1Q84 and the End of the World

I started reading 1Q84 late last evening. I’d been putting it off. After Dark, Murakami’s last novel, was a slender thing that seemed to end too soon. I wanted to read 1Q84 slowly, carefully. I wanted to make it last.

I read the first two chapters last night before bed. Halfway through the second chapter, my fingers were eagerly drumming on the edges of the pages. As soon as I finished, I grabbed a notepad and ballpoint pen and began to write. I didn’t have the patience to go upstairs to get my laptop and wait for it to power up. I needed to immediately scrawl words across a page.

I first encountered Haruki Murakami when I was about 16 or 17. It was in the fiction section at the main branch of the Charleston Public Library. The main branch of that library system was a very good one, and I spent a lot of time there during the five years I lived in South Carolina, and afterwards when I would come down from Connecticut to visit my mother. My memories of that library are very vivid. I remember how it smelled: book glue, new shelving, highly conditioned air.

This was before Goodreads and literary social networking. I read novels voraciously, but with very little guidance. I enjoyed my English classes in school, but those classes usually didn’t put post-modern fiction, or foreign novels, or science fiction on the syllabus. I was on my own. I would discover an author I liked, and then methodically work my way through every single book by that author at my library’s particular branch. I read Philip K. Dick that way, and Kurt Vonnegut, and William Gibson. I had no one to talk to about those books. My friends liked books, but not always the same books that I did. I read in a vacuum. I don’t remember how Murakami’s name was first given to me. I think I read a sentence somewhere that compared him to Philip K. Dick. That was enough.

I went to the “M” section of the library. After reading through the jackets of the various Murakami novels, I picked out Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I read through the book in under a week. Afterwards, I was completely blasted. I felt like something had written something especially for me, directly to me.

Soon afterwards, I began writing fiction for the first time after years of writing poetry. My entire brain switched gears.

I then proceeded read every Murakami novel ever written. Later, in college, a writing professor introduced me to Murakami’s short fiction. I read all of those collections, too. I’m caught up now, so I have to wait years between new novels. Sometimes I go back and re-read. Every time I encounter Murakami, though, it always triggers a flurry of productivity in regards to my own projects.

Nowadays I have plenty of friends who are happy to talk about Murakami with me, but sometimes I still think about my teenage self wedged into a gap between the stacks at the CPL, reading her first Murakami novel, and feeling like she and he were the only two people left in the world.

Infinite Summer

It’s over 100 degrees where I live right now.

A week ago, I moved to Austin, TX.  Before that, I lived in Portland, OR, for five years.  In both places, I was/am reading Infinite Jest.

I started reading Infinite Jest with a group of terribly clever people last June.  When we were conceptualizing the endeavor, we called it Infinite Summer.  Later we discovered that somebody had beaten us to the punch.

After that, the term “Infinite Jesters” was thrown around once or twice.  I may or may not have a Google+ circle with that name.

Infinite Jest is an immensely absorbing, maddening book.  I had read all of David Foster Wallace’s short fiction and essays beforehand, but they didn’t prepare me for this.  It was a relief to sit down every two weeks and hash things out.  We sat in a large living room, hunched over our massive paperbacks, and talked.  We talked about timelines, footnotes, Hamlet references, the fact that the term “post-modernism” doesn’t really mean anything besides “after modernism”, and whether or not the math and drug use were portrayed accurately.  It was the first time since I’d finished school that I got to talk about a book with a bunch of people who wanted to talk about the same book.

I like most kinds of books, but I have a strange, prickly love for long books.  Some have suggested that my devotion to long books might be something akin to Stockholm syndrome.  I’m not sure that’s it.  My problem is that I read too quickly.  Slimmer volumes, if I have the time, can be devoured in a day.  It’s rare for me to find a book that can hold me for a few weeks.  A book that can take me in for months at a time is something remarkable.

The trouble with reading books, though, especially long books, is the loneliness.  I read Gravity’s Rainbow on my own two summers ago when I thought that I might like to write my undergraduate thesis about it.  I wouldn’t repeat the experience.  Solitary reading has its own distinct pleasure, but, when it’s done, melancholy sets in.  The book is gone, and there’s nobody around to talk about it with.

