JE: I met Robert Anasi at a conference in Wenatchee, which was every bit as sexy as it sounds. That’s just how I roll, dawg. Conferences in Wenatchee. Readings in Ellensburg. Keg parties in Port Angeles. But I digress. The best thing about meeting Robert Anasi was to hear him wax about New York, particularly Brooklyn, most particularly Williamsburg, the setting for his forthcoming memoir, The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (FSG, August), which provocatively chronicles the gentrification of one of New York’s last bastions of starving artist, pre-hipster glory. Anasi’s love story to a bygone neighborhood is textured, insightful, and gripping from the first page. This is a great read, not only for New Yorkers, but for urban dwellers in cities all over America who have watched their cities lose their intrinsic vivacity and unique local flavor over the past three decades.
Here, in his own words, is Robert Anasi’s When We Fell in Love:
When We Fell In Love by Robert Anasi
Like all nerds of my generation, I started off with science-fiction. By age 13, I would spend hours indexing the rows of SF paperbacks on my two bookshelves. I had Ace Doubles, most of the Dell ‘Conan’ series, thirty or so of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Eternal Champion’ saga (how did he write so fast?) and too many of the perverted ‘Gor’ novels of John Norman – The Book of O for sexually frustrated bookworms.
Having evolved since then, I’d like to believe that my tastes already inclined toward subtler work. To a certain extent that’s true – there was a light-bulb flash when I discovered wit through Jack Vance, and Moorcock Goth still has plenty of charm (My mental image of Hamlet looks a lot like Elric). For a long time though, I liked a lot of heroic crap. I had dozens of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and I should probably cringe over how many times I read Pellucidar and John Carter, Warlord of Mars. I loved Philip K. Dick’s drug-fueled hallucinations, but I also loved Robert Heinlein’s 1950s American machismo projected into outer space (until he dropped acid, or tried to adapt to the Boomer market, and grokked it all up).
As a kid, I was reading for story, not for tone. But tone shaded how I read. On some semi- conscious level I already understood that R.E. Howard’s Conan was more interesting than the Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp versions published decades later (For Howard’s Conan think Jason Momoa, with Carter-de Camp straight Schwarzenegger). Still, I was an adult before I realized how Howard used Conan to market his death-obsessed meditations – and how much Jorge Luis Borges borrowed atmosphere from ‘Weird Tales.’ The Howard stories all end in Romantic death, with Conan the weary survivor (in Howard’s non-Conan stories, everyone dies). Carter and de Camp failed to capture the same desperate gloom, probably because they were less obsessed with dying than Howard, who shot himself in the head the day his mother slipped into a fatal coma.
Yet a genre addiction wasn’t enough to make me a writer; I thought I was going to do something useful with my life. My mother always said, ‘You’re smart, you should be a doctor,’ never mind that she was a nurse and hated doctors. Other times, I decided to be an architect or an engineer – I saw myself flying off to Africa where I would cure malaria and build dams to bless benighted Third-Worlders with the benefits of electricity.
When I was fifteen my parents transferred me from an inner-city high-school to a Catholic school in the suburbs. The culture shock was intense – I went from a multi-kulti holding pen ‘P-Funk’ graffitoed on lockers to a whitewash of suits and ties, and obligatory masses on high holy days. My standing didn’t improve among fellow Catholics – bullies still kicked me around. In fact, the suburban bullies were crueler than the kids in ghetto school. No one at Hope High (‘Hope for the Hopeless’) could understand what the white nerd was doing there, which made me a charming curiosity, but at the LaSalle Academy for Young Men, I was close enough to the Irish and French-Canadians from Warwick and Johnston that I had to be corrected – why did I act so weird when, with the right letter jacket, I could be just like them? The reward for being different included having gum stuck in my hair, my head slammed into a lunchroom counter, and, a highlight, getting KO’d by a hockey player on a Providence street corner.
In sophomore English class I found a haven. The teacher was the strangest man I’d ever met. TS had been a Trappist monk and he used to tell us that he would lie out in fields at night and ‘listen to God laughing.’ Other times, class would start and he’d say nothing, just sit behind his desk and stare at us while we stared back. Behind his desk he hung prints of artworks I’d never seen before – Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo’s Pietà. TS was a fan of the Transcendentalists and I associated his archaic beard with the letters he showed us from an ancestor who’d fought in the Civil War. Depending on how angry we made him, and how hungover he was, his face shaded from lobster red to heart-failure purple. He was also gay, not out, not at a Catholic boy’s school in 1983, but open enough to make us suspicious – especially after he developed a crush on one of my classmates. The classmate was straight but TS wouldn’t accept this, his logic along the lines of: ‘I love you, and I’m gay, so you must be gay too.’
TS was the first adult I met who treated me like a human being. He talked about the importance of keeping a journal; I started keeping a journal. He told me I wrote well, and so I wrote more. I craved approval in a form that made sense: words on the page. It was TS who told me Ulysses by James Joyce was the greatest novel ever written.
In his class we read a few stories from Dubliners – including ‘An Encounter’ – and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The short stories were more insubstantial than anything I’d read before, almost too insubstantial to grasp. They didn’t end with a ravished slave girl or disemboweled sorcerer. The stories hit hard but I didn’t understand why. TS told us how Joyce had hijacked the religious term ‘epiphany’, and I walked around my neighborhood at night, hoping for epiphanies of my own. Portrait was easier to follow than the stories. An Irish Catholic upbringing and suffering at the hands of the church was something I understood. I’d grown up in a decaying church staffed by mummies – senile nuns and priests with false teeth and canes. They still scared us, because they could still backhand us, but their powers had faded. The Catholicism that had shaped my parents was dying, organ systems shutting down one after the other. At school, I felt trapped in the corpse of a dead giant, all catacombs and dark tunnels.
