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Fiction: Greater World Systems

Damion Searls, What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, (Dalkey Archive Press, 2009)

Books draw on books to get themselves written and this can be a problem. Whether the volume in question is a suburban-realist novel with a Greek myth at its heart or a pastiche of imitated styles that hopes to restore subjectivity to an objective form, there exists a risk that the world—contemporary, verisimilar—will fail to emerge from a work worn down with the anxiety of its sources.

Among the challenges that Damion Searls’s debut collection What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going sets for itself is to transmute the germ, if not always the content, of stories by Gide, Hawthorne, Yasushi Inoue, Nabokov, and the underrated Tommaso Landolfi, into five original and exceedingly modern (and, as it happens, American) stories of friendship, work, love, travel, and study.

Rather than aiming for updates or reinterpretations, Searls, who is an accomplished translator, grasps for the source codes behind the original context and follows the fault lines into handily self-scrutinizing stories inhabited by those who live with stories: writers and grad students floundering between art and life, work and leisure, youth and adulthood, each in search of a literary object that one conceives of as “indistinct, low-lying, in a narrow tonal range…a delicate gray thing” and another looks for in the face of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: “Some people make lists or keep a diary,
some read horoscopes or the I Ching, I consult a great Russian poet.”

This is Giles, the painfully analytic narrator of “56 Water Street,” a title the story shares with both the novel Giles has just begun to write and the residence from which he surveys the post-college kamikazes of relationships fraternal and amorous. Giles claims he never copies real life, but it would be difficult to locate his basis for comparison, since the domestic and social obligations that punctuate the writing life mostly register only insomuch as they can be salvaged for his book (the cheeky glimpses we get of the work-in-progress tell the story of Casella, an Italian fisherman who mends his nets, enumerates beach junk, and redecorates his house). Typical of Giles’s acquaintances is his former housemate and chief rival Simon, who “if he was…born at the wrong place and time to attain Waugh or Forster or Powell, he could manage a sort of cross here between Scott Fitzgerald and Belle and Sebastian.” Set pieces include a stultifying literary party (“Kermit, the language poet, began to intone ‘Monastery, Catacomb, Circumambient,’ and we all lost interest”) and an audience with the only successful person Giles knows (the father of a friend, who “came up with the idea to flash the temperature along with the time on those signs outside banks”). Here then is one theory of the novel: eventual symptom of an existence where ambient impressions are more real than events and prone to the same inertia: “Ah, Casella! You too are doing what you want. Who am I to force you into more of a story, away from your nets and your round window overlooking the storms of the Tyrrhenian Sea?”

Literature is a more submerged subject in “The Cubicles,” based on Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House,” where “work is the negation of plot, of story” and the narrator, heartbreakingly aware of his dormant faculties, has traded literary ambition for a job editing technical manuals for a Silicon Valley firm.

Now a “tolerably good editor instead of a tolerably poor writer,” our bemused correspondent mines his Editorial Group for micronarratives, italicizes e’s and i’s, powerless to stop address books and outmoded booklets from becoming “Contact Management Solutions” and “legacy courseware.” Undecided between “youthful idealism or adult comforts,” he is at least liberated from graduate school, where “books were ‘technologies of affect production’ and authors [were] ‘author-functions.’” Hawthorne’s equally incubating hero at least had a clear purpose: to stumble upon the original scarlet letter in the course of his daily rummage and thereby inaugurate the Great American Novel to which his is a frame story. Such is the plight of those that dream of writing books, as opposed to those who live in them: our hero can only bear witness to his company’s inevitable discovery of outsourcing. Novels are long, life is short.

Of the remaining stories, “Goldenchain” endows a prolonged breakup with a dreamy, ruminating tone that bespeaks the piece’s basis in Japanese literature, while in “A Guide to San Francisco,” the California city doubles for Nabokov’s Berlin with one important difference:

I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times…
(Vladimir Nabakov, “A Guide to Berlin”)

Compare this with Searls’s formulation: “I feel that this is the only sense of art: to create an inner universe we prefer to the other one.” Clearly the future has failed to satisfy. This same preference for mechanism is the subject of the collection’s final story, “Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems,” in which all the nagging questions of authorship and derivation come to a head and the book’s project is revealed in a manner too startling and loaded to get into here, except to say that it necessitates rereading (scarcely a burden, since the whole beautiful book clocks in at exactly one hundred pages, like an EP from heaven).

Two things a second reading brings to the surface are (1) a gentle consciousness of text that verges on dream interpretation (one narrator is alarmed to discover his similes “drift…between passing something in and out and around,” while another demurs to let the pun between path home and homeopathy go unacknowledged) and (2) an omnipresent acknowledgement of the stories’ originals (“The Cubicles” name-checks Hawthorne, “A Guide to San Francisco” includes an anecdote about Nabokov and so on). Contemporary works of literature with an inner life are in short supply and one that so honorably serves and recognizes its lineage is pretty much beyond praise. Far from being an exercise, Where We Were Going is a work of immediate realism that knows that fiction is reality too, the only part of our world qualified to justify the rest. Or, to put it another way, the story it frames is life.


J.W. McCormack

J.W. MCCORMACK’s work has appeared in Bookforum, the New Inquiry, Tin House, N1FR, Publishers Weekly, and Conjunctions, where he is a senior editor. He currently teaches at Columbia University.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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