Mark Athitakis Newsletter #36

Fear of plot.

So I'm reading Lonesome Dove. I’ve kept meaning to get to it, and I was finally moved to start it because I'd been reading Stephen Harrigan's engrossing history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing. And I was reading that because I'd been asked to do a Q&A with him at bookstore here in Phoenix. (A lot of Texas expats are out here; they ordered copies of Harrigan's 1,000-page book three at a time for friends after the event, like the register was a deli counter.) A lot of my reading life is predetermined by review assignments and prize judging, but I try to clear space for happy accidents. Larry McMurtry is my current happy accident.

I'd been a little intimidated by Lonesome Dove, for reasons that go beyond its heft. Partly it's because I knew it was a plotty novel, a novel where things happen, to characters. If you think that's a thing to be intimidated by, well, it’s not always a priority in contemporary literary fiction, which foregrounds style, milieu, structure, etc. Reading for character and plot, at least for me, requires a kind of gear shift---it's not harder, exactly, just different. (Charles Finch, a mystery novelist and fine critic, recently wrote about how he approaches plotting his novels, which can be as much of a challenge as the rhetorical gambits that more pomo authors engage in.) Nine hundred pages about a cattle drive, weaving multiple plot threads, could be a lot of fun, or very, very hard.

If you've read it, you know: It's pure joy, its characters sketched yet somehow full right from the start, and fuller as the story goes along. The plot paths are simple, but because so many people are on simple paths, the whole thing becomes complicated. I'm only halfway through and can only make slow day-to-day progress, but I understand why my late friend David Myers attempted to read the whole thing on release day in one sitting.

But my intimidation about plot stems from something else, which I hadn't thought about much lately, until I started Lonesome Dove. About 15 years ago I had a breakdown. Not the kind that puts you in a facility, but serious enough—-one that makes you quit the job you started a month prior because you're vibrating with anxiety every morning and avoiding conversation because you're not sure what's going to set off a panic attack. It's hard for me to explain, now, what set all that in motion, at least in the shortish space of a newsletter, but I know a few things. I'd left my previous job, which I'd come to hate; then I tried to make a go of it as a freelancer and worked on a book proposal; then, when neither of those things panned out, I took a job I shouldn't have taken. I was thinking too much about reputation and accomplishment, worried too much about being a Good, Successful Writer, and gave little thought to what "good" or "successful" might actually mean. All that, plus years of low-boil anxiety about desperately needing not to fail at something, meant things began boiling a little more fiercely, now that I'd failed at a bunch of things in succession. It was embarrassing to feel this way, yet the feeling was the feeling, and for a time it was inescapable. Inconsolable for reasons I couldn’t articulate, I'd become the sort of person people made concerned phone calls about.

There were interventions over those few months, friends and various elements of the mental health industrial complex. I was, in the broad spectrum of mental illness, fine; I'm better than fine now. But I don't want to dismiss where I was, either, because I wouldn't want to dismiss somebody facing something similar. It's agonizing to feel so adrift from oneself, so unsure of what your capacities as a person are (can I make it to the laundromat today? can I get into the shower this morning?), and uncertain when and if that feeling is going to stop. 

One the clearest measures of my adrift-ness during that time, which made me wonder whether I was truly going to be OK, was straightforward: I couldn't read. I could not pick up a book, look the words inside them, and process them for meaning. At my worst, the idea of a paragraph seemed impossible. How could you read all of a paragraph? How could writers write one, and then another? It was all I could do to process the headlines in the newspaper. If I was going to get better, the medical industrial complex would provide one measure of it. But reading a book would provide another.

The book that got me there, eventually, was a paperback somebody'd left in the lobby of my apartment building: Sidney Sheldon's The Sky Is Falling. (A little on the nose, Mark!) It's awful. Stating-the-obvious sentences, bad foreign accents, impossible turns of events, many of them: The Wikipedia summary of its plot is as long as the one for, let's see here, Lonesome Dove. And yet. Things were happening! To people! In a world where things happened to people. It was reassuring, to be in such a world. What a world to be in.

There are some easy but false conclusions I might draw here. No, I don't believe that genre fiction, or plot, has curative powers: Reading pretty much everything George Pelecanos has written has been fun, but his novels haven't consequenced my psyche very much. No, I don't think plot possesses some earthy nobility that elevates it above other elements of fiction---I still like a good rhetorical gambit. Maybe it's just that the book that finds you won't always have something to do with what you think you think about books. I can't recommend The Sky Is Falling, but I also can't deny that it's one of those novels that feel like I came to at just the right time, like The World According to Garp or Gilead or Call Me By Your Name. Maybe Lonesome Dove is that, too.

I've lucked into good books lately on the review beat: Carmen Maria Machado's memoir, In the Dream House, Shannon Pufahl's debut novel, On Swift Horses, and Dale Peck's story collection, What Burns, though the last one was more fun to think about than read. I also interviewed Andre Aciman.

Elsewhere: Roxane Gay recommends that traveling authors just check their damn bag. Stephanie Burt covers three poetry collections with a strong sense of place, including one of my favorite collections of the year, Jake Skeets' Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers. Agnes Callard rethinks parenting. Wyatt Mason catches up with LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers. Jennifer Howard (who recently launched a newsletter that I strongly recommend) explores the changing role of the public library. Neely Tucker dives into the Library of Congress' archives to explain how The Postman Always Rings Twice got its title. Alexander Chee delivers some common-sense advice on writing across difference.


If I had more time I would've written a shorter newsletter; thanks for reading this one. I'm on Twitter. I wrote a book. Email me:

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