“I Am Ryder”; or, My Life as Somebody Else

A Conversation about Novel Reading, with Gloria Fisk

16- margaret oliphant

Victorian critic and novelist Margaret Oliphant routinely worried in print about the dangerous effects novel reading might have on young people and women: “There is nothing more violently opposed to our moral sense, in all the contradictions to custom they present to us, than the utter unrestraint in which the heroines of this order are allowed to expatiate and develop their impulsive, stormy, passionate characters. We believe it is one chief among their many dangers to youthful readers that they open out a picture of life free from all the perhaps irksome checks that confine their own existence.” –“Our Sensation Novelists,” The Living Age, 1863

Does reading a novel change you? Can a novel make a person more compassionate or cosmopolitan, as philosopher Richard Rorty suggested in the late eighties? Or more foolhardy, even delusional, as Victorian public intellectual Margaret Oliphant was fond of warning her contemporaries? It’s a huge pleasure to welcome Gloria Fisk to californica, for a conversation about how literature and science might help us answer these questions in 2014.


In a response to Dave Eggers’s new novel, The Circle, David Mikics published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “In Praise of (Offline) Slow Reading”—timed to publicize his recent book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. The article made me think of conversations you and I have had about some of our favorite books. Mikics makes a claim that’s pretty difficult to substantiate, though I think we’d both like to agree with it:

“And there’s a link between selfhood and reading slowly, rather than scanning for quick information, as the Web encourages us to do. Recent work in sociology and psychology suggests that reading books, a private experience, is an important aspect of coming to know who we are.”

In my gut, I’m sure the private experience of reading books shapes us–our feelings and actions, but also the range of possibilities those feelings and actions may take. But this would be hard to prove—though it’s very easy to recite platitudes and generalizations about the power of reading. I’m hoping you and I can find some concrete answers, or at least hypotheses. In the Op-Ed, Mikics doesn’t name the work in psychology and sociology he mentions, but there’s been a lot of it recently. Before we get to that, though, I want to ask you a question about a favorite book we have in common: Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled.

For me, The Unconsoled is both “slow” and a page-turner. Its protagonist, Ryder, wanders around an unfamiliar city, subject to a surreal logic that throws him (and readers) off kilter relentlessly. It takes commitment to remain in Ishiguro’s world, where characters mutate, geography reconfigures, and time expands and contracts. If you get hooked, though, it’s hard to put the book down, because the ever-expanding set of obstacles creates a form of suspense I’ve never experienced with any other book.

So, my question. What does this novel do to you? Does your love of it have something to do with the link between reading and selfhood, as Mikics suggests? Is it possible to describe this relationship in any concrete way?


Unconsoled1Oh, yes.  I love this connection you make between The Unconsoled and the proposition that Mikics gets from Eggers: that social media marks the antithesis and possibly the end of literary reading as we know it. And the passage you cite from the review is perfect, because it contrasts the privacy that good books seem to give their readers with the nonstop publicness of living online. There’s something paradoxical in that logic, and the paradox seems important, because it runs like a thread through these arguments that contemporary critics make for the continued relevance of literature–and the humanities, more generally—in the 21st century.

Those arguments begin (as Eggers seems to, too) from the worry that that technology and global markets will render literature neither necessary nor wanted. Against that possibility, reading is credited with two contrary benefits: On one hand, it engages readers with other people who would too easily seem remote because they come from other countries, with different identities; on the other hand, literature enables readers to burrow more deeply into the particulars of our personal experience. By burying our noses in novels while our laptops alert us to messages that we ignore for the moment, we learn more about non-fictional people as we also come, as Mikics says, “to know who we are.”

It’s possible that these two consequences of literary reading—one social, the other private—are perfectly congruous, but the congruity seems too complicated to be taken for granted.

And Ishiguro toys with it beautifully in The Unconsoled. The novel was published in 1995, well before everybody’s mother was on Facebook, and Ishiguro’s interest in technology doesn’t become explicit (as far as I know) until a decade later, when he published his novel about a clique of clones, Never Let Me Go. But The Unconsoled is, I think, all about this: To what degree (or under what conditions) does the experience of good art make us more attuned to the social world around us, and to what degree does it make us solipsistic, self-centered, private?

This question isn’t directly about the social-media-vs.-literature debate, or about the way that literary reading shapes the way we live in the non-fictional world. But you and I have jokingly used Ryder (the protagonist of The Unconsoled) as our model when we have to travel through a social or professional situation where it’s opportune to remain unruffled by other people. Ryder would be a very smooth operator on Facebook, I think. I also think Ishiguro was prescient as well as brilliant about the ways that contemporary life makes us all more oblivious to each other as we’re also in more constant contact.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the novel could work as an antidote to that?  [Dreamy sigh.]


I love the idea of Ryder as a smooth operator on Facebook. What makes you say that? He’s such a confused operator in the novel! You and I have made a mantra of “I am Ryder” because he’s so good at rolling with the confounding behavior of the people around him. He doesn’t sweat it, but he doesn’t withdraw either. He participates with perplexed irony. Is that why you think he’d be a smooth operator?

I hadn’t really thought about the private and social effects of literature as contrary. It seems possible to resolve the conflict. If solitary reading attunes a person in psychological terms, maybe that will result in more attuned relationships with other people. That’s what Richard Rorty argued, though I’ve known plenty of avid fiction readers who don’t seem particularly reflective or empathic. Big generalizations about literature’s value always feel unsatisfying. I’d love to identify some concrete explanations for what reading does to us.

