Here, the finale to my 2011 in reading series. It’s just in time for me to attempt getting my 2012 in reading up in time for the new year. If you haven’t read them yet, you’ll want to start with Part 1 and Part 2.
In this instalment:
- Kiss Me, Genius Boy
- Sophie’s Choice
- Cat’s Cradle
- How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Post Office
- Journey Without Goal
- The Zen of Steve Jobs
- The Little Prince
- A Clash of Kings
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
September: It begins again
Kiss Me, Genius Boy
I was back to being, as the gamesters say, an Average Frustrated Chump. Alone and looking once more for love, with time on my hands I finished off Kiss Me Genius Boy, and published it on Kindle on 10 September 2011, just five days after my thirtieth birthday. I’d rushed it onto the Amazon store so I could send a copy to a girl called Jess who I met in a bar, who gave me her email address and told me her porn name, if she had one, would be Destiny Supernova.
Jess never replied to my email. By now, such a thing never surprises.
Some very long time ago, I had thought that writing novels would impress girls. I have since learned this is a very bad way to go about attracting women. First, writing novels means spending hundreds of hours indoors at your keyboard, alone. When you are single this means you do not meet girls, and when you are with one it means she often feels neglected (especially if she herself is not, alas, a reader). Second, in most cases you don’t make any money to speak of from it. Third, books aren’t terribly cool or admired anymore. And fourth, if you’re aiming to impress girls they probably shouldn’t start out with sex scenes investigating the relationship of your semi-autobiographical character with his nymphomaniac fuck-buddy.
I write stuff that’s irreverent and emotionally raw, and I do it for the reason that I think it’s important to understand that we are not alone in our lowest moments–there is laughter there, at the bottom of the abyss, and the solidarity of knowing that we’re all in this together. But for someone you’ve just met (especially if you’re asking girls in bars for their contact details and promising to send them a copy)–this work is easily misunderstood.
Le sigh, as my friend Hannah Stanley would say. But very likely, my writing had nothing to do with Jess’s lack of reply. It’s just the old story: guy meets girl, asks for contact details, gets them, contacts girl, never hears from her again. There is absolutely nothing unusual or discouraging about this: most of the time, when you meet a girl you like, she either doesn’t like you or the timing is wrong, and it’s got nothing to do with you at all.
Being single sent me on new reading adventures, as my internet-dating experiences of writing letters to strange, intellectual girls tends to involve discussions of favorite books. Internet dating for me, I should say, is probably the modern equivalent of Morrissey’s “writing frightening verse to a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg” (Ask Me, 1987). I should probably go out and walk the streets of Manchester or something, instead of pouring my heart into those profiles and letters.
But they are journeys of their own, and led me to read, among other things. First up was Sophie’s Choice (William Styron, 1979), the favorite book of a half-Jewish 19-year-old who messaged me on OkCupid. While I was still in the glorious first chapter I ran around telling people Sophie’s Choice was “hilarious,” and “so entertaining.” Later, I realized my mistake: a book that deals so much with the holocaust could hardly be less than harrowing. And still it is exceptionally good, even if “entertaining” is hardly the word. This was another of those books most people read as a teenager, as my young correspondent had. And it’s a good place to start a campaign of serious reading, laden as it is with literary references. A good place, too, to learn about classical music, if desired, and to confront the existence of evil in the world.
At some point, the girl who recommendedÂ Sophie’s ChoiceÂ to me disappeared. But my memory of the book will remain.
As I struggled, still, with the stress of work and now the dissatisfactions of being single, October brought on what felt like a joyous frenzy of reading.
On the recommendation of my psychologist, I read Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963). The recommendation was not, I understand, for therapeutic reasons, but here is Vonnegut on what happens to non-readers:
I turned to Castle the elder. “Sir, how does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”
“In one of two ways,” he said “petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”
More on Cat’s Cradle later.
