Lou’s Records

There is no cooler place than Lou’s Records in 1985. Not anywhere. We could flip through these records until infinity.

I like a slow flip, so I can really feel the soft tap of the thick plastic Lou’s puts on every record. I’m looking for David Sylvian records, and I know the real supply is waiting in Imports, but there’s a lot to learn at Lou’s. They’re playing The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, have been since we came in. I recognize my dissatisfaction in Morrissey’s wail the second I hear it. “A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand.” There are posters and album covers papering every inch of wall space, and right now Hatful of Hollow is displayed in the center of the ceiling, pasted over posters of The Cure, Social Distortion, Haysi Fantayzee, Everything But the Girl, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Dead Kennedys, Fad Gadget. It’s a huge light blue poster, with a simple square near the bottom containing a black and white photo of a handsome but weary man-boy with a messy fifties fade and wifebeater.

I get to the plastic divider with The Smiths written in blocky blue magic marker. There are only two LPs here, Meat Is Murder and The Smiths, with their blocky type, black and white images of shirtless boys and reluctant soldiers. I can see the record cover sitting on the Now Playing shelf, so I know this is it. It should be here.

I can see Shannon talking to the girl behind the counter with the black bob, the side pinned back with a tortoise shell barrette, the pale skin, powder making her freckles seem transparent, and silver ring in her nose. She’s wearing a white t-shirt, black cardigan, and pleated plaid mini-skirt with black tights. Shannon is a girl we met through Amy Buzick, at the Carlsbad Mall, and though we don’t know how long she’s been Newro, she wears it like it’s been years. She’s sixteen, but she’s not afraid to talk to a girl like this, who is at least 19, works at Lou’s, and has clearly passed through the phase we’re in and come out the other side much cooler and at ease with her look. “I’m looking for the remix of ‘You Spin Me Round’ by Dead or Alive,” Shannon says. “The import version.”

“We had two copies,” she says, without looking up from the records she’s pricing, “but we sold them.”

“Do you know when you’ll get more?” she asks.

“Maybe Tuesday.” The pink stone in Shannon’s nose glinting two feet away from the black-bobbed girl’s silver ring sums up the differences between them: spiked and matted white and pink mess to shiny black bob; crisp white t-shirt and soft cardigan to tatty old lady’s silk blouse with puffy sleeves; knee-length army issue wool skirt (even though it’s eighty-nine degrees out) to pleated mini, Doc Marten boots to platform patent leather shoes. This girl is out of our league, but Shannon behaves as though she believes strongly that she’s got what it takes to be drafted.

Paul’s got his arms full of import Cure records. Tiffany, a girl we know from elementary school who just moved back with her head shaved all around except for long nearly white bangs hanging in front of her face, is holding records we would never buy: Social Distortion, Dead Kennedys, Christian Death. I’ve chosen David Sylvian’s solo record, Brilliant Trees and Japan’s live album Oil on Canvas. The Smiths record has finished, and the guy behind the counter, fat with a green Mohawk and multiple rings through his eyebrows, is putting something else on: Ministry. Paul looks up. He loves Ministry.

There’s a cute guy in Import T. He’s got flame red hair, brown skin like maybe he’s Mexican under the make up, and blue plaid pants with a sleeveless mesh black t-shirt, and big army boots. He’s probably 18. I want to squeeze into Import S, but I settle for M and wait. I flip and read: Madness, glance out of the corner of my eye at the boy. Flip, read: Magazine, glance. Flip, read: Meat Puppets, glance. Flip, read: Mink De Ville, glance. He’s leafing very slowly through the Rs and moving onto the S section, so slowly you don’t even hear the plastic tap: Modern English, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Q-Feel. Glancing.

When the cute guy finally moved to U, I can safely make a leap to S. I flip to the end first, to Sylvian, and there’s what I want: The 12” single of “The Ink in the Well,” whose cover folds out into a free poster of David Sylvian lying in a dark room like he’s in an enlightened coma. I add it to the records in my pile, and flip back, slowly enough to make it look like I’m really reading every record, until I get to The Smiths. I see the light blue spine first, behind to 7” singles, mounted on cardboard, then the black and white photo. The record cover is thick. It folds out. I pluck it and look up. Green Mohawk is turning Ministry over. Paul is nodding along to it, deep in Import G. I back up and look at 12”s by The Smiths They belong to the same black-and-white, blocky-typed universe of sad and pretty men struggling with their feelings under dreary English skies. “What Difference Does it Make?” features a smiling guy in a cardigan toasting with a glass of milk and “How Soon Is Now” a guy sitting on the edge of his bed in his underwear, dark hair mussed, face in his palm.

Tiffany and Shannon are at the register. I follow them there. “Paul,” Tiffany says. “Speed it up.”

“Almost,” Paul says, finishing the Gs.

