When We Fell In Love by Antoine Wilson
It started with puppy love. The typical boy stuff: Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, Piers Anthony. Also, for reasons I’ll never fully understand, the complete oeuvre of Judy Blume.
Now I’m in a happy marriage. I could go on about getting hooked on Nabokov; how I tried to kick the habit with Henry James; my summer of Proust; how I came to love Thomas Bernhard; my insatiable appetite for everything Nicholson Baker has ever written.
Somewhere in between I fell in love for the first time. Not only with reading books, but also with the idea that I might write them myself. It’s difficult to pin down the exact date, or the exact book that “flipped the switch,” but it happened near the end of college.
That was when I read, in short succession, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and James Baldwin’s Another Country. The collision of these three books helped me make the leap from literary daydreaming to the conviction that I had to be a writer immediately. I’d already taken the MCAT, but I dropped my plans to apply to medical school. I started writing, or thinking about writing, every single day. It took me a long time to get my head screwed on straight, but I owe something of the past twenty years to the early lessons I absorbed from these three books.
Auster’s book (or books, I should say, the work in question being a trilogy) introduced me to the idea that literature could, without fancy language, rip the top of my head off. I don’t know why, and I don’t dare revisit The New York Trilogy for fear of disappointment, but when Auster’s words entered my brain, I was transported in a way I had never been transported before, other than by illicit substances. Auster’s existential detectives and mysterious double-talk short-circuited my mind, somehow, making me feel, while reading, as though I were in a constant state of déjà vu. Who knew books could do that? Immediately, I wanted to do to my (hypothetical) readers what Auster had done to me.
Then came Pynchon. The Crying of lot 49 (and V., later) taught me that that I was I free to write whatever the hell I wanted to, as long as it was good. (Learning what “good” meant took at least a decade, but let’s not get into that.) Pynchon’s work reminded me that I could, nay, should break with tradition. (Again, learning what “tradition” meant…at least a decade.) Specifically, Pynchon taught me that the canvas was bigger than I’d ever imagined, that something like paranoia could be a worthy subject, that if I wanted to I could draw equally from Ulysses and CHiPs.
Finally Baldwin, and Another Country, a novel that focuses on jazz drummer Rufus Scott, only to have him (spoiler alert) jump off the George Washington bridge a fifth of the way into the book. The sheer chutzpah of this move, narratively speaking, appealed to my twentysomething tastes, but what remained with me from the Baldwin, what was planted inside me and grew, was his attention to rhythm, on the sentence level, on the paragraph level, on the chapter level, and so on. And, more significantly, his fearless exploration of characters utterly unlike himself, his willingness to plunge into their various points-of-view, rendering them with depth, intensity, and soul. Baldwin taught me that as a novelist you can go anywhere, with anyone, as long as you’re willing to inhabit your characters completely.
That, in a three-peanut-shell, is when I fell in love. I don’t dare revisit this idiosyncratic triumvirate. For me, these books belong to a particular time and place, and I’m happy to keep it that way.