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by Brian Tich
I did not sigh; I saw I was an invention. With forks I ate present wonders
and grew full and then read to fall asleep. It was obvious: only a malcontent wanders.
Airports act like cities. Cities act like people who ask you to learn by looking.
California, France, Anatolia, Russia, he doesn’t have to pay rent so he wanders.
How to pronounce soft vowels, tune slack distances?
In a language unclasped from people, places – how the accent wanders!
[though never can
Writing by rhymes, I think about endings that arrive again (again)
and with all the same elements; it’s only that their sense wanders.
Writing by rhymes, I think about endings—like walking to a place, then pausing, then walking, pausing—
and how, between pauses, the intent wanders.
Tags: Brian Tich
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by Jackie Jin
The belief that you are deeply and truly a fraud is not an easy one to bear. Over the past few years, it seems to me that I have encountered many who hold this perception of themselves to some degree. One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, considers with great detail insecurities of this nature—the small but deep doubts that haunt the corners of day-to-day life.
It’s not a secret that today’s average audience has become guarded and skeptical. We are cynics who have learned that where an individual is seen first as a consumer, easy emotion means nothing more than gullibility. If the goal of fiction is at its root a humanly true communication, contemporary American literature faces a unique challenge in a culture of readers that has decided out of necessity to prize remaining unmoved. Given this, it is no small wonder that Wallace has managed to revive a sense of literary authenticity—a response to postmodernism some have dubbed “New Sincerity.”
This movement is exemplified by “Good Old Neon,” one of Wallace’s short stories that explores the bizarre simultaneity of aloof irony and the competitive pursuit of a perfect life in modern culture. The story begins with the succinct and devastatingly intimate first sentence: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud.” Aside from being all too relatable, it promises a certain truth in its bluntness. With the assumption of fraudulence clearly highlighted, the reader is free to shelve judgment and hope for honesty.
For those unfamiliar with “Good Old Neon,” Neal, the story’s narrator, can be considered something of a superficial, postmodern Renaissance man. The activities that fill his days read like a list of pursuits that a cool, multi-faceted friend might have: collecting and restoring vintage Corvettes, attending right-brain drawing workshops, meditating, “riding a ten-speed to Nova Scotia and back”—Neal seems to be on every level, for lack of a better term, a very real, whole person. Achieving not only every traditional professional and romantic level of success, he is the impeccable consumer: a lifestyle connoisseur with a carefully manicured façade of excellence who, at the end of the story, commits suicide.
What kills him is arguably and ironically the pursuit of a “quicker, denser, more interesting” life—a life “livelier than […] life,” as Wallace describes in his essay “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Neal takes it upon himself to rise above the audience member’s paralysis, choosing instead to chase the vibrant, blemish-free life of a character. However, “too good for this world,” as he fantasizes his co-workers deeming him, is identifiable only to a viewer. Neal’s fundamental problem is that he “somehow cast [his] lot with [his] life’s drama’s supposed audience” even while desiring to be in every sense a conscious protagonist. He has correctly identified that what he desires to become—a main character “admired, approved of,” and most significantly, “applauded”—is unattainable unless he can constantly gauge and affirm his role through the eyes of the audience. This is the paradox: he cannot be both the protagonist and the viewer.
And so here is where we find Neal: a hollow, self-loathing imposter of a person attempting frantically to win over a crowd that, like himself, is contemptuous of cliché. The sad irony is that in a world where every truth is a cliché, the postmodern man is left with nothing to feel. Neal’s attempts through a variety of external stimuli to find an emotive reaction that he has not yet heard of or seen on television is unsuccessful, and he is unable to move past the futility of this pursuit.
The end of “Good Old Neon” is characterized by a charged velocity in narrative, beginning as Neal recounts a Cheers episode in which the cliché of a yuppie who is unable to love is met with uproarious studio laughter. He comes to the desperate, fearful realization that “the huge audience-laugh showed that nearly everybody in the United States had probably already seen through the complaint’s authenticity long ago,” demonstrating that what is essentially the struggle that defines him has, before even its existence in Neal, been observed, defined and resold. Here is the larger and more paradoxical irony: that something can become so true that it somehow becomes a farce.
