Read: Interior Life

on reading, and being, at home

I.

Friends, I have lost the plot. I can’t do it any longer. Not that I ever really could. While I appreciate the allures of a good story as a reader, the demands of plot have always been the roughest piece of novel-writing for me; at present, plotting is simply too much labor. The insistence on story beats in service of saving the cat makes me want to lay down in the road. I can’t be bothered to make my sentences conform to these strictures. Let’s hope for the sake of my contract with Dutton that this is only temporary. But right now, I’m bored of stakes and motivations and throwing rocks at the fake people I’ve made climb trees.

Instead, for the last few years, I’ve found myself entranced by pure data, especially when sweetened and tempered through exacting prose. The current pandemic has only made this intensify. I can scarcely navigate the fantasy of getting to eat in a restaurant or driving outside of the state of Minnesota for recreational reasons; the tension of story is too much at this point. Give me your meticulous research, your footnotes, your first-hand accounts. Fuck the dumbass cat.

While struggling along to make my fifth novel, a historical fiction/ghost story set in rural Minnesota a century earlier, I read a lot about the construction of rural structures. I read a fuckload of books about barns. Bricks and logs and rooftops. Haylofts and doors. Paint, glazing and cupolas. As The Whitsun Daughters is also set in the present day, with the set pieces of the past in various states of decline and revision, I needed to build the world as closely as possible to how it truly was, and I was nervous about winging it on assumptions. It’s no small thing, creating structures for work and survival in a new place where the modern lumberyard has not yet been established. And it’s no small thing, how much one assumes about the concept of what makes a place “home.”

In the midst of this reading, it became clear to me that I didn’t have a grasp on the history of human shelter. The history of the structure. The timeline of indoor plumbing. The notion of “privacy” and "the second floor.” When “home” and “barn” became exclusive settings. This led me, already a staunch hermitic introvert, to go deeper into my own four walls to understand the quotidian framework I so rely on: I read At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson.

II.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life is a book at odds with its title. It’s not short, for one thing, clocking in at 497 pages, including a hefty bibliography and notes. To be fair, that might be considered condensed, when you factor in the scope of the project spans from roughly the time humans left soot-caked caves to the development of the modern water closet, et cetera.

Perhaps what makes it “short” is its narrow view: not all humans live in “houses” made of wood, with stairs, bricks, plaster and lathe, indoor toilets, kitchens and roofs. Using Bryson’s own parsonage where he lives in England as a road map, the book hews close to the notion of the “house” as seen in Europe and the United States. We don’t swerve too often into territory of, say, baobab tree homes, Maori Wharepuni or Inuit shelters. This worked all right for me, as it adhered to the story I was making, with characters who emigrated across the Atlantic not doing so because of their culturally nomadic practices. Though, clearly, given the right motivation (dumbass cat again), any culture can become mobile in its pursuit of survival.

In any event, the “homes” Bryson looks at are destined to evolve into the single-family, residential building we know from HGTV. They feature porches, eaves, chimneys, decorative gardens, verandas, terraces, ballrooms, electric and gas lines, marble staircases, libraries and servants’ quarters.

There were some dings on Bryson’s effort. “Baggy, loose-jointed,” sniffed the New York Times. “Even his asides have asides,” huffed The Guardian. “While Bryson's book purports to be about private life, it's really about whatever takes his fancy.”

Well, okay. Fine. So, the thesis didn’t really deliver. Whatever. Still, I read this book on the hunt for facts and have returned to it many times in my mind since. I found Bryson’s guided tour through the only kind of residence I’ve ever inhabited to be fascinating. Want to learn the science of building a staircase— the math involved in the rise, the going and the pitch? Well, you’re in luck. Toss in statistics of stair accidents, too! Meander through the origin of the term “the ground floor.” Explore the glass tax, syphilis, block ice or little rich boys starving in expensive English boarding schools:

Rarely can hardship have been embraced with greater enthusiasm than in the English private school in the 19th century. From the moment of arrival pupils were treated to harsh regimens involving cold baths, frequent canings, and the withholding from the diet anything that could be remotely described as appetizing. Boys at Radley College, near Oxford, were so systematically starved that they were reduced to digging up flowerbulbs from the school gardens and toasting them over candles in their rooms. At schools where bulbs were not available, the boys simply ate the candles. The novelist Alec Waugh, brother of Evelyn, attended a prep school called Fernden that seemed to be singularly devoted to the ideals of sadism. On his first day there, his fingers were thrust into a pot of sulfuric acid to discourage him from biting his nails, and soon afterward he was required to eat the contents of a bowl of semolina pudding into which he had just vomited, an experience that understandably dimmed his enthusiasm for semolina for the rest of his life. — p. 428, At Home

This is from the chapter titled “The Nursery.” Who cares what else a book has to offer, if it can give you the vision of terrorized little boys making flowerbulb s’mores in the dead of night. I can sit with that horror and do my own feral panicky extrapolations for hours, thanks. No need for you to have your hero cat fist-fighting a Ukrainian arms dealer atop a helicopter that’s just crashed into the Chrysler building on the 4th of July. Let me lay down into my pillowtop mattress, listening to the hum of my home’s invisible-yet-indispensable circuitry, and ponder the harrowing possibilities that stem from such “ripped-from-the-footnotes” morsels.

III.

Could it be that I don’t want to care about anyone else’s actual problems? Maybe I care about so many people’s actual problems that I resent having to care about fake people’s problems? Maybe I am tired of caring, maybe I should stop caring, maybe I can’t stop caring. Maybe I am bitter, worn, exhausted, depleted. Maybe I should take a nap or a walk or a shower. Maybe I should emulate John Lubbock, who Bryson mentions was not only an accomplished naturalist, neighbor of Charles Darwin and inventor of the concept known as the “bank holiday” but also once spent three months trying to teach his dog to read. Maybe I should teach my dogs to read. Maybe the cat, too?

I’m guessing I’ve lost the plot and abandoned the cat because I can’t stop trying to hang onto it. Once I let it go, maybe I will get to hold it again? I don’t know that I’ve ever managed to hold it at all. Finished stories aren’t real, and I want my fiction to be real in a way that is perverse to the point of inanity. I could walk with this argument going on in my head to the ends of the earth.

I guess for right now, making more bids for others’ empathy seems an exercise in bad faith, given I don’t want to engage with one more piece of media that depletes my own. As Sharon Olds wrote in her poem “The Issues”:

Don’t speak to me about
politics. I’ve got eyes, man.

Maybe I’ve lost the plot because I’ve lost the need for character arcs. Maybe I am currently, age 46, a character who has no arc. Maybe I cannot tolerate knowing more. Maybe just one neat ending isn’t enough. Maybe I just want to fancast furtively, shamefully, privately, without thorough analysis or the feedback of strangers. Maybe I am curious about the flavor and scent of roasted tulip bulbs and the memories that both will evoke twenty-five years later. Maybe I just want everyone to end up okay.


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