Few of us lead lives where we can stand around a water cooler and successfully start a conversation with, “So, have you read the latest Pynchon novel?

The first Portland thing that I’ve started missing in Texas is my book club.

There are many reasons why people so often bond over shared media consumption.  It’s not just that it gives you something to talk about besides yourselves.  It’s because you have an experience in common.

Everyone’s first exposure to Kathleen Hanna, or Chris Ware, or Satoshi Kon is, of course, individualized and unique.  But that moment of discovery and joy and temporary relief of some vague existential loneliness is essentially the same.  You know, suddenly, that there are other people out there like you, and they they like this stuff too.  It just takes a while to find them.

I miss having a group of people to theorize with, to analyze with, to tear out my hair and rend my garments in frustration with.

I finished Infinite Jest last night, but I’ve convinced myself that I won’t be truly done until I reread the first (and chronologically last) chapter.  I’m drawing it out.  Not just because it was one of the very last David Foster Wallace books I had left to read.  But because this infinite summer will be finitely over, and it will probably be a long time before I can next drink beer and rant about footnote structure with a bunch of people who know exactly, exactly what I’m talking about.

There Is No There

The layout of of my new room is exactly the same as a room I lived in four years ago.

I’ve never lived in one city for more than five years at a stretch.  Since moving to Portland in  2006, I’ve lived in six different rooms.  I’ve stayed in SE while bouncing around like a pinball.  Eastmoreland, Powell, Belmont.

Some of the objects around me stay the same, particularly books and clothes and taxidermied alligator heads, but most of them change.  I believe in traveling light.  I can’t mark time with objects, even the clock radios and broken wrist watches.

I mark time with space.

There will always be that year in the dorms, those two years in The Wimbledons, that summer half out, a year in the RCAs, the summer on Glenwood, a year on Powell next to the Chinese herbalist.  This will always be the summer I lived on Belmont.

My five years are nearly up.  Next year will be the Austin year, or the Chicago year, or the Andover year.  I don’t know where there is yet.  I just know it won’t be here.

Walking My Gargoyle

Fact: this isn't a staged photo. If it was, he'd be watching kaiju videos.


Reptiles think differently from you and me.

Mammals are still reptiles, deep down.  We call that part of our brain our lizard brains, that older piece of gray matter that the mammalian brain grew on top of.  The reptile brain is what we talk about when we talk about the part of our brain that thinks of nothing but food and sex and death.

For the last few months I’ve owned a small lizard.  One day, with care, he will be large lizard.  He is a bearded dragon.  He has a crown of spikes around his face that make him look like a dinosaur.  He looks like something that shouldn’t really exist in the modern world.  We named him King Ghidorah.  The lizard doesn’t care what his name is.  Sometimes we call him King.  Sometimes Ghidorah.  Sometimes we just call him lizard.

Lizards have very few facial expressions, because very few parts of their face move.  Unlike snakes, most lizards have eyelids.  They blink.  They close their eyes to sleep.  These are recognizable things.

Sometimes the lizard sits with his mouth open.  It’s cute.  He looks like he’s smiling.  He’s not.  He’s regulating his body temperature.

He can also inflate the loose, spiky skin at this throat into a collar beneath his chin.  This is why he is called a bearded dragon.  When they are older, bearded dragons do this as a threat display.  It makes them look bigger than they are, and fiercer.  When they are babies, they do this seemingly at random.  Nobody really knows why.  They are practicing.

When he is cold or scared he flattens himself to any available surface and lies very still.  He can become very flat when he does this.  There is little difference to a lizard between being cold and being scared.  Maybe they feel neither.  Maybe they just feel flat.

Inside Ghidorah’s terrarium, it is a hundred and ten degrees and the glass walls are covered in plastic greenery.  The greenery looks nice, but it is mostly there to keep the lizard from seeing his reflection.  He is obsessed with his reflection.  If he sees it, he becomes instantly mesmerized, like Narcissus.  He performs acts of communication meant only for other lizards.  He bobs his head.  He waves his front legs.  Sometimes he puffs his beard and charges at his image.  I am not sure if he thinks it is the same lizard or a different lizard each time.  It is the lizard that does everything he does as he does it.  Perhaps he sees his reflection as his soul mate, and is distressed that he can’t enter the world in the other side of the glass.