So here’s my proposal. What if you find a passage or two from The Unconsoled (or another book) that illustrates your point about art’s influence? And what if I find a couple of excerpts from the psychological and sociological research Mikics mentions? Then we can see if the novelist and the scholars are examining similar questions–and, hopefully, identify some concrete propositions on the subject.


Good idea!  Always go back to the text, right?

I think when we say, “I am Ryder,” we’re kind of saying, “I know that other people are thinking things that are upsetting for me to contemplate, but I’m going to proceed as if they aren’t while I know that they are.” Because Ryder occupies the world in an impossible way: He can see into other people’s minds with perfect clarity, but he is also completely oblivious to their reality. Or, maybe more precisely, he knows them intimately and, at the same time, they are strangers to him.  So he can see what they’re thinking but he doesn’t need to respond to it, or to worry about it excessively.


Kazuo Ishiguro

I admire Ishiguro so much for creating this effect, which seems brilliant to me, illuminating so many things about the ways we live now. The first time it happens in the novel (I think) is the scene where Stephan chauffeurs Ryder around town in the rain; Ryder’s a visiting pianist in an unnamed city, where he is held to a schedule that he doesn’t understand; Stephan is a young man among his hosts.

As Stephan drives, he confides in Ryder that he is a pianist, too, and he asks Ryder–very shyly, hesitating to impose–if Ryder would listen to him play. Ryder declines, saying that he is exhausted and he just wants to go bed at the end of a long day of talking to the townspeople. But he notices that Stephan seems “unduly disappointed, perhaps even mistaking my reply for some subtle refusal”– and this is a feeling that is familiar to us, I think; it’s part of what we mean when we say “I am Ryder.”   Ryder is always asked to do more things than he can possibly do, and he always knows that he is letting somebody down in the process.  We teach at a public institution in NYC; we know this feeling!

And then Ryder moves away from this very realistic moment into something strange:

“The rain continued to fall steadily as we traveled through the night-time streets.  The young man remained silent for a long time and I wondered if he had become angry with me.  But then I caught sight of his profile in the changing light and realised (sic) he was turning over in his mind an event from several years ago.  It was an episode he had pondered many times before–often when lying awake at night or when driving alone– and now his fear that I would prove unable to help him had caused him once more to bring it to the front of his mind.  It had been the occasion of his mother’s birthday…”

Ryder can’t know these things; he is a character in the novel, trapped in the plane of reality that it creates.  But he acts like an omniscient narrator who can float above the other characters, traveling freely among their consciousnesses, recalling their memories and knowing their thoughts.

And this is what makes me think he would be an adept–or at least comfortable–presence on Facebook. In order to post a status update, we have to construct our several hundreds of “friends” into an audience that wants to hear whatever we’re going to say.  And in order to do that, we have to be hyper-aware of the interior lives of our friends but also somewhat oblivious to them, because in a pool that big, there will always be somebody who thinks that our pictures of our vacation or our political ramblings are stupid, offensive, painful, or depressing in some way.  And if we think about that, we will never say anything–so, instead, we say, “I am Ryder!”


The Unconsoled is often compared to Kafka, because of the ways Ishiguro blends dream logic with the more rational restrictions of waking life. It’s a fair comparison, but it doesn’t capture the innovation of Ishiguro’s elegant style. Ryder is a first-person omniscient narrator–an impossible thing to be. That’s how he achieves what you describe–the experience of seeing into other’s minds, but remaining oblivious.

To a certain degree, all fiction gives readers an analogous experience–a vicarious experience of what’s it’s like to be another person, one who doesn’t exist. This vicariousness is central to the “recent work in sociology and psychology” Mikics’s mentions, research that tries to find empirical ways to measure literature’s effects on readers.

I dug up some of the research that Mikics seems to be drawing from. I can’t know if he read these studies in particular, but they seem indicative of the kind of research he has in mind.

The results of one study, published in the journal Brain Connectivity suggests that  “One possibility for increases in somatosensory cortex connectivity is that reading a novel invokes neural activity that is associated with bodily sensations.” The study was conducted by neuroeconomics professor Gregory S. Bern and his colleagues. They call their theory ‘‘embodied semantics’’ (Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio, 2008), building on previous research that shows that the somatosensory cortex—translation: part of the cortex that deals with bodily feeling—becomes active when people read metaphors that invoke tactile sensation. Their hypothesis is concrete (!), if tentative: “It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity.”

In other words, when we imagine the actions of a protagonist, our brains rehearse them. In that sense, our synaptic networks are altered. We are changed. The authors of the study asked people to read Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii, which is action packed, offering plenty of opportunity for “embodied semantics.” Then they used fMRI technology to scan their brains. The title of the article is “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” The conclusion is that changes can be observed for several days after reading Harris’s novel.


This study that you’re citing might document the consolation—or the lack of it—that Ishiguro suggests with his title.  Throughout the novel, the pianist is constantly letting everybody down, because they have such outsized expectations of him on one hand, but he is also just unable to pay the slightest bit of attention to them.  Or, he vacillates between treating them like utter strangers and attending to them very carefully, like a father/brother/husband/friend.

This seems somehow akin to what you’re saying about the ways that readers conjure protagonists in their imaginations by “rehearsing” their experience, inhabiting it as their own.  And there is something so enjoyable about that—it is a kind of consolation— a way of feeling connected to another person that is unavailable to us in real life.  But, at the same time, we always know that the person we’re connected to exists only in fiction.  So the experience of reading provides relief from some kind of existential loneliness, although it is also profoundly solitary.


Consolation: we all need it. Leave it to Ishiguro to let us know through a novel. Essays about neurocognition and reading tend to use that word rehearsal. We rehearse versions of ourselves by reading about others. Maybe we do, but we also console ourselves, don’t we? I’d like to see some research on that.

