I like a near miss.
It’s always a joy, of course, to read a book and simply not be able to imagine its being any better. As I’ve indicated in previous posts, I felt that way about Erickson’s Zeroville, as well as about Padgett Powell’s Edisto.
But once in a while I’m somewhat cheered by reading a book that comes close to pulling off what its author seemed to intend but that ultimately falls short. It feels like a sign that the author is reaching to articulate something just beyond his or her capacity. It’s like getting to watch someone learn how to write.
I remember reading a relatively early book by Denis Johnson, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. This was back in the early 90’s, and Johnson’s star was just starting to rise. Later in the 90’s he would publish the knockout book of stories, Jesus’ Son, and just last year he won the National Book Award for his breakout novel, Tree of Smoke. At the time, though, he’d published but three novels, of which Resuscitation was the most recent. I’d been pulling for Johnson over the course of his first couple of books, and I had high hopes for the new one. But when I finished it, what I thought was: Wow, almost.
Rather than disappointed, though, I felt kind of elated, because he’d almost done it. He’d gotten closer to writing a masterpiece than he had before, and I could feel the momentum of his progression towards …something. Maturity, maybe? A stronger command of his obvious talent? Anyway, he was getting there, and I was getting to watch.
Writing is a peculiar art form. I’ve always considered all of the arts –painting, music, sculpture, dance—to be attempts to express what is ineffable about the human condition. Literature, counterintuitively, is an attempt to express the ineffable using words, which means that a near miss is something impressive in itself.
Sometimes, when a writer acknowledges the impossibility of what he or she is trying to accomplish, but proceeds anyway, something amazing happens. I’m thinking here of Joan Wickersham’s powerful, painful book The Suicide Index. Wickersham’s father committed suicide after a long but largely hidden struggle with depression. As anyone who has survived such an incident will tell you, trying to put the aftermath of such an event into words is nearly impossible. For a writer, coming face to face with the possibility that there simply might not be language available to describe her experience could have rendered her mute. I’m surprised she didn’t just publish a blank book.
Instead, she made a study of the uselessness of trying to use language to impose order on the chaotic effects of her father’s suicide. Structuring her book as an index –that most ordered of documents—she articulated not merely the experience itself but the failure of trying to do so.
Wickersham’s book caught the notice of a lot of critics. It garnered a surprise nomination for the National Book Award, and landed on the best books of the year lists of Salon.com, The Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, and the Washington Post. It’s a brilliant book on a tough subject, certainly, but I think that the attention the book earned had to do with something more, something left unsaid in the reviews. I think that Wickersham produced a book that, whether deliberately or not, goes to the very heart of what all writers try to do. She nakedly exposed the struggle to bend language to the purpose of saying what can't be said.
She wrote a near miss, and did so brilliantly.