. That’s what Tama Janowitz is, and it’s what I am too, when I don’t forget it. I guess that’s why this book is the one that pulled me back onto land, exhausted and coughing up seawater. It has that fighting spirit. If you read between the lines, all that’s there is a will to live.

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“…the blade struck against a waterfall, which was rushing down near them from a lofty crag, and with a splash, which sounded almost like a burst of laughter, it poured over them and drenched them to the skin. Whereat the priest of a sudden woke from his dream…” From Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué
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Paint this!

A few days ago I looked lovingly at my big round cat where she was sitting sort of hunched over on the floor, and I thought, She looks like one of those striped cartoon cats from the 70s. What were those?

 

You can still buy this one as a card from Pomegranate
You can still buy this one as a card, from Pomegranate. Click the image to link through.

Turns out the cat I was thinking of was drawn by a cartoonist named Bernard Kliban, whose book Cat was such a hit in 1975 that it launched a zillion mugs and t-shirts (which explains my old and murky memories of it from the 80s, when I was still small). A bit of awkward Google research told me this much (“fat striped cartoon cat 70s” … no, not Garfield … ), and I poked around a bit longer and found some of his other cartoons too. Most of them are single-panel gags, many of which have titles that function as the punchline. And they are funny as hell.

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

The cat merchandise is still around, but I found precious little information on the man or his work. He died in 1990, before the internet as we know it; the few scans I found online were enough to whet my appetite, but most of his books are out of print. I could have bought one secondhand, of course, but opted instead for the appropriately dark absurdity of trying to do much of anything in Philadelphia, by taking one of the few functioning trains in our currently striking transit system to our beautiful but down-at-heel library downtown, and borrowing them. (I feel disloyal even typing this because I love our library and they really do have wonderful programming, an excellent collection, and truly wild holdings in their rare books archive, but please believe me that the state of things in this city can sometimes be disheartening. Also, after the library, I went to the DMV. Hahahahaha!)

The library’s main branch owns four of Kliban’s books but only two circulate—Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings and Luminous Animals and Other Drawings—I guess because the others are out of print and hard to replace. When I found the books I’d traveled there for, I flipped Luminous Animals open and immediately found this panel, which made me almost cry with laughter. Right there in the library, standing by myself. Look at the waiter’s FACE.

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

There is a lot to enjoy in both of the books I found. I was especially excited by a few cartoons that explicitly address what it’s like to be an ottist in a culture that does not give a shit about ott—like the one of a dog watching a handyman screw a lightbulb into a ceiling and thinking “I could do that!”, and another one of a cow peddling a newspaper called the Cow News to a bunch of indifferent walruses and penguins. Kliban was a successful working cartoonist in his lifetime, but he isn’t much remembered or talked about now. It seems he was original enough to have inspired a number of artists, some of whom went on to become better known. As I read through these books I was strongly reminded of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, one of my teenage favorites for its black yet ridiculous humor. I did run across this piece Rob Clough wrote for The Comics Journal, in which he looked at Cat 35 years after its publication. He talks about the influence Kliban had on other cartoonists, including Larson, and points out that even “the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come,” which naturally put me to mind of the Garfield books I so loved as a kid.

The cats that made Kliban famous have an essential sweetness to them, mainly because they’re so apt, catness-wise; I take it the more mordant and bizarre ones didn’t get put onto mugs. Because of this, I have had the pleasure of surprise at how much of his other work is rude, dark, and righteously pissed-off. There is a healthy number of boobs and dicks in these books, for one thing. (Kliban made cartoons for Playboy for many years.) At the same time, as Clough wrote in his essay, a lot of his work is both droll and strange enough to have fit in with the sensibility of The New Yorker, though they only ever published one drawing of his, in 1963an observation I totally agree with as I vaguely thought that’s where I remembered having seen the cats when I began this little quest of mine. They are also sometimes political, in my favorite way for things to be political: nihilistic and adolescent and correct; angry and broad, accusatory of everybody but reserving the realest contempt for those who would be in charge of the rest of us. Let me just share one more with you, since it really RESONATES—to use a word everyone seems to love nowadays—in this moment before the 2016 presidential election. It’s as true as an arrow through the heart, and of all the Kliban cartoons I’ve read recently, it’s the only one that made me feel sadder than anything else.

Fer-fucking-real