Before I describe another study, I want to mention that the Brain Connectivity article begins with an epigraph from William Styron: “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” There is consolation in exhaustion. It feels like we’ve accomplished something. The epigraph is telling us that Styron got there before the neuroscientists. It’s a move is common in efforts to discuss literature and neuroscience in the same breath, to show that writers have intuited what neuroscientists are now demonstrating. A common complaint about this is that the intuition of literature is perceived as soft, in need of neuroscience’s firmer evidence to demonstrate its truth. The irony is that the conclusions of the neuroscience are so hypothetical and their claims so speculative.

Case in point: a study that makes a fascinating claim and then draws some dubious conclusions. The study, conducted by John A. Johnson (psychologist), Joseph Carrol (literary critic), Jonathan Gottschall (literary critic), and Daniel Kruger (scholar of Public Health), is entitled “Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels.”

The authors used a survey method. 519 respondents rated character traits of characters from 201 nineteenth-century British novel. In their abstract, they describe their findings in pretty lofty terms:

“As expected, antagonists are motivated almost exclusively by the desire for social dominance, their personality traits correspond to this motive, and they elicit strongly negative emotional responses from readers. Protagonists are oriented to cooperative and affiliative behavior and elicit positive emotional responses from readers. Novels therefore apparently enable readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social dynamic like that found in hunter-gatherer societies. We infer that agonistic structure in novels simulates social behaviors that fulfill an adaptive social function and perhaps stimulates impulses toward these behaviors in real life.”

I think there’s something to be learned by thinking about how reading novels may “enable readers to participate vicariously” in social dynamics, but I have no idea why these authors would make a leap to hunterer-gatherer societies and their supposedly egalitarian social lives. This feels like a claim sinking in the quicksand of shaky evidence.

While this research is interesting, I don’t think it’s asking the right questions. On a peculiar but interesting note, the hypothesis partly depends on the famous moralism of nineteenth-century fiction—represented by figures by Margaret Oliphant, whom I mentioned in the introduction. Because these novels tend to moralism, the argument goes, they dramatize the social interactions in question more pointedly than novels whose moral stance is murkier. Of course, plenty of Victorian novels are moralistic, but the idea is too general to base a hypothesis on. Dickens moralizes about the dangers of industrialization and the mistreatment of the working classes; Oliphant moralizes about social and sexual decorum in her novels. You wouldn’t call Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories moralistic. Oscar Wilde had to defend The Picture of Dorian Gray in court because it was widely perceived as advocating a variety of sins.


I couldn’t agree more.  This is a really great illustration of a certain kind of disciplinary disagreement—I don’t think a literary critic would make this easy transition from talking about fictional people to talking about “hunter-gatherer societies.” That seems somehow insulting to literature as well as hunters and gatherers, implying that the only way to make literary interpretation meaningful is to tie it in this very direct way to social relations in the real world. It seems so self-evident that it’s boring to discuss the fact that literature’s relationship to real people is exponentially more complicated than that.  (Now I’m probably betraying my lack of background in empirical things by using the word “exponentially” so cavalierly.)

And it seems like this is what The Unconsoled is all about.  What kinds of consolation and human connection can we expect from fiction, from art?  Similarly, how much can we count on art to mirror our experience, and what can we learn from it about the experience of other people?


9780262019316I think Gabrielle Starr can help answer your questions. In her book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, Starr makes a more compelling argument about the power of art to change readers. Starr has collaborated with clinical neuroscientists at NYU, to using fMRI technology to examine what happens to people’s brains when they experience art. Starr is a literary critic–an agile and supple reader–so her involvement in this research has helped it avoid some of the pitfalls of overreaching conclusions and oddly skewed questions. Based on her blend of empirical research and literary analysis, Starr concludes that “the arts mediate our knowledge of the world around us by directing our attention, shaping perceptions, and creating dissonance or harmony where none had been before.” Sounds like Ryder, right? “What aesthetics thus gives us,” she continues, “is a restructuring of value.” We are Ryder!

Ryder’s bewildering quest puts him in the position of constantly revising his sense of what’s important—what he does or should value. This happens mostly in small ways, in response to minutiae. That’s true of reading. People like to say, “That book changed my life.” But most reading changes us in ways too subtle to notice. That may be why it’s so common to find big generalizations about the ways reading helps us “come to know who we are.” Ryder’s sense of who he never stops changing. And that’s true for all of us. In that sense, a book might help us become a slightly revised version of who we were yesterday, but it’s not going to stop us from becoming somebody slightly different tomorrow.


And tomorrow, too: We will still be Ryder.

Highly Recommened Reading


written by Seo-Young Chu November 3, 2017


I think everybody should read Seo-Young Chu’s brilliant invention of ways to live and think through sexual abuse, so I’m posting it here.

Read This! Let’s Get Him Out of Our Heads

In the current issue of The Nation, Jess Row writes about getting our President–a master of digital rhetoric–out of our heads:

This is a big deal, because we humans naturally absorb our environment and often inwardly rehash stuff we hear around us. In other words, what we take in from our surroundings influences our “inner speech,” the conversations we have with ourselves in the silence of our minds. According to psychology professor Charles Fernyhough, author of the acclaimed book The Voices Within, our inner speech is shaped by the social worlds we inhabit. “Other people’s words get into our heads,” he explains. We absorb an assortment of verbal cues from others and those cues turn out to influence the way we talk privately to ourselves.

I love that she cites Fernyhough’s book–and there’s a literary connection here, because literature is so much about hijacking our inner speech. I’m happy for Ralph Ellison or Jane Austen to colonize my mind. But I’m determined not to let this destructive, abusive, power hungry man do it. More than that, I don’t think we can fix this problem until we take Row’s idea seriously. The guy depends on us to let him dominate our thoughts and feelings. It’s the foundation of his power. Let’s expel him, first from our minds and then from government.

One Grand Books

It shows something about how the world is changing that one of the best—warmest, most inviting, most invigorating—bookstores I’ve experienced is just one tiny town over from where I live in the Catskills.

I can drive fifteen minutes and find Aaron Hicklin, owner and founder, manning the checkout counter. His idea is brilliant (and very twenty-first century). One Grand is an online project with a physical home in Narrowsburg, New York. Aaron invites public figures to share lists of ten books they love. He publishes the lists online, and you can buy them there. Most of the physical store is organized around shelves devoted to lists created by people like Justin Vivian Bond, Trevor Noah, Christopher Guest, Marianne Faithful, and Dev Hynes.

The store is tiny, packed with books, yet still manages to feel open and airy. The design is modern, but feels handcrafted. It blends in the history of the building—for example, the original tin ceilings. Downtown Narrowsburg sits on a cliff above the Delaware River, so if you look when you’re browsing, you see the river flowing, kayaks moving, maybe an eagle soaring. My friend Hilary, who used to own a toy store in the same space, sometimes subs for Aaron at the counter. Confession: I am jealous of Hilary and plan to lobby Aaron for a shift here and there.

I kind of can’t believe One Grand exists. When I’m there, I feel like I did before the Internet, browsing record and bookstores. You can still find some record and bookstores, but before the Internet, they were the only place to find records or books. So browsing needed to be leisurely. You had to explore. Once you left, you lost access. One Grand feels like that, a place that gets you to slow down and explore, slowly, at leisure, with pleasure.

Aaron is editor-in-chief of Out Magazine, so he does this intense job all week and then works in the store all weekend. He’s a marvel. You can feel his love for the place and the project. In his words, “I grew up in a village in England, and small-town bookstores sustained me through so many school vacations and family day trips—there was a kind of magic in losing myself in a bookshop for an hour that I wanted to replicate with One Grand Books. That’s why it had to be located in a small town where it could play the same role in the local community—a place for people to gather, to take their kids, for local authors—as the bookstores of my childhood. We are coming up on our second anniversary, and there’s still not part of it that I don’t love, from ordering the books, to planning the shelves, to chatting to our loyal customers. Although you don’t open a bookstore to get rich, there are rewards aplenty in being surrounded by books and book-loving people.”

Like the people who worked in those record and bookstores back in the day, he takes his time. Aaron seems to delight in long conversations with his customers, about what they’ve just read, what they’ve been meaning to read, what they should read. He knows the books, and he’s curious about the ones he hasn’t read yet.

One Grand hosted the first event for The One You Get. I got to read for an audience of urbane people who live, along with me, in a tiny, beautiful rural community—many of them beloved friends. When I was a kid, I thought I had to be in a city to find my people. Now I’ve found it in the country (a place not so different from the places I grew up).

When Aaron hosts a writer, he lays out a spread of cheese and wine. He does his homework. He hosts a party that feels like an easygoing salon. He’s poised and articulate. He asks pitch-perfect questions without a trace of pretension. He cares and he’s curious. That’s what you feel when you walk into One Grand Books. I love that place. I’m grateful for it.

Memory and Memoir

People ask me how I remember so much of my childhood? Part of the answer is that I have an obsessive memory. Some people respond to hardship and trauma by forgetting. Some doing it by remembering. Some with a confusing combination of both. Any of these responses can be therapeutic; any of them can be painful or destructive.

But that’s only part of the answer. Memories enable us to feel cohesive through time, connected to our pasts, to other people, to history. Memory is notoriously fallible, but that word only applies if you think the point of memory is accuracy. It really isn’t. The point of memory is that feeling of cohesion. Memories change with every recall. They’re primed and distorted by situations in the present. Memory need not be accurate to be functional—to help us cohere through time, to connect with people important to us, to stitch our lives into history.

Accuracy matters. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t. But it’s just not the primary function of memory—and it’s also an impossible dream. A memory doesn’t duplicate the past. It recreates it.

I had all this on my mind when I wrote The One You Get. I got into the habit of recreating memories—my own and those of other people. I’d think about the event, or scene, starting with what I knew about it. Then I’d imagine concrete details, in an almost meditative way, letting them come to me. I’d describe the details that felt right, the ones that helped me build what felt like a true reconstruction of what the memory felt like.

I wanted to get at a couple of types of truth. My family’s telling and retelling of our lore is one kind of truth. The stories change with the narrator and with time. It’s obvious they’ve strayed pretty far from any kind of literal past by the time we start hurling them across a table at Thanksgiving. But in the telling, we’re saying, “This is who we are.” We’re arguing about who we have been or might be. We’re making ourselves. The fantasies and ruminations we all carry with us as we move through life are another kind of truth about who we are. These are almost always solitary, unshared. I wanted to share some of mine.

I didn’t fabricate events in the memoir (though some are composites). The scenes I describe either happened to me, or happened to an intimate who told me stories about them. I figure my versions of these stories are as true as anybody else’s.

Memory is not so different from imagination, if you think about it. They commingle with just about every act of remembering or imagining. Every memoir is a remaking the past. Rather than avoid or work around that simple fact, I decided to play around with it.