Psychologists don’t perform learning experiments with lizards.  They use mammals and birds, mostly.  It’s hard to tell if or how lizards learn.  If they do learn, they probably learn like someone with anterograde amnesia.  They learn something, but they don’t remember learning it.  It becomes something they already know.

Ghidorah knows that I will not eat him.  He knows that I am warm.  When he is tired, he crawls into the collar of my coat to sleep. He knows that he is fed crickets at about 5 o’clock each day.  He knows that if I come into the room and he paces at the glass in front of his cage, that I will let him out and he can climb through the larger world.  He sits on my knee while I read and I stroke his pebbly back until my blood pressure drops.  I don’t know if he likes this or simply tolerates it.

If my lizard had been born in the wild, in Australia, in the desert, as is proper, he might survive to adulthood.  If he did, he wouldn’t need someone like me to take care of him.  Bearded dragons are a hardy species.  A man told me on every fencepost in the Australian outback there is a bearded dragon basking.  He may have been exaggerating.

I love this lizard.  I want to make him happy in the ways that lizards may be happy.  I keep him warm and give him nice things to eat.  In the summer I will take him outside and show him what sunshine looks like.  It is an unrequited sort of love.  The lizard doesn’t care whether I love him or not.


I hadn’t posted anything in ages, so I decided to write up some of the thoughts I’ve been having about pet ownership.  Reptiles are weird, but also wonderful.  For the song that this post was titled after, click here. Everyone loves my little gargoyle.

Words, Words, Words

I might be fictional.

“You look like a character in a book,” said Bethany.

I blinked, taken aback. I felt like somebody had just cracked open my skull and was divining signs from the twists of my brain tissue. “What?” I said.

“I don’t know. The tea. The blazer. The New Yorker magazine casually placed to the side,” continued Bethany.

“Yeah,” agreed Kassandra, “I could totally see someone writing a book about you.”

I wanted to ask, “What kind of book?” I didn’t because I was afraid of the answer. If they said “a 19th century Russian novel” then I’d spend the rest of my life as a bureaucratic cog suffering from existential paranoia. I said, “Maybe I’ll write a book about myself. Nah, I won’t. I feel like that’s too… vain.”

“No, it’s not. It’s okay, because somebody else said it.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. I take a sip of hot black breakfast tea laced with milk. Since when did I take milk with my tea? “Everyone is always writing about themselves anyways.”

A book, she said. Not just a character. A character in a book. I am leaking literature.

The secret to happiness is to reconcile the internal image with the external self. I always wanted to become my own protagonist.

I had a friend help me re-edit a reportage piece I was working on for my Creative Non-Fiction course. In between correcting my excess verbiage and woefully faulty knowledge of Japanese rope bondage, we got into a conversation about the place of reality in non-fiction. James Frey, of course, came up.

“I just don’t understand why people felt so betrayed by it. Why was it such a big deal? If people researched all the stupid memoirs out in the airport bookstores right now they’d find lots of things that were just completely made up!” I said. I was getting angry and I didn’t know why. No, I did know why. I was getting angry thinking about all those poorly worded, heavily fictionalized, best-selling memoirs. I was getting angry thinking about the lying hacks who made a living off of their writing, something that I’m certain I could never do.

“He pissed off The Oprah,” piped another friend. True.

“I have to admit, the story becomes more interesting to me if I know that it’s true,” said my current editor.

“But why? I don’t get it, It’s all the same! Most of fiction, of good fiction, is taken from the writer’s life or their observations of other people’s lives. They take life and make it better. Rearrange the events, put words in other peoples’ mouths, have their characters say the things they wish was said. And memoirists do the same thing. Life doesn’t have snappy dialogue. If somebody took all their dialogue verbatim from life then nobody would want to read it. It’s all the same fucking thing. Who cares if it’s true as long as it’s good?”

I catch myself yelling and stop. I realize that as I was ranting I was also bouncing aggressively. This odd behavior may have been caused by the fact that my proofreading friend is much taller than me, or it may simply have been an unconscious effort to get rid of some of my buzzing physical rage. I had never realized that the expression “hopping mad” could have some factual basis.