How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months & The Catcher in the Rye
I followed this with John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months (2011), which I looked to for ideas on marketing and audience engagement, now that I was a published novelist with a readership. One of these readers, the charming Madaline Rielly, who worked at the lunchtime cafe where I’d done some of the revisions for Kiss Me, Genius Boy, wrote to tell me that my protagonist, Josh, reminded her of Holden from The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger, 1951), which also happens to be my friend Sasha’s favorite book. While I wasn’t as impressed with it as some people’s comments led me to believe, I was affected by its strong voice, and I easily saw the parallels Madaline had spotted. You can read my review of the book here.
But the thing that touched me most deeply in The Catcher in the Rye was not, in fact, any parallel between Josh (a harsh caricature of a former version of me) and Holden. It was Holden’s longing for connection. After leaving boarding school early and being unable to return home until the term is really done, he wanders New York looking for anyone who’s not a phony and who’ll give him the time of day.
The teenaged Holden talks to taxi drivers and to girls in bars. He takes up a pimp’s offer to send a prostitute to his hotel room, and then just talks to her. He calls up an old girlfriend, takes her out and asks her to run away with him. At every step–his unskilful attempts to reach out meet with rejection.
Enter the world of dating, online or off: a numbers game where you put yourself out there again and again, facing rejection after rejection in the knowledge (by god I hope you have this knowledge), that if you play long enough, you will eventually win. This is different as an adult than it is as a teenager. At school or university your social circle is in constant flux: new people blow in and out with each passing year. Your best hope, it seems, is to make friends: in their midst, love will show its face.
As an adult, the prospects close down. Your friends become like family. The circle changes less and less. If there were any prospects there they’ve been explored. A job becomes a career. You know everyone. If anyone appeals (and do you really want to find love at work?), you question if it’s worth the risk.
Now the beautiful stranger is your best hope, and as you lean into this game of asking “are you the one I’ll love?”, it becomes less about getting laid or loved than about adventure. You are exploring the world of people: you are looking for connection. You are wanting to say hello, to share experiences and stories, because the whole world is a party and we’re all here just to be together.
And when, on the journey, you take a snub, a drunk threatens to give you two black eyes, or someone calls you a sleaze to your face because you introduced yourself to a woman you just met–you start to laugh. They don’t get it, you think. So many people just don’t get it.
It would be easy–it is very tempting–to turn cold and aloof, when you are searching for love like this. You know most prospects will turn out to be nothing. They’ll stop writing. They won’t return your calls or texts. They’ll disappear. You start thinking you should keep your stories to yourself. You refuse to get excited about anyone you meet.
I’ve been there. It’s a wasteland: the place hearts go to die.
I discussed both Cat’s Cradle and Catcher in the Rye with another girl I met on OkCupid, who was a Vonnegut fan. She asked me to pick out some of my favorite lines from Cat’s Cradle, and I replied,
I had to go back through all my highlights in an attempt to pick a favorite passage, after you picked one for me.
I ended up with two: cheater.
(1) “My God–life! Who can understand even one little minute of it.” // “Don’t try,” he said. “Just pretend you understand.”
(2)Â “Her hips were a lyre. // Oh God. Peace and plenty forever.”
The first is self-explanatory. The second is just a great evocation of that sweet, tragic, horny longing that animates some men. Possibly all. Certainly me.
Now, that last line might be considered over the top. At least one female friend has warned me never to mention sex in profiles, and you might say the same about messages. Problem: it scares the timid. This particular girl never met me, and our messages to each other dwindled away. Was it because of the “horny” line? Could be, and it’s foolishness as it is. As Lilian Lau says in Kiss Me, Genius Boy, “Love? Ain’t nothing to it, Josh. Ain’t nothing at all. Fucking, and friendship if you’re lucky.”
I could have been disappointed that But by November I’d come to see the whole process as an exercise in self-expression: of exposing your heart, and getting beaten up more and more, and reaching out to your fellow humans in search of connection. I found myself again and again sending girls two links: one to Dolly Parton’s song The Bargain Store and Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability.