The church Joyce wrote about was the ancestor of mine – but a century younger and with a lot more muscles. Northeastern U.S. Catholicism was an Irish offshoot encoded with the same mix of psychological intimidation and sexual repression. Like Joyce, I piled up mortal sins and shuddered at descriptions of the hellfire that would roast me through eternity. In my church, the brain had died first and by the time I reached my teens, there was no one around to make a convincing argument for God. Joyce had smooth-talking Jesuits to confound him Thomas Aquinas. Me? In the sixth grade, a nun dragged from retirement insisted that moon was bigger than Mars. Her argument: ‘Look in the sky at night. The moon is bigger, right? Mars is just a dot.’ That wasn’t about to convert a kid who owned Young’s Manual of Astronomy. A year before that, another decrepit nun running my First Communion classes had told us that she could mold a figure out of clay and order it walk, and it would, because she had faith. ‘Do it,’ I said. She demurred. While the Catholic deity continues to give me nightmares at age 45, his PR team couldn’t convince an eleven year old. The old order had lost its grip.
I’d been prepped for the divine though, and I needed something sacred to take the place the Trinity had vacated. Ulysses found me at the right time. My edition was from the Modern Library, 1961, the edition with the black cover and the first letter for each chapter stretching across an entire page. The Bible had a black cover too; God didn’t need a cool graphics or a shredded bodice (and who would God’s publisher get to blurb him, Nietzsche? ‘I know I said he was dead but, man, this guy sure can speak in tongues’). The page-length opening letter wasn’t Joyce’s idea but it fit, the enormous ‘S’ of ‘Stately plump Buck Mulligan’ sweeping you into chapter one. Holding the book I felt the same way I did in the boredom of mass, when the miracle finally happened. The altar boys rang handbells and the priest turned bread and water to body and blood. That was magic. Ulysses was another version of transubstantiation, one that made a book sacred.
So I read Ulysses. Or, more accurately, I turned pages. Almost all of it was beyond me. A few sentences impressed me as ‘beautiful’, and I wanted to experience beauty. ‘On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.’ I felt that, Joyce at his most intentionally ‘poetic.’ Epiphanies came in profusion. Molly’s breathless soliloquy was forty pages of epiphanies. Then you had the technical innovations, large and small. Of course a purring cat sounded more like, ‘Mrkgnao’ than ‘Miao.’ Stream of consciousness was the big discovery though. It exposed the way people really thought: about crime, about sodomy and humiliation, all in run-on sentences. Joyce had blown away the traditions and pieties that the priests had used to hide the truth. It made him a prophet, of a god more honest than the one the nuns had forced on me.
I was a late-comer to the Church of Joyce: a lot of other writers before me had gone to their knees before his holy book. Even subject-verb-object Hemingway gave stream-of-consciousness a shot (with To Have and Have Not) and Joyce is the one person Hem doesn’t trash in his bilious memoir. Despite Joyce’s comment that ‘When I hear the word “stream” […] what I think of is urine…’, we all believed we held the True Cross. Every writer who followed the calling had to show his worthiness and manufacture a doorstop, a toe-breaker, seven-hundred-plus pages or so of dense prose to honor the master. The readers? If they didn’t suffer like pilgrims toiling up to a shrine on bloody knees, they wouldn’t be absolved. Entertainment meant sacrifice.
It’s hard to underestimate the damage Joyce did to the novel. So many difficult books, for so many years. The list of hierophants is long – from John Dos Passos to Malcolm Lowry, John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino, and that’s just in English. I came to the cult late but it still took me a decade after college to free myself – my (unpublished, unpublishable) first novel has an entire chapter written in stream-of-consciousness interspersed with the lingo of short-order cooks (really). The writing isn’t terrible, it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. It was foolish to try to imitate Joyce’s style(s), when even a master like Beckett only became great when he turned away from fireworks and wrote less, and less, and less. I still regularly open Ulysses to any page and am reliably dazzled, amazed, rewarded, by what I read, but that’s not where I continue to learn from him. For me, Joyce succeeds where so many of his imitators failed because he rooted his efforts in the complexities of a society – from drunks at a working-class bar to aesthetes having a pissing contest in a library. And he’s always funny.
In the decades since I freed myself from the Ulysses cult, I’ve found my inspiration in social complexity: boxers at an inner-city gym, bohemians in an after-hours coke bar, sun worshippers whose blurry faith took them to the eastern slopes of the Andes. Style matters to me, a lot, but I try to let the material guide me toward the style. In a recent essay in the London Review of Books, Adam Mars wrote that: ‘All writers overrate the impact of writing, or else they would choose another line of work…’ I plead guilty, but at least I’m not an investment banker. Ulysses told me that writing mattered, and despite the vow of poverty that my career imposed on me (and I’d rather be poor than chaste), there are few days where I wake up with regrets, about writing anyway.
Robert Anasi is the author of The Gloves: A Boxing Chronicle (Northpoint Press). His third book The Last Bohemia: Scenes from Life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) will be published in August of 2012. His second book of non-fiction Golden Man: The Remarkable Quest of Gene Savoy is suffering in a strange publishing limbo, awaiting redemption. Robert’s journalism, interviews and reviews have appeared in many publications including the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Observer, Salon, and Publishers Weekly. He has received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and is currently a Chancellor’s Club Fellow and a Schaeffer Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. He is also a founding editor of the literary journal Entasis.