Nanny, Who Was Also Midge, Who Was Also Jessie Magdalene


Jessie Magdalene MacDonnell
April 13, 1922 – October 1998

The MacDonnell house is average in size for Nova Scotia. Its two stories are chopped into six tiny bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and sitting room—a tight fit for Daniel, Bridget, and their thirteen children. Even the cliff on which the house teeters and the jagged cove below are standard. Scots who settled this spot three generations ago, the MacDonnells tend toward square jaws and pronounced noses, thick dark hair, narrow brows, and deep set eyes.

But their youngest, Jessie Magdalene, is different, more delicate, like she has been sculpted from the raw materials of MacDonnell genes, scraped and smoothed so that her jaw became a gentle curve rather than a point, her nose definitive but not obtrusive. Her hair is just as dark and thick as theirs, but its curls shine and bounce instead of tangling. Where their skin is rugged pale, hers is soft pink. The almost-transparent blue eyes they all share are inched forward on her brow, just enough to transform character into undeniable beauty. She is as quiet as the rest of them, but she lacks the physical stature that propels her parents and siblings through their world. Her way is less clear.

Jessie Magdalene, born three days earlier, on April 13, 1922, will grow up to be Midge. In 1960, a reporter from Coronet magazine writing a feature on her husband, jockey Ralph Neves, will say of her that, “caught off guard, her eyes are haunted.” She wasn’t born with the ghosts, but she had room for them in the empty space where what was carved out would have been.

One night that April, the house is dark, until the fire starts to blaze in one of the bedrooms, lighting the hall outside and even the kitchen at the other end in jittery oranges. A candle toppled onto the sheets of Alice’s bed, in the room she shares with her sister Florence. Daniel, a fisherman, is at sea. He hasn’t met his newest daughter. By the time Florence is able to find Bridget, pluck her infant sister’s lips from her breast, and get back to Alice’s room, there is so much fire they can’t see the bed. Alice is unmistakably there, among the flames, but nobody hears her scream. The eleven remaining kids form an assembly line, filling pots of water, carting them from the kitchen, and dousing Alice’s bed. After twenty minutes of this, the fire is out, but Alice is dead. The smoke killed her, and her charry body makes it hard to believe she hasn’t suffered. If pain is extreme enough, Bridget heard a priest say once, it tries the soul. Such trials separate the saints from the sinners. At thirteen, Alice was the third child. Now Jessie Magdalene is the youngest of twelve.

Two nights later, Daniel’s ship is navigating the mouth of the harbor, when a twelve-year-old apprentice on deck sharpening knives spots what he will later describe as a night rainbow emerging from the MacDonnell house. “Come quick,” he calls the other seven members of the crew, “come quick.” It turns out there is no hurry. The tunnel of ethereal light swirls and glitters like God for a solid two hours while the crew lets the little ship drift. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Daniel says, “you can’t tell if it begins in Heaven and spills into my house or the other way round.”

Daniel doesn’t find out the night rainbow was Alice’s soul until he arrives home. When he meets his new daughter, he can see a glint of the swirling tunnel in her eyes. Some of that ether spilled into them, planting a playful eeriness. Jessie Magdalene discovers her fate. She will carry whatever haunts other people.


This is a deleted scene from my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism.

The Trouble with Reality

Some days I wish Oprah could be President for a few weeks, just so she could lead a national book club, stealthily getting the entire population to read the same book at the same time. Today, I hope she’d begin with Brook Gladstone’s The Trouble with Reality. It’s an easy read, short and full of insight that would provoke plenty of debate.

The book is Gladstone’s attempt to make sense of feeling of unreality so many people in the U.S. have been experiencing since November. Unreal, man, my hippie uncles used to say. Back then, it meant something positive, world-changing in a good way. Now, it’s a feeling of being unmoored in a world where Twitter rants substitute public policy, where Obama’s sober leadership is upended by a swirl of threats, attacks, and a general aim to create chaos. But world-changing–good or bad–is disorienting. Hard to deal with. That’s part of Gladstone’s argument.

Gladstone’s  book is like an elaboration on Obama’s comment to his daughters after the election:

Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.

Beliefs, attitudes, feelings, commitments. We all have them. But we shouldn’t be too smug about how we came to have them. Gladstone quotes the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “Every man takes the limits of his own understanding for the limits of the world.” It’s probably inevitable that we’ll do this. It certainly reflects the divisiveness and anger of the political environment we’re living in. But can we sometimes get beyond the limits of our own understanding? Can we spend a chunk of our lives not mistaking our own perspectives for reality? Gladstone thinks so, or hopes so. If she has a thesis, it’s that living organisms are messy. We’ve got to acknowledge our own little messes and try to look at them in relation to the bigger mess.

“Stereotyping is like eating,” she writes. It’s “an act essential to our well-being. And like eating, there is an unhealthy tendency to overindulge. For this disorder there are no sure cures, and most treatments are deeply unpleasant.” Stereotypes are categories, she explains, and we use them to make sense of the world, to create worldviews that make us feel safe. And “tinkering with your universe” is “a nauseating enterprise.”

But we’re organisms who can survive substantial doses of nausea. The guy in the White House is very good at manipulating reality. (I’m not using his name because this is a digital forum, and we live in a universe of digital algorithms that translate numbers into value.) He’s good at lying and saying, loudly, that he’s reclaiming truth. He’s not alone in this, of course. He’s a product of a cultural shift away from shared Truth with a capital “T.” Even aside from him, people need strategies for thinking with about truth–from straight-up facts to contingent beliefs. We need them when we build reality.

