Whenever I travel I draft an entire book, in pencil, in the back of whatever I’m reading. On Sunday it was a series of short stories based of A.L. Snijders’s “zkv’s,” or very short stories, ninety-nine of which have recently been translated into English by Lydia Davis. I want to document the whole trip, the flight to Fredericton and the return, in Snijders’s gnomic style (which doesn’t not share a resemblance, at least superficially, with what I sometimes try to write here). In the air I can see the drama of the trip, and of my life, in a way that interests me less on the ground. As you can see, I’m already giving them up. Maybe if I had started writing them then (we only had an hour and fifty minutes on the entire flight) I would have kept working once we returned home. But instead, for the last part of our trip I put on a basketball podcast and held F’s hand (she’s terrified of flying) while I looked out the window, watching the earth change below. I knew it would be more difficult than it seems on its surface to write an entire piece in fragments that maintain a duty to themselves even as they also build toward a larger narrative.
When I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree, the author of one of the books we had read that year came to visit the class. He spoke a little bit about writing, answered a few questions, and afterwards sat at the front of the class and signed our books. When it was my turn I told him that I thought the book was “perfectly constructed,” a compliment he took gracefully though I had meant it as an insult (I was an anxious little shit who couldn’t quite get it off). I didn’t like the TA for the course, who I thought wore herself as if her own body was a suit of armour, in a permanent defensive posture. She confirmed my dislike when she stood up and asked a question which seemed only to demonstrate that she’d paid attention, reading up on the author outside of the class. It was something like “How do you feel, now that you’ve been named one of Knopf Canada’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’?” Though I’ve heard very little about the book, or about the writer, in the almost two decades since the visit, at the time he was doing well, and he mentioned using the money from the book to buy a house on the Danforth. Now we’re friends on Facebook. Thinking about all of this now I have the sudden urge to ring him up, and ask him if he remembers the visit, as if we are old friends, though his author visit remains the only time I’ve ever spoken to him.
Seeing Anne Carson on Monday is like surprising a gazelle climbing a hill on the savannah. It is like coming across a stand of three or four birch trees suddenly in a forest of maple. “I always sound so together,” she jokes at the microphone after she is introduced. We take a wrong turn from Charles street. I lead Caroline (who I have met incidentally) to the rear of the building, where there is no door, near the dumpsters. But inside the chapel I realize that the rear of the building is precisely where the reading is located—its four massive stained glass windows look out over that back parking lot. I want to take a picture of Carson standing at the foot of those windows and dwarfed by the light passing through them. But the architects of the building, who may have anticipated smartphones over one hundred years ago, ensured that the light would be low enough that the windows would always be dazzling by contrast. This is so no one inside forgets about God even when they allow their mind to wander. I see on the screens of phones raised in front of me that they are only able to pick up those four wide blocks of light. Carson reads us a story about a woman who is a forsenic splash expert who with the help of a corvid friend named “Shortpants” annoys local mafioso. It is somehow both paranoid and earnest. The protagonist reads verbal patterns like a poet. I imagine writing my own story, beginning somehow with that wrong turn. “Looking up they saw the chapel where the reading would take place. In the window a white face suddenly turned away. Impossible to say with any certainty who it was.” In the hallway outside the chapel they are selling a selection of Anne Carson’s books, including one that has yet to be released. But Anne Carson is standing about ten feet in front of the table, standing next to but not talking to one of the event’s organizers. She looks bored and casual. She is after all just a human being killing time for the same reason we are. But it is impossible not to feel scrutinized. I purchase a single book and find my seat. It’s Monday and soon we will be listening to a woman who I imagine has meant something to all of us. I keep wishing I was reading her on the page and vow to spend more time with her. A poet later claims on Instagram that they fell asleep in the second row. And as Carson introduces herself she says that her great-grandfather, one of the founders of the university, died when he accidentally mixed too much lead into his shampoo. “You may find his portrait downstairs,” she tells us. But I don’t.