Shiny black bob rings each of us up, recording the title, ISBN, and record label of each purchase. Shannon’s got all 12” singles. She’s known for being a good dancer. Tiffany has all hardcore. I have Japan and David Sylvian and The Smiths. Paul has all Cure, most of it early, all of it import. Black bob documents it all without smiling or glaring or showing any response or judgment. I almost wish she would so I’d know what she thinks or likes.

“Let’s walk to the beach and look at the records,” I suggest when we get out onto the sidewalk.

“I have to meet my sister,” Shannon says, not offering where or how. We all know her sister April is 18 and has a car and a punk boyfriend. Shannon disappears down the sidewalk and the rest of us walk the block and a half to the beach, where we sit in our heavy clothes and slide our records from their plastic. People are packing up, dragging their towels past us, shaking their heads at our inappropriate choice of dress. The sun wobbles over the horizon, turning orange.

“What time is it?” Tiffany asks. We don’t have watches, so we can’t say. “Excuse me,” she says to the family of four passing with their picnic basket, “Do you have the time?”

“5:45,” the mom says.

“Fuck,” Tiffany says, loud. The family of four speeds up. “I’m so fucking dead. My mom said I had to be home by 6 no matter what.” The mom and dad whisper to each other and turn the corner.

We slide our records back in plastic, fumble with our bags, sink our boots through sand, climb the steps to the street, and walk our fastest to the corner, where the bus stops. We want the No. 19 bus, which runs directly from K-Mart in Escondido to the Encinitas corner where Lou’s is.

“We just missed the 5:49,” Paul informs us.

“Don’t they run every half hour?” I ask.

“Not after six. It’s every hour now.”

“So we have to wait until 6:49?” Tiffany asks. “I’m a corpse.”

“Let’s find a pay phone,” I say. “Who has quarters?”

“I have some bad news,” Paul says.

“What?” I ask.

“It skips an hour. The next bus is at 7:49.”

“That gets us home at, like, 9,” I say.

“Fuck,” Tiffany says. “I’m a corpse.”


This is a deleted scene from The One You Get: Portrait of a Family Organism (Dzanc Books)

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



A Single Man’s Brain

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) is a story of a grieving organism. George, its protagonist, is a professor bereft after the death of partner Jim. His grieving is solitary. The homophobia of his world curtails communal mourning rituals. In response, he narrates himself in ecological terms, as an organism, his brain and body commingling with an environment fundamentally changed by the loss of his most intimate companion. George lives on the margins of social life, but he’s intimate with biological life.

Isherwood (right), with his friends Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender. He was a social creature, not a solitary one like George.

In that sense, A Single Man is a precursor to 21st-century neuronovels like Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, or Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Isherwood opens the novel with George waking uneasily into consciousness, his brain almost bullying him into reluctant action:

Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deducted I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until—later or sooner—no, not perhaps—quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.

But meanwhile the cortex, the grim disciplinarian, has taken place at the central controls and has been testing them, one after another: the legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. And now, over the entire intercommunication system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP.

The subjectless am and now of the first sentence indicate a fringe state on the cusp of awareness, evolving fairly quickly into a feeling of identity in time (similar to the key scene from Powers’s The Echo Maker, when Mark Schluter wakes from coma). The narrator is reluctant to resume a life, or an identity, whose meaning is so strongly defined by Jim’s death. Like so many more recent neuronovels, Isherwood portrays George’s brain with agency: His fear of living “tweaks the vagus” nerve. His cortex is a “grim disciplinarian” that manipulates his body and issues commands. His body is an “intercommunication system.”

George wrestles with his brain throughout the novel. He worries that his students see him as “a severed head carried into the classroom to lecture to them from a dish.” He laments that they “don’t want to know about my feelings or my glands or anything below the neck.” As he tries to sleep, “the brain inside the skull on the pillow cognizes darkly”—enabling him to consider “decisions not quite made,” decisions “waking George” can’t face. When he sleeps, “All over this quietly pulsating vehicle the skeleton crew make their tiny adjustments. As for what goes on topside, they know nothing of this but danger signals, false alarms mostly: red lights flashed from the panicky brain stem, curtly contradicted by green all clears from the level-headed cortex. But now the controls are on automatic. The cortex is drowsing; the brain stem registers only an occasional nightmare.”

The novel ends with his quiet death, from a stroke: “Cortex and brain stem are murdered in the blackout with the speed of an Indian strangler. Throttled out of its oxygen, the heart clenches and stops. The lungs go dead, their power line cut. All over the body, the arterials contract.” Isherwood narrates George as an organism, using the language of physiology for a double effect, creating both clinical distance and bodily intimacy. George’s thoughts and feelings aren’t enough. We need to get inside his body to understand his grief.

In his essay “Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief” (2004), James Krasner draws on neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran’s research on phantom limbs and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories of embodied identity to make an argument about grief in literary works by Woolf, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, David Wills, and Mark Doty. One of his central observations, that “grieving people also find themselves in an unaccommodating physical environment, in which the absence of the beloved’s body changes their habitual motions through space,” could come straight from a review of Isherwood’s novel (published forty years before Krasner’s essay).