Gladstone asks us to consider the idea that we can’t take credit for all our beliefs and commitments. She asks her readers to consider ourselves as organisms, invoking my favorite biological concept–the umwelt, “the idea that different animals living on the same patch of earth experience utterly disparate realities.” This is certainly true for bats, mosquitoes, dolphins, and humans. But it’s also true within a species, as much for humans as for bats. We experience utterly disparate realities, influenced largely by forces we’re not aware of. They happen to us, through history and biology and politics and art and family and religion and books. Most of what we believe or think happens outside consciousness. If you want to read more about this, I suggest N. Katherine Hayles super smart book Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Unconscious.

I don’t want to be preachy, but I might go that way here for a moment. If we accept the humbling idea that none of us is an architect of Reality with a captial “R,” then we can think about our daily actions and our responses to threats to what we think is or should be real. My personal feeling is that our current President wants us shouting at each other, shaming each other, forcing stereotypes on each other. I believe any successful resistance will require us not to fall for his manipulation. Gladstone writes, “We breed infinite realities and they never can be reconciled. We cannot full enter someone else’s. But if we really look, we might actually see that other reality reflected in that person’s eyes and therein lies the beginning of the end of our reality problem.”

But that sounds abstract. What does it mean for living? I can’t claim to have some big solution, but I can imagine a couple of strategies that help.

  • First, in daily life, take time to listen with compassion. Be interested in people’s differences. Respect them. Act accordingly. Listen.
  • Second, take care with how we spread information through digital media. For example, when the President tweets that he’s going to kick trans people out of the military or ban Muslim people from entering the U.S., don’t mistake this for policy. Notice that he’s manipulating us. He wants us to take the bait. Instead, think about the people, institutions, and bureaucracies that offer hurdles that make it really hard for a tweet to become a law. Support those hurdles. Do what you can to prop them up.
  • In general, pause before acting, or re-acting. Take stock, of the shocking information that slams you so many days and of your response to it. How does it make you feel? Is this how you want to feel? How do your feelings motivate your actions? What do you want to do?
  • Make things that are the change you want to see: organizations, events, art, policy–whatever it is you’re good at.
  • Read Gladstone’s book. Read books written by people who know what they’re talking about, are struggling to figure it out in earnest, and admit what they don’t or can’t know.

Remember you’re an organism and breathe. Breathing is important–every bit as important as thinking or arguing. This guy wants us all in a panic, and he wants to think are differing beliefs are the source of the panic. But that’s a lie. He lies. I refuse to let him be the source of my panic. I have plenty of other catalysts for my panic–more deserving ones, like melting glaciers and deer ticks and police killing innocent black people because they represent a history of realities that scare us all. Resting is important too.

Of course, we should stand up for our commitments and beliefs. We should fight and protest and write our representatives and insist on policy that demonstrates respect, fairness, and justice for all of us. (I don’t believe this is really possible, but it’s an ideal to strive for.)

Who knows where things will go from here? One thing we can all agree on is that the world is unpredictable. Oh, shit: I did it. I just mistook my worldview for reality. Plenty of people are sure they know where the world is going. I do not. I hope we’ll get through this and onto a chapter in U.S. history that involves more mutual respect, a deep valuing of the diversity of people who make it, and a reckoning with the violence upon which it’s built.

In the meantime, I’m determined to tinker with my reality by focusing on people and ideas I respect. I also have a thesis: We will not understand our political world fully if we don’t consider what it means that people are organisms, that each of our belief systems and actions are shaped by the limits of our umwelt. We tinker with our realities, but we don’t make them.

The One You Get

I got advance copies this week! Soon, the book will be in the world. I guess it’s partway in the world now. Baby steps. I’m excited.

The launch party will be September 12, 8 pm at The Red Room at KGB in New York. I’ll read for a very short time. There will be great music and delicious cocktails. I’ll sign books. But mostly we’ll have fun.

“Jason Tougaw’s intelligent, funny, and deeply moving memoir is that rare thing: the story of a family that is at once particular and universal. The variously wild, tender, deluded, suffering, incorrigible, and resilient people who are so vividly portrayed in this book are nothing if not idiosyncratic. At the same time, this story of a boy growing up in California during the years of a waning counter culture deftly incorporates sophisticated reflections on the brain science of human memory and development and the ongoing mystery of why some of us survive a chaotic and brutal childhood and others don’t.” –Siri Hustvedt, author of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women



Political Organisms

My ears perked up when I read that Barack Obama was talking to his daughters about what it means to think about humans (and voters) as organisms. New York Magazine‘s Gabriella Paiella asked him what he tells his daughters about the election of Donald Trump:

“What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated … This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop … You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

It’s messy. I think what he’s saying is that our biology expresses itself in culture–and vice versa. We may all have “flare-ups of bigotry,” emerging from our bodies. We’re responsible for the flare-ups. We might have to vanquish them. Notice the President’s rhetorical stance here. His language suggests we’re all organisms, all part of the problem and the solution, culpable and redeemable. Sort of like characters in Jane Austen.

Or Ralph Ellison. In 2008, David Samuels wrote in the New Republic about the influence of  Ellison’s Invisible Man on The President. Interestingly, the novel opens with a description of its protagonist as a human organism:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison’s narrator is flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids–the materials of self. He is also a person with a mind others can’t see. They project images onto him. Some of the projections stick, particularly in a novel about the foundation of racism upon with the United States is built. President Obama is, like all of us, flesh, bone, fiber, and liquids. As our first African American President, he’s experienced his share of our projections times a zillion.

I think the President is talking about humans as organisms in order to ask us to check our projections–and to be a little forgiving of each other’s fiber and liquids. Voting in Donald Trump was a mistake, and now the President asks his daughters to take responsibility for that, to fight for kindness, respect, and understanding. The fight will take many forms, and those forms will depend on what happens in terms of policy. The rhetoric matters, but it can be really distracting.

