December Guest Blogger John Beckman, author of NYT notable novel The Winder Zoo and of the forthcoming American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt
THAT PRIVATE AND TYPICALLY UNCOMFORTABLE FEELING–IT’S A DIRTY FEELING–THAT SOMEONE IS READING OVER YOUR SHOULDER
Never once having blogged before, and writing on an Olivetti version of Word that does not recognize “blogging” as a verb (its two iterations already in this text have been underscored with disapproving red squiggles), I find myself, even now as I blog, seeking a heritage style of composition that may slide smoothly into this more recent convention, and what I seem to have happened upon so far, as I warm to the beginning of this first blogged sentence, is a free and discursive type of paragraph that has filled but blocks of echoey German text from Von Kleist’s eighteenth-century myths, to Marx’s nineteenth-century tracts, to Benjamin’s daydreams about history and collecting, to Sebald’s unbroken streams of borrowed memories, as well as more recently (although he is German in name alone) to Thomas Heise’s oneiric Lethes of undammed hemorrhaging self-retrieval, for while this blog, or possibly any blog, doesn’t feign, either in rigor or Teutonic solemnity, to belong to any such tradition (if even there is such a tradition to begin with), the freedoms of raffish American blogging and the liberties of willfully unparagraphed prose share the single (if dubious) virtue of leading presumed readers, like Hansels and Gretels, out beyond the cartographical streets of good discourse, down gloomy paths with uncertain outcomes, and ultimately, as this one now seems to be doing, into some shady grove in the Schwarzwald that could be the site for diabolical epiphanies or for scary revelations about the streets left behind – as this grove would have been for Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown – but instead, in this case, is a place for this text and this reader (if anyone still out there fills the latter role) to rest for a moment in the pants-soaking grass and to consider this blog’s actual topic: that private and typically uncomfortable feeling that someone is reading over your shoulder. It’s a dirty feeling, as well it should be, which is why this text had to lure you out here (giving you every chance to turn back) and why you are asked to consider this thought at an unmarked point so deep down the page, where certainly you’re the only reader for miles. But this dirty feeling is to be desired. The reader’s embarrassment and simple paranoia, an uneasy tightening somewhere in the trousers, has long been a staple of Gothic fiction, at least since long-suffering Emily St. Aubert relocated to the ugly castle of Udolpho, and it furnishes its charms to the finest pornography, especially the pioneering Victorian strains, which were written to have been read over would-be perverts’ shoulders; it likewise obtains in the slippery fluid that for centuries has made a vacuum seal between prying, demanding, hyperventilating readