I’m wary of saying that writers have an obligation to do anything in particular — most often, you’ll find someone who doesn’t do whatever thing so beautifully that they redeem its absence — but it’s hard to imagine an essay that would be satisfying without complexity, and it’s hard to imagine complexity without some version of what we’re calling problematizing: the negative capability of holding multiple possibilities at once.
Now, I ask you, what if all along it was as simple as joining this company to fill the part of me missing? What if some deranged wiring or disease has forced me to isolate myself away instead of considering being part of a team like the one here at your company? I feel pretty good right now, and I’m not even officially part of anything. Just even filling out this application is fixing me.
It’s funny how as an author, I rarely notice what seems so obvious to other people: that I have obsessions and will write about them endlessly. Sad, lonely, self-loathing guy? Mid-20th and 21st century literature loves to write about that guy, and so do I. Reckless, self-aggrandizing, narcissist man? I like to write about him, too, though of course they are the same person. A person whose energy compels people to orbit him—family, friends, underlings, women.
Every state has their odd features, but Florida has lots of odd features. We’ve got hotlines to call for when there’s an alligator in your backyard. When I first left Florida, I would write stories for my MFA workshops and include details like that, and readers would leave notes in the margins about how weird that was. I’d think, ‘Really—you find that weird?’ That’s Florida.
"I think it is a project that is too easy to get wrong, too hard to get right, and with not enough room to experiment in between." On designing the cover of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
That’s the great American story [laughs]. It complies with the story of immigrants who came through Ellis Island: they were nobodies—half-human somehow. They had potential, but of course they couldn’t do anything with it over there, because it wasn’t America, so they came here, and suddenly they bloomed.
I don’t know the numbers, but roughly half of the people who came through Ellis Island returned home. They came here to make money, not to make history.
I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own.
"I always thought that the films people love the most are the films that are wise, that have simple lives, truths and ideas in them. All my favorite films growing up, like E.T., have that quality. Hollywood tends to dumb down things, and be incredibly formal and simplistic and paint-by-numbers. And I never thought that is what people actually liked. But why those big Hollywood films were so successful—why they make so much money, why they are so universal—is that they have big important issues and essential wisdom in them.”
- Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin
In the Wake of Finnegan: A Q & A with Xujun Eberlein
This week’s Q & A is with the China-born and now Boston-based Xujun Eberlein, a short story writer, blogger, essayist, and contributor to LARB.
I contacted Xujun in part simply because I was curious to learn her reaction to two recent literary-minded and China-focused New York Times pieces. One focused on the surprisingly brisk sales in China of a book by James Joyce, while the other was a commentary by NPR Beijing bureau chief Louisa Lim on trends in censorship and the popularity of Chinese “officialdom novels.” Both brought Xujun to mind, since she has often reflected on the flow of books and ideas between China and the West and she has written an essay on the “officialdom novel” genre.
She was good enough to break up her Lunar New Year trip back to Chongqing to speak with me.
Jeff Wasserstrom: Do you have any thoughts on why Finnegans Wake might be selling so well in China?
Xujun Eberlein: I was curious about this myself. I’m in Chongqing for Chinese New Year and I went to the Xinhua Bookstore downtown on Saturday (February 9) to have a look at the book. A young staff member led me to the desk where the Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake (the yellow cover at the center of the above photo) was on display with other new and noteworthy books. As you may see from the photo, next to Finnegans Wake is the translation of polish novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis, which has a supplementary band to note the author is a Nobel Laureate. The red cover on the right is a Chinese popular novel titled Love SMSs. I asked the young man how Finnegans Wake was selling there and he said “Not bad.” He noted that its sales were similar to One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. When asked what kind of readers were buying it, he said “mostly young people.”
Now we kind of wish they’d start aggressively advertising Finnegans Wake in the United States, too. Imagine a billboard (or maybe a few miles of separate billboards) spelling out this word along the side of a highway: klikkaklakkaklaskaklopatzklatschabattacreppycrottygraddaghsemmihsammihnouithappluddyappladdypkonpkot
One of my good friends is a very successful novelist. I was with her when she was approached by another (male) writer who was attempting to deride her work: ‘Aren’t all your books about the same thing?’ My friend asked him what he meant by that. He replied without missing a beat — ‘Well, aren’t they all about women?’