A new (vaguely unpleasant) type of literary déjà vu

As (I suspect) is the case for many people my age who suffer from chronic absentmindedness and a prodigious sleeping pill habit, my reading experiences are often tinged with déjà vu. I am rarely shocked by the new. Instead, I open a book and worry about unintentional repetition. Haven’t I read this before? In some cases, yes, I have read this before. More often, the book in question has been encountered in a thorough book review or recommended to me by a person of enthusiastic descriptive talents. Regardless, there is an imprint of experience left by this book that I have not yet experienced.

More and more I find that I have experienced books that I have not experienced, and it’s not a feeling I much like.

Here a certain kind of reader (or smart publicist) might employ an optimistic gardening metaphor—holes were dug, seeds planted, now this book-flower can take root, flourish in the sunshine of the mind, etc. And certainly people must hear of a book in order to purchase it.The reader must be tantalized to act rashly with her time and her wallet. But I have found, the more of these holes that are dug in my mind before the actual opening of the book-flower, the less the book-flower flourishes.The book-flower is not bathed in the sunshine of the mind; instead it is lost in a shadow of skepticism, weariness or simply the desire that something that should be new, be new.

An example: I receive a book in the mail, a brand new book, barely published. I start to read it. The story is an intriguing one about foreign war correspondents, and the writing walks a line I find interesting and deftly managed, a potentially maudlin line that is miraculously never maudlin, that is instead deeply touching and hollowed out, quiet, sad.

As I’m reading, however, I’m haunted by the suspicion that I have read this book before—an impossibility, but there it is, and as I turn the pages, I find that I can predict what is going to happen before it happens. For example, I know the wife is going to receive an anonymous letter informing her of her husband’s many affairs and that this discovery will doom their marriage to a downward divorce spiral. Another reader might take this
as proof of her nascent psychic powers, but this reader fears that she’s exhibiting symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s.

Obviously, I have read this book that I do not remember reading.

Finally, however, after too much time spent on the Mayo Clinic Website, I realize two things: 1) I cannot be certain that I am not suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s; however 2) the reason I’m déjà-vuing so hard is because—I remembered!—I’ve read a first-person magazine essay by the same author, an essay that told the true story behind her not-so-fictional fictional story. Unfortunately, as can be the case with highly autobiographical fiction forewarned by a first-person magazine flare, there is enough overlap and repetition to render one of these two reading experiences superfluous.

I abandon the novel.

Perhaps it is old-fashioned, this failure of mine to find more interesting (rather than less) a novel anchored by authorial experience; after all, such transparency is in vogue. Recall the J.T. LeRoy scandal that, yes, became a big media hullabaloo because the writer J.T. LeRoy didn’t exist except as an actor in a scary wig— but the secret cultural upset, I always suspected, had more to do with the fact that “his” autobiographical truck-stop, gay prostitute, AIDS fiction was rendered (bizarrely) worthless by the revelation that it was, in fact, fiction, written by a straight, middle-aged woman. Exposed as the product of someone’s imagination, J.T. LeRoy’s novels became tinged with fraudulence.

Yet, here I am, abandoning a novel because I have discovered how very little of the author’s imagination it involved.

This is lame of me.

But I will try to defend here my lameness, and in doing so, I will fail to avoid utilizing the phrase “the fictional dream,” even though I’ve always hated that phrase, but in my quasi-dotage I’m softening toward such clichés. Because the truth is that the first-person essay punctured my fictional dream,
and the incursion, once made, opened the floodgates on future incursions, unwanted incursions, incursions that I strategized and masterminded. Whatever curiosity I had about the work of fiction was overridden by a different kind of curiosity, a shamefully prurient curiosity of the sort that Google was far better able than a novel to satiate. I could find real-life photographs of these “characters.” The novelist’s husband, too, is a writer: Perhaps I could find his version of the marriage’s dissolution. What became interesting about the novelist’s story was no longer what was being told, but what was pointedly not being told.

Experience is like software, perhaps, if you’re a writer—you can only download it so many times before you violate the terms of your purchase agreement. After that, your readers go rogue.

I bring this up because of the current inclination to publicize books in media that are ever more new: the book “trailer,” the behind-the-scenes YouTube documentary, the Twitter feed. Presumably this explanatory surround-sound is supposed to make people want to read the book, but it is equally possible that the opposite reaction will occur, that the book will seem a secondary experience at best, superfluous at worst. It is the equivalent of attending a poetry reading where the poet sets up a poem by saying, “This is a poem about the time my father taught me to drive a car, but really he was teaching me how to anticipate death,” and then reads a poem about how his father taught him how to drive a car but was really teaching him how to anticipate death.

Donald Barthelme, in his essay “Not Knowing,” wrote about how “the not- knowing is crucial to art.” He was referring to the production of art rather than its consumption. But consumption is also an art form; it, too, is an activity enhanced by a degree of cluelessness. Barthelme cites, as an example of useful not-knowing, Robert Rauschenberg’s sculpture of a goat wrapped in a tire: “If I wrench the rubber tire from from the … goat to determine, in the interest of a finer understanding of same, whether the tire is a B.F. Goodrich or a Uniroyal, the work collapses, more or less behind my back.” He summarizes the many ways in which one might understand the relationship between the goat and tire, concluding: “What is magical about the object is that it at once invites and resists interpretation. Its artistic worth is measurable by the degree to which it remains, after interpretation, vital—no interpretation or cardiopulmonary push- pull can exhaust or empty it.”

Among the many new media boundaries writers must negotiate—Must I have a Facebook “presence”? Does daily tweeting enhance readership for my novels, or does it train my readers to better enjoy my frequent, pithy, backstage brain bursts?—this is perhaps one of the most crucial: How do you permit readers the space for interpretation and, yes, imagination, rather than forbidding both with the myth of your mythmaking? Once we become the makers of the myths of our mythmaking, we are, in essence, packagers. We are people who build boxes, not the products that go inside the boxes.The box is all there is.

On the plus side, however—I am trying to remain optimistic—you cannot exhaust or empty a box if it is already exhausted and empty. Maybe in the pretty near future, the box will be the primary art form, concealing at its vacant center the crucial spark for its inspiration: a non-existent book.

About the Author

Heidi Julavits

Heidi Julavits is the author of three novels, most recently The Uses of Enchantment. She is a founding co-editor of The Believer.

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