There’s got to be a beginning. First lines are always the ones they quote for posterity.

Allison Rebecca Werner decided she would buy the flowers herself.

I am a sick girl. I am a spiteful girl. I am an unattractive girl. I think my liver is diseased.

As Allison Rebecca Werner awoke one morning from a troubled dream, she found herself changed in her bed to some monstrous kind of vermin.

That’s not even mine. I stole it. I have to be careful, sometimes, when I’m writing, that I’m not unconsciously pilfering a character, a phrase, an image from somewhere else. It’s hard to separate what came from inside of my head and what came from outside it. How can I write something new? How can anyone? I read something and I absorb the ink through my fingertips. The words run up my veins, lodge themselves in my brain and dissolve into my grey matter. My thoughts are not my own. I’ve become a literary amalgamation; even my dreams are clichéd pastiches. I haven’t been real since I learned how to read in 1994.

“If you don’t dress up like Tank Girl for Harvest Ball next year I’m going to be very disappointed,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, looking up. I was looking up because the boy I was conversing with was much taller than me. Most people are. When I asked a small sampling of friends and acquaintances to describe me in a series of adjectives the responses ware varied and often contradictory, but “short” was used fairly consistently. The word “short” can mean both “having little height” and “abrupt”. It can also mean “lacking in a necessary quality”.

“You have a Tank Girl aura about you,” he explained, waving his fingers vaguely. I have the aura of a post-apocalyptic antiestablishment drug-addled superheroine? Of course I do. I read the comics and the character became a part of my collective unconscious.

I might be fictional. Sure, I’m Tank Girl. I’m Sal Paradise, Katurian Katurian, Enid Coleslaw, Ivan Illych, Laurie Juspeczyk, K., May Kasahara. I’m–

Allison Rebecca Werner drank her tea slowly. She neglected to remove the tea bag from her paper cup, instead letting it seep until the brew was astringent and bitter with tannin. Every so often she turned a page of a magazine and it made a sound like the movement of dead leaves.


Through a haze of text she became aware of someone setting a lunch tray down across from her. Allison made herself present. She looked up, dark eyes clicking into focus, absorbing the rays of light reflecting off alien topography before the facial features registered as something familiar. She smiled, quickly and automatically. She tried to act like she would much rather talk to this girl than continue to read about linguistic anthropology studies in the Amazon. She did it well.

Allison closed her magazine and slid it outside the range of her peripheral vision in order to avoid giving it clandestine glances while making necessary conversation. She brought up the easy topic of their shared class and let the words run from there. Every so often she made eye contact and smiled. Every so often she took another sip of her tea.

She liked people. At least, that was she repeated in her head every once in a while, as if to remind herself. It was just that, at this particular moment, she would obtain much more enjoyment from reading her magazine article than making small talk with the girl sitting across the beige cafeteria table.

“You look like a character in a book,” said the girl, apropos of nothing.

Allison’s smile wavered imperceptibly at the edges. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she replied lightly. It was not a compliment. It was a sentence. Those strange, simple words confirmed Allison’s underlying sense of doom. She looked like a character in a book because she was a character. She’d absorbed defining details from too many other personas and now there wasn’t anything original left. She’d finally ceased to be a real person.

That night, as she lay in bed with her eyes screwed shut, she heard terrible, decisive clacking noises, like someone in the next room was pounding on the keys of a giant typewriter. She was terrified by how resolutely final the typing sounded. A panicked, claustrophobic feeling overcame her, the feeling that her life had already been plotted out for her by some inescapable, unseen force. A few strokes of the keys and her personality would change. A few strokes of the keys and she might be scrapped entirely and cease to exist. Her mind raced and spit out nightmares.

I am being cut out of reality and soon I’ll be nothing but a blank white cut-out with crisp new edges. Cut me and I’ll bleed ink. I am being cut out of reality I am I am I am

I look like a character in a book.


An older piece. Written in the spring of 2007 for a Creative Non-Fiction course with Jean Thompson. The italicized portions were originally in a typewriter font. A bit gimmicky, but effective. Unfortunately, I couldn’t for the life of my figure out how to transmit the font changes into blog form. Ah, formatting. This piece still does a remarkably good job at summing up my feelings as a reader/writer and a person/character.