I think The President is also asking us to consider how the rhetoric enfolds us. I think he’s reminding us of one of the lessons we university professors impress on our students: Avoid generalizations.

White workers feel neglected. Feminists failed Hilary Clinton. African Americans are disenchanted with the Democratic Party. Anybody who voted for Trump is racist. Millennials want revolution. Bernie Sanders supporters are naive. Latino voters will clinch it for Clinton. The media is biased (in whatever direction). Americans are worse than we thought. Americans are the greatest people on earth. 

Claims about groups of people–as monoliths–are swirling in American culture just now. They are headlines and topic sentences and tweets. They scare and dishearten. They compel people to project each other through mirrors of hard, distorting glass. I could reel off a dozen reasons I believe electing Donald Trump was a serious mistake, but you’ve heard these already. What I won’t do is hypothesize about why it happened. I don’t know. I do know that voters are organisms too. Organisms change in response to their environment. Human organisms recoil when they see projections of themselves that look like caricature. Recoiling is a pause in the preparation for battle. In the case of our current political divides, these are often petty, circular battles on social media.

I guess what I’m saying, following The President’s lead, is that we’re more likely to create an environment conducive to respect and understanding if we avoid the generalizations (and name calling). It’s hard for billions of people to figure out how to organize the world so we may live together with some semblance of justice. We don’t do a great job. Justice tends to elude us. When we achieve it, it’s partial–and often leads to new forms of injustice. The institutions in Invisible Man–schools, activist organizations, neighborhoods, factories–are all flawed. They are made by people (well, characters) who have at best partial understandings of the motives and actions that ooze from their fiber and liquid bodies, through their minds, and all over other people.

I don’t think we understand ourselves or the culture we share any better than the characters in Invisible Man do. But we are all narrating the culture, in our daily lives, through our work, on our social media. I think it’s worth seeing what happens if we resist generalizations and monolithic thinking. What might the culture become if we do?

LuxRd Has a Message for Us

On election eve, Lux Rd. springs their new video, “Get Your Fucking Hope Back” (directed by James Matthew Daniel). If the medium is the message, it seems like there’s something here about reimagining what it means to be human–because the models we’ve been working with seem to be making us miserable. Here’s to reimagination! Also, love those move, those dancers, that creepy milk, and the sexy opening and closing images.

Club Zu

club zu

Creepie ghoulies and New Romantics share the love outside Club Zu in Solana Beach, California.

Hips wave and duck. Arms move in unison, right to left, fists gently closed, like they’re pulling a big lever. When the chorus comes, You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record baby, several dancers interrupt the lever pulling for a brief miming of a record turning, palm down, on cue, right round round round. Kelsey, the nineteen-year-old owner of Club Zu, is on stage, next to a guy in a cape with a skeleton dangling from his ear, its arm looped through the ring in his nose. He waves his arms like a snake charmer, legs together, swaying. Kelsey wears red plaid pants, a black sweater, and black boots. His hair is black and stands up straight off his head. He seems to be looking at nothing, like he’s too inside the music to notice all these people who’ve come to his club from all over San Diego County in their newest outfits, hair freshly dyed, debuting their latest make-up concepts.

I’m eyeing Kelsey’s two friends, who round out the trio of what I consider the coolest people on earth. Tara is tall, pale, lush, the biggest and most gorgeous goth girl here. Her hair is black, with royal blue roots, eyes pale blue, black eyebrows, lips royal with black liner, diamond in her nose. Brian is tiny next to her, with a crimped copper bob, black eyeliner, no lipstick, brocade vest, pegged black wool pants. They’re friends with The Thompson Twins, who hang out here whenever they’re in town for a show.

As Dead or Alive fades into the intro to Visage’s “Fade to Grey,” I hear Paul tell somebody, “this is the twelve-inch.” One man on a lonely platform. One case sitting by his side. I can’t help staring at Kelsey and his friends. “You want to be introduced?” Shannon asks. “You think Kelsey’s cute?” I do, but that’s not it. I want to be them. I adjust the dangling rhinestones in my ear and feel sticky wet behind my lobe. Paul pierced my ear before we caught the bus to the coast, with a needle and rubbing alcohol. He told me to wear the stainless steel stud he had from when he got his pierced at the mall, but I was dying to wear my new rhinestones. We’re pretending we don’t care that we don’t have a ride home.

“We’re going outside,” Paul whispers in my ear as I fiddle with it, “as soon as the song ends.” Wishing life wouldn’t be so dull. Pull, wave, duck, charm, bend, sway.

“Okay, come on,” Paul says, hooking arms with a tiny girl I’ve never seen, but whose rold model is clealry Siouxsie. “I heard Steve Strange has AIDS,” she says as we squeeze through the waving ducking swaying bending crowd. She’s talking about Visage’s singer.

“Really?” I ask. I’m excited to a degree that verges on panic. His new friend brought up the subject that scares me the most. I don’t tell anybody, but I think about AIDS periodically each day, tracing imagined sexual histories for any guy who’s had sex with any guy I’ve made out with. And any guy Paul has. If I’ve got, he does. And vice versa. I don’t know anybody with HIV yet. It will be several years before I’ll have friends who die from AIDS. But this is the beginning of ten years of panic.

“It’s the rumor in London,” she says. I have no idea, at fifteen, that I’m even more afraid of the people I want to be, like Paul’s new friend, who seems to carry rumors across the Atlantic, who drops casual remarks about the health of New Romantic stars I stare at on record covers and videos. If I want all this so badly, why does it freak me out so much?