Krasner argues that literary portraits of grief suggest that people who share each other’s lives—spouses, partners, parents, siblings, caretakers—become part of each other’s bodily identities, what Merleau-Ponty calls “body-schema.” He enlists Ramachandran’s research to argue that “phantom limb pain occurs when the limb feels abnormally present although it is abnormally absent. . . . Literary portrayals of grief that emphasize embodiment present the bereaved with compromised bodies, stumbling or contorting as they fail to adjust to the physical postures and environments their losses have left to them.”

Again, Isherwood’s novel seems to anticipate Krasner’s argument. His description of George and Jim’s relationship is thick with descriptions of the two men’s bodies inhabiting each other’s identities:

Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small place, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love—think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them! The doorway into the kitchen has been built too narrow. Two people in a hurry, with plates of food in their hands, are apt to keep colliding here. And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge—as though the track had disappeared down a landside. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.

He stands quite still, silent, or at most uttering a brief animal grunt, as he waits for the spasm to pass. Then he walks into the kitchen. These morning spasms are too painful to be treated sentimentally. After them, he feels relief, merely. It is like getting over a bad attack of cramp.

Isherwood directs readers, quite explicitly—“Think of two people”—to imagine the physicality of daily intimacy, but also that physicality’s capacity to crawl through the explanatory gap between the biology of cells and the experiences of sensation, emotion, feeling, and thought. Jostling and colliding become conduits of identity. Isherwood’s narrator adopts something like what sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor calls an “intercorporeal perspective.” George’s problem is not simply his loss, but also his internalization of homophobia, which prevents him from sharing the pain of his physical and emotional loss with others.

Technically—socially—George is single. George is single because he can’t marry, can’t be widowed. But his life with Jim, the marriage of their identities, trumps social strictures. In a chapter of The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (2016), Pitts-Taylor examines biological research on kinship through the lens of queer theory. Much of the kinship research focuses on hormones as mechanisms of attachment, but Pitts-Taylor argues that the evidence in this research warrants reconsideration: Prairie voles are not as monogamous as the research once suggested; hormones may be involved in human attachments, but they don’t create or define them.

Instead, she concludes, like Isherwood, that “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship. The transformation of bodies as they live with and toward others is a kind of relatedness that ought to be recognized. For humans, at least, such relatedness is also discursive, historical, and political.” Throughout the book, Pitts-Taylor re-examines neuroscience research and theory, teasing out its cultural and political implications, looking for what she calls “chances for life that are at stake in our attempts to frame and understand” human bodies in neurobiological terms. When it comes to kinship, strictly reductionist theories suggest limited possibilities for life when they assume heterosexual drives define what counts as kinship. They restrict “chances for life” for a character like George.

Isherwood’s novel ends with George’s death, but it’s not a gloomy tale about a man dying of grief. George finds chances for life while he grieves—and Isherwood is careful not to portray this as a contradiction, but as a nuance, or in Pitts-Taylor’s terms, a “queerer possibility” for what it means to be a human organism. During one scene, George drives around Los Angeles, observing Christmas shoppers “crowd the stores and sidewalks,” noting how these same crowds “were cramming the markets, buying the shelves bare of beans” during the Cuban missile crisis. George sees himself both apart from and a part of these people he calls “The Majority.” As Isherwood writes, “George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures.” Instead, he responds to their creaturely behavior with philosophical ebullience: “I am alive, he says to himself, I am alive! And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight, and appetite. How good to be in a body—even this old beat-up carcass—that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh!”

Later, he revels bodysurfing at night with Kenny, one of his students. Just before the final scene in which he goes to sleep, not realizing he’ll die before he wakes, he masturbates, “thinking of Kenny: The blood throbs deep down in George’s groin. The flesh stirs and swells up, suddenly hard hot. The pajamas are pulled off, tossed out of bed.” As a character, George struggles with homophobia and grief, but his narrator, with his “intercorporeal perspective,” represents his body’s ability both to merge with and defy the social structures that curtail his chances for life.

If the merging of bodies is central to Isherwood’s novel, it’s not limited strictly to human bodies, or even biological ones. The novel’s most famous scene features George contemplating tide pools at the beach on the night he will die:

Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness—so to speak—are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures co-exist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And throughout the day the ebb tide, they know no other.

The tide pools are an explicit metaphor for consciousness. George’s body—with its “skeleton crew”—is akin to the rocks, holding his identity together. The pools, sloshing over with life forms, are akin to physical, phenomenological, and social components of his identity. They splash into others; the sea splashes into them; the tide goes out, and they evaporate. If A Single Man is a proto-neuronovel, it’s one that suggests that one man’s physical body, like the pools, is alive with “queerer possibilities” than his world recognizes. By implication, the same must be true for The Majority. Isherwood’s sly move, in 1964, was to cast George as an allegorical figure, a representative of the variety of humans, queer creatures like him, intercorporeal and sparkling with undiscovered secrets.

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?

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