In the last few pages, Neal’s hurtling stream-of-consciousness melds from the human to the omnipotent, from Neal’s fear and confusion to Wallace’s quietly desperate understanding:
“The truth is you already know what it’s like. You already know the difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know.” The finale of “Good Old Neon” abandons story as Neal fades and Wallace’s authorial presence materializes. Wallace has reached the moment of intimacy necessary to touch a reader, but is even still aware that this suspension of irony cannot last. With a speed and syntax that suggests desperation, he demands the reader to consider what it means to be alive, to be real in the first-person, “the millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions […] the endless invent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities” and to not examine, as he knows everyone does, the seeming realness of others in comparison to the “dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person” we sometimes consider ourselves to be.
Wallace’s authorial power in “Good Old Neon” is his recognition of the irony fueling the American individual, and yet his (successful) request that the reader nonetheless trust him. The skeptic has been built narratively into the story already, freeing the reader from the contemporary impulse to mock the attempt. In Neal’s self-doubt is the everyman’s modern fear of a fundamental brokenness, of irony that has become life. Wallace’s message, intimate against all odds, is this: you are not a fraud.Tags: Jackie Jin
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by Jen Ehrlich
Here it was; the e-mail I feared. I had aimed too high. Competing with applicants from around the world, candidates offering far more experience than I, there was no way that I would be selected.
I couldn’t ignore it forever, though. Someone was sure to ask me about it.
I’d applied for an internship at a very distinguished San Francisco publishing house. I was pretty sure that a sophomore who had only just changed her major to English wasn’t exactly a hot commodity, but “you can’t win if you don’t enter,” so I did.
The e-mail read: “Hey Jen, We’d love to have you on board as an intern this summer.”
Thus, a happy ending to the story, no? Screen fades to black, credits roll to lively and celebratory music—Queen’s “We are the Champions” or Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” But that would be too simple.
As followers of this Blog know, I have a serious chronic illness that leaves me with limited energy and consumes much of that which I do have. During the school year, I end up with five or so good hours in a day. This works out living on campus, attending classes only two or three hours a day, carrying a somewhat reduced courseload and taking breaks when I need them. How, though, will it work in an office where I have to be “on” all the time? And how will I navigate the challenging commute from Campus, since my situation makes finding a suitable short term apartment in the City almost impossible?
You might ask why I applied to this internship knowing full well my physical limitations and the problems they might cause. The answer is simple. Years ago, when I fell ill, before I was diagnosed, before the doctors had any idea what was wrong with me, before I knew what the words “chronic illnesses” meant, I made a promise. I promised myself that no matter what happened to my body, I wouldn’t let it keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have healthy. This determination pushed me to finish high school despite immense difficulty and pain. It propelled me to Stanford. It keeps me here, despite the fact that if I pushed less hard and attended an easier school, I would suffer less and be healthier. But I don’t care. I want to be a writer. I want to use my experiences to help others. To provide the comfort, hope and entertainment that other artists gave me. That’s why I applied to this intense internship and that’s why I’m determined to complete it.
But this wonderful email of acceptance contained absolutely no information about how many hours I would work, how many days a week, or what my responsibilities would be. Working at a computer would be a lot different than running to Starbuck’s to buy coffee for the entire office or rushing packages to the post office at the last minute.
My application letter mentioned my battle with illness, so presumably those in charge of the internship program understood that I presented a unique situation – but what if they didn’t read that part very carefully or assumed I would be fully recovered by the summer? My brain is fine, I can read/write/edit/study for hours at a time. I can be as productive as any other intern. But being in a hot, sunny room where I can’t control the temperature, sitting upright in tight and constricting clothes, putting on a smiling face and making light small chat might be required in an office—and that takes a different, more active type of energy. An energy of which I don’t have an abundant amount.
How to broach the subject? What if they said they hadn’t realized there was an issue, and thus wouldn’t be able to honor the offer? What if they thought I was a slacker, who wanted the cachet of having worked there but didn’t want to put in any effort? I wrote suggesting a meeting to discuss how I could be most useful and productive in light of my situation. They’re very busy however, so I was told just to show up at the orientation on June 9th. They did tell me, “There is no specific hour limit for interns, but most interns find that they get most out of the internship if they are working 20 hours or more. The more you are in the office, the more interesting work you will be assigned.”