Thankfully, Warren and Tiffany interrupt my angsty Visage fueled reverie. Theylank us, with two short girls with shaved heads. “Let’s go.” No time for thinking. We’ve known Tiffany since grade school. Now she’s got a mowhawk, and she and Warren are an item. We follow.

“Where are we going?” I ask, regretting the question and feeling like a dork.

“Just come on,” Warren says, patting his back pocket.

We follow him down the alley behind the club. There are some concrete steps with grass growing pretty high out of the cracks, leading to a path along the cliff, where you can climb down to the beach. We can hear waves smashing on the shore below. Warren sits on the steps, surrounded by girls. Tiffany climbs to the top. She and Warren haven’t held hands or kissed all night. The rest of us fill in around the steps. Warren takes a lighter and pipe out of his pocket, digs around some more and pulls out his pot. “Yum,” he says, holding the baggy up to the light from the street lamp, flicking the pot with his index finger and watching it bounce and settle. “Sticky bud. Hawaiian.”

Every now and then Warren starts talking like this, flaunting the collision of his full lips painted red and the surfer boy words coming out of them.

Warren fills the pipe gently, careful to rub the sticky bud into dust without losing any. He lights, sucks, breathes in, hands the pipe to Emily, who lights, sucks, breathes, hands the pipe to Scratch. “Oh yeah,” Warren says, breathing out a cloud of smoke, filling the air with the smell of my mom’s parties. “That’s it,” he says. Somehow, filtered through Warren’s lungs and clinging to the salt in the air, the dense sweet smell seems to have lost all traces of my mom, her boyfriends, my uncles, or their friends. This may be the same pot hippies and metalheads smoke, but it manages to smell like new wave.

Paul takes a hit. He lights, sucks, breathes, hands the pipe to me. I hold it to my mouth and flick the lighter. The flame burns my thumb. I have trouble keeping it lit long enough to burn the pot, but I’m determined. I suck in a cloud of smoke as Paul spurts one out, coughing, laughing. “I can’t stop,” he laughs. “I can’t stop.”

“You didn’t get a hit,” Warren say, hopping off the steps and reaching for the pipe. “Let me help.” He snaps the lighter and tells me to suck. I cough. Paul laughs. Warren and Tiffany laugh. I laugh through more coughs, afraid I might throw up. My ear throbs. There’s a scab growing around the fastener at the back of my lobe, gluing the heavy rhinestones in place. But I got a hit. I’m high, like Warren, with Warren. “Let’s dance,” he says. “Put on your red shoes,” putting his arm around me, lighting the pipe, sucking, and then blowing the smoke into my mouth, grazing my lips.

“I’m so stoned,” Paul says as we walk. “Oh my god, I feel like I’m floating.” I’m not sure if I feel anything or not, but Warren’s lips almost just touched mine.

“Floating on a cloud of love,” Warren says.

“Oh my god, could you be any more of a cliché?” Paul says.

When we show our stamps and re-enter, Kelsey and his friends are dancing to “Collapsing New People” by Fad Gadget. We duck and wave to blend in, sway and bend with the crowd to Soft Cell, Heaven 17, Haysi Fantayzee, Cee Farrow, Blancmange, The Human League, Fashion.

At the stroke of two a.m., the lights come up and the dancers shield their eyes in imitation of Vampires stranded under a rising sun. “I hate to say goodbye,” Kelsey announces over the sound system, “but you creepy ghoulies have to go out into the night. Before the lights melt your foundation.” People pretend not to smile as they circle each other out the door, onto the sidewalk, into cars. Scratch has a car, but it’s full.

“Let’s hit the beach,” Warren says. “Watch the sun rise. First bus is 5:41.”

We follow him up the concrete stairs, seven ride-less, beach-bound stragglers in melting foundation. We have to navigate wobbly stairs with rope for banisters down the cliff.  We feel around in the dark with our feet for a spot without rocks or seaweed. We sit, stars above us beaming just enough light to see the sand particles creeping into our velvet, spandex, lace, and wool. We can hear the waves and just see their froth.  Warren lights the pipe, making his face glow. His lips are puffy, sucking, his eyes almost transparent they’re so light.

“It’s so fuckin’ cold,” Paul says. We all have our arms wrapped around our torsos.

“Let’s cozy up for body warmth,” Warren says, shaking out a shiver. We huddle, a line of beached newros. “Pot will help.” I close my eyes and pretend to sleep while the rest of them light, suck, and breathe, until I really am sleeping, inside a dewy sweet cloud.

I wake warmer, sun on my face, one of the girls shaking me. “You have to see this,” she says, pointing to the glowing pink sun over the cliff, ascending the lavender sky. “Look at the sun,” she says. The pink glows oranger by the second. It’s almost striped: bubblegum pink, red-orange, pure orange. There’s an L-shaped speck of black toward the bottom, like dust on a camera lens.

“It’s a sun spot,” Paul says, sounding encyclopedic, as usual. “It’s probably fucking up satellite communications. The fog’s making it so we can look with the naked eye.” Periwinkle waves lap tan sand at our backs while we watch, their white froth invisible now, canceled out by the white dawn bleaching the sky and sand.

I have no way of knowing it, but Steve Strange will be alive in 2013, releasing a new Visage record. Robert Smith, Siouxsie, and Duran Duran will all still be making records. I will be alive. For now, my earlobe is all scab, the blood caking the edges of the rhinestone poking through it. I taste my finger after fiddling with it, and it’s kind of like licking the ocean.


From the manuscript of my memoir, The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (represented by Carrie Howland at Donadio & Olson).


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