It ramped up as 2011 drew to a close: I must have ended up in intimate conversations with something like ten different women, all of whom meant something to me but who disappeared for various reasons or who, because of the timing in which I met them, I lost interest in. There was a Thai girl I talked to about “Zen, Christmas, and heartbreaks”; a Chinese-Australian architect who read Kiss Me, Genius Boy and with whom I indulged in mutual admiration about our own forthrightness; a beautiful blonde who worked in publishing, who would never come out and meet me; another Asian girl, who lived in Daylesford; an avid reader from Cheltenham who was starting up her own business; the aforementioned Vonnegut fan; a Malaysian who liked painting; a Malaysian who left on a two-month trip to India; a mid-thirties married swinger from the Western suburbs, who I exchanged X-rated photos with; an English nerd girl who disappeared on me just as we were about to meet; a young actress; a redhead Ayn Rand fan; and a depressed girl from Preston who was re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Robert M. Pirsig, 1974), which I continued to read even after she reneged numerous times on her avowals that she would meet me, and I quit talking to her.
Post Office & Journey Without Goal
As I went through all this, a prodigious amount of writing, reading, and heart-bruising, I was supported as usual by books. I acquainted myself with Charles Bukowski, and not before time: through reading Post Office (1971), I was frequently on the verge of tears, sympathizing with his overwork, his being impoverished and beaten down, his misadventures in love. And then, after I saw it on the bookshelf of the Jeff Bridges character in Tron Legacy and was intrigued by the title, I started ChÃ¶gyam Trungpa’s Journey Without Goal (1981), which I finished in the second week of December.
This was my first encounter with Trungpa, the Tibetan tulku (reincarnated teacher) who had travelled to the UK, married a sixteen-year-old heiress, and established Naropa University in Colorado before dying young of alcoholism, and it confirmed my move ever further into openness and vulnerability as part of my long years of Buddhist practice. It was the beginning of something that would continue into the following year, of a sense that Buddhism wasn’t just a hobby, but my religion, in a way that I’d never been comfortable with before. But of course, Buddhism as Trungpa and most other teachers that inspire me conceive of it is both more and less than a relgion: it the fundamental discipline of being present for your life and of living it to the full.
December: If I wear my heart out on my sleeve
There were two more particular highlights, in the letters I wrote to and received from girls. One particularly beautiful woman, a single mother who worked as a teacher, wrote to me and said:
What you wrote in your profile makes me feel hopeful that one day I’ll find love again. You seem to have loved and lost and able to move on and enjoy life. I’ve recently loved and lost and am finding the moving on and enjoying life part difficult.
Shortly after, she disappeared, and later wrote to me to apologize: she’d reunited with her former partner. I was pleased for her. And she’d made me realize that in living, and writing, with my heart on my sleeve, I was giving people something of value. In retrospect I’m tempted to impute some narcissistic motive to this, that I personally felt vindicated or validated, but the satisfaction was more about work well done for its own sake and for the sake of others. I was on the right track, and had done somebody good.
The second of those last highlights was R, a girl I met on RSVP. Early 20s, Asian Australian (via New Zealand), a reader, traveller, old soul, and free spirit. When she replied to my messages, it became a conversation about Plato, Sophie Cunningham, Hat Girl’s playing guitar naked, Steinbeck–so many things. Getting letters from her was like getting letters from myself. It’s rare that someone can keep up, or write so beautifully as to truly impress me. I started reading her favorite book, East of Eden, and had to abandon it when she disappeared–stopped replying to my messages and deleted her profile–just a few days before Christmas. I couldn’t bear to go on with the book, because it reminded me of her, who I had begun to fall in love with without even meeting her. She seemed a little like that “brief, occult moment to taunt me all my life with the image of an impossible enchantment and grace” that I wrote of Joshua having in Kiss Me, Genius Boy, and my friend Bec speculated that girls like this do not even exist: they are ghosts in the machine, haunting lonely men.
The Zen of Steve Jobs, The Little Prince, A Clash of Kings, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
In the last days of 2011, with work over for the year, I read short books and pushed to the ends of ones long abandoned, finishing The Zen of Steve Jobs, The Little Prince, A Clash of Kings, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. None made a particularly strong impression, and the year rolled smoothly on up to its end.
Just after midnight, on New Year’s Day 2012, I kissed one of the most beautiful women of my life, who I’d met just hours before. It began again with a girl…
[Note: The wonderful cover for A Clash of Kings shown here is from From Cover to Cover.]