Twenty hours sounds reasonable, no? Add in, though, another ten or more of commuting plus the ungovernable tendency of my body to unilaterally turn itself off when it’s overloaded, and the problem becomes more difficult. How to ask about telecommuting without sounding like a lazy bum? I didn’t know. I don’t know.
And thus, as summer approaches, I’m equally elated and terrified. Usually people apply to dozens of internships, get one, and then celebrate—but as with many things in a life with chronic illness, there’s a bittersweet taste to this good news. I don’t know if I will be able to spend 20 or more hours a week in the office. I don’t know if they will allow me to do some work from home, or if that would hurt their impression of me. So, with a smiling face I tell friends about my great news, while in my head all I hear is “yes…..but.” I don’t know what’s going to happen.
All I do know is that I will try. I will be there on June 9th, dressed in business casual with my dad’s old briefcase and a large, genuine smile. Despite my fears and doubts, I realize how lucky I am. I’m able to get out of bed and try. I’m healthy enough to attempt this adventure. I’m going to be working at an amazing company in my dream industry. I’ll meet incredible professionals and students from all over the world. I will learn and contribute as much as I can for as long as I can. I will push myself to my limit and beyond—but only a bit beyond, because a world-class internship means nothing if you are too sick to learn from it.
When I found out about my illness, I promised myself it wouldn’t keep me from accomplishing as much as I would have if I were healthy. I intend to keep this promise to the best of my ability.Tags: Jen Ehrlich
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by Irene Hsu
The first line of this week’s poem was taken by Joseph Brodsky’s poem of the same name. But while his poem celebrates the omnipresence of God, mine deals with a dystopian outlook on faith.
After I put together this remix, I realized that the message imparted was not so much the danger of the non-existence of God—“God is dead,” as Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science, from a short chapter which my SLE section spent an entire hour discussing—but the danger of having nothing to believe in.
In villages God does not live in corners,
but to live with human faithlessness
is another matter.
My mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
The drawn heart flies toward the head, flies as a bird flies
back to its cage and the familiar perch from which it trills.
Her belly is white as a cut pear. Where we waited: no: off
from where we waited: yes,
but her feet were held against his breastbone
across the lank body, black suits rushing in like moths,
the long snake of the motorcade coming to rest.
Mashup of some of my favorite poems.
1. “In Villages God Does Not Live In Corners“—Joseph Brodsky
2-3. “Eurydice“—Louise Glück
4-5. “Early In the Morning“—Li-Young Lee
6-7. “Song“—Brigit Pegeen Kelly
8-9. “Dead Doe“—Brigit Pegeen Kelly
10. “Quarantine“—Eavan Boland
11-12. “Beauty“—B.H. Fairchild
Tags: Irene Hsu
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by Sarah Sadlier
I am the Phenomenal Woman, and you are, too.
I am not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,
But it is no matter, it’s the same for me and you
As like a winged angel, you’ll soon come to realize.
As a caged bird, you’ll sing, with fearful trill
Of thinner things unknown, but longed for still.
“You need a model’s figure, skin and bone,
Straight up and down without a single curve,
Unless you want to end up on your own,
Which, frankly, would be just what you deserve.
Then there is your face and how its beheld:
You should dare not lift your veil, for fear it be dispelled.”
How tragic to be such slender thread of woman is,
When you give up all to make yourself his,
But it is time to fly to freedom from man-made myth.
Don’t dwell and stare and stand on a shallow grave of dreams.
Let’s liberate you from troublesome image forthwith,
And unbound you from these bodiless, fruitless themes.
Poems Referenced: “Phenomenal Woman,” Maya Angelou (lines 1-2); “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou (lines 5-6, 16); “Love Me Slender,” Sophie Hannah (lines 7-10); “A Charm Invests a Face,” by Emily Dickinson (lines 11-12); “Matriot Acts, Act I,” Anne Waldman (line 13)
Tags: Sarah Sadlier