July 29, 2017

Subtraction



Hello friends—I hope you’re well.

For a long time, I thought about the sort of life that I wanted to live. Or, more accurately, I thought about the kinds of things I didn’t want in my life anymore. That’s the way I was raised, I guess, to achieve what one wants via subtraction because there is so little in this life really worth attaining. When I was at Tin House, I had many conversations about Denis Johnson and George Saunders and other such writers, who move the ordinary into a feverish register in order to capture something about the ways in which life can corrode in our very hands. I said something like, “Oh, I had a hard life, and so I don’t particularly find that sort of thing interesting to read about. I’m more interested in subtraction, compression.” One of my housemates asked me what I meant by that, and I said that I’d seen such ugly things in this world that what interested me was beauty and simplicity, an erasure of the facts, a submersion.

What interested me was how one got on after trauma, how one moved through the world, through the quiet spaces that issue up between moments, how one has to get by. I was always more interested in that. Because I felt it would be easy for me to write the ugliness in a direct fashion; it didn’t seem like art to me to set it down. It seemed easy. It seemed tacky. There was no difficulty in it for me, and I felt that there was no point in going on about it if everyone could just see it already. I’m not moved by it, by the manic, by the explosive, by the wild and frenzied. I had no way to turn it all into art, and so I set about subtracting it, submerging it, and watching what emerged from its absence. 

I’ve had a lot of noise in my life, and what I’m interested in is quiet.

Paul Lisicky and I talked about that word, how troublesome it could be. There is a way in which people talk about domestic writing or personal writing that does not set itself on fire—they call it quiet. They call it still. They call it muted. As if there were anything quiet about relationships that go awry. As if love turned back on itself like a rotting fingernail or graying tooth does not pound in the body and the mind like an ache, like encroaching madness. When someone calls my writing quiet, I often wonder what they were expecting. What is quiet about life? What is quiet about home? What is quiet about relationships? Perhaps it’s just that my experience of relationships is always fraught and very loud and very disruptive that when I read such stories, I can’t help but to hear all of the various pitches and tones that overlay one another. Maybe it’s that other people were brought up with such serenity that they fail to apprehend the minute shifts that signal trouble, chaos, ugliness. Maybe, brought up on love, they can’t imagine how it would turn or could turn against them. Sometimes, it seems to me that such people have had it so good for so long that they’ve forgotten that not everything works out so easily or so well for everyone, and that a scene in which two people fail to connect or to initiate the thing that will save them from themselves or from each other is as loud as anything conjured in the histrionic stylings of modern masters.

When I was very young, I wanted a house in the woods. I wanted to eat from wooden bowls and drink from stone cups. I wanted to live like Dr. Quinn, medicine woman. But I think more than that, I wanted to be left to my own devices, to be walled off from my brother and my parents and my cousins. I wanted to live alone in a personal society made up of minor things, minor joys. I wanted to be alone because that seemed to me the best sort of life, the purest kind of happiness. The ultimate subtraction, the folding down of all my life’s dimensions to a single point. I wanted the sweetness that comes with waking up and not having to worry about who would call me a faggot or Brenda or pinch me or burn me or pull the hair from my arms or between my legs. I wanted a ringing, white emptiness.

A lot of people write very loudly. I wonder if they know that. When I read slush, the thing that I notice over and over is how loud writers can be. Things drop dead in the first line. Things explode. We are thrust into systems. We are given five minutes to live. We are drowned in a sea. I almost never know what to do with a story that is loud. I almost never know how to comprehend it except as a plea on the part of the writer to be extricated from a level of comfort that is beyond my grasp. Loud stories always feel like a clumsy and stiff refutation of privilege to me. Loud stories always feel like someone with very little to say making up for it by turning the volume to eleven, which is certainly a strategy one can use. I don’t know what to do with such noise except to close my eyes and count to ten and try again to enter it.

If you cut out the noise in some stories, they collapse on themselves because they are all premise. I like stories that have murky guts, whose insides are cloudy and opaque. I like stories with good form, an intentional structure to them, even if it is an unusual one. I like stories that do not rush. I like stories that are quiet in the way that a forest can be quiet—full of noises, full of silence, full of air, full of movement so fine that it’s almost invisible and yet is everywhere, stirring, guiding you without you knowing that you’re being guided. I like stories that threaten to dissolve when you touch them. I can’t abide noise anymore. I feel like something’s frayed inside of me.

When I walk home from lab, there are always sirens in the street. I have to stop and put my hands to my ears. I have to stop because the noise is overwhelming. I can barely hear the wind as the trucks or cars whip by because the sirens are so enormous. Someone asked me what I was looking forward to most in Iowa City, and I said, “The quiet.” They looked at me funny, and I could feel myself making a pained expression, “It’s so loud here. I can’t stand it anymore. If I don’t leave, I’ll die.” And the thing about it was that I was exaggerating, but I meant every word. This city is eating me alive. The noise is eating me alive. There is so much of it. Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only one who can hear it. All that noise in the street and the alleyway and the bus and stores and the sidewalks, everywhere, voices and explosions and sirens and wailing and the crash of the lake and all those people, their voices like shards of glass shattering over tin.

When you subtract something, you are left with two quantities. There is the remainder of the thing you subtracted from, and then there is the new thing. When we think of subtraction, we often only think of the remainder because in our minds, we dump the thing that we subtracted away and turn back to what remains. When you think, 12-3 = 9, you only think about the 9. But there is out there somewhere a corresponding 3. And the thing about that is, the 9 is always just a diminished 12. The 9 is not whole and complete. The 9 was once a 12 and it is a 9 because you’ve removed something from it. The specter of the 12 haunts the 9. But these days, I’m more interested in the 3. In that way, it’s not subtraction at all, but an exhumation, an excision. What of these worlds we remove and cast off, whole? The 3 is not a diminished 12 because the 3 existed at the same time as the twelve. The 12 and the 3 were contemporaries. They were in a conversation, and then one was removed from the other, leaving the other diminished. I used to live in the 9. But now I’d like to live in the 3.

Next Saturday, I leave. I’m going to LA for a week. If you’re there, let’s try to meet. I’d like to see you. And then I go to Iowa. I don’t know if I’ll write another letter in the coming week or weeks. I’ll try to. I’m sorry if this letter wasn’t very good. But I feel like that’s okay. We’re all just trying our best.

Fondly,
Brandon

PS—Here are some things I’ve been thinking about lately (I stole this idea from my friends Alvin and Joyce, whose letters are worth your time and I hope you’ll sign up for them):

i. The song “Waste” from Oh Wonder, particularly the lines:
There's a space in between
Like a grey evergreen
Where the hurt never meant
Stops to linger

ii. The dancer Ryoichi Hirano, who is made of bone and air.

iii. Alexander Chee’s essay about gin “The Poisoning,”
“The anatomy of a bad decision made while drinking is difficult to map if the memory is lost to the drinking. This thing between William and me was not a simple matter. William was a good person and a loyal one. He was never going to cheat on his boyfriend. And I didn’t want him to, either. We loved each other and there was no place for the love to go except into our restraint, and into these martinis, as it were, which we drank as if we could drink the feeling away, as if we could have it and forget it and be done with it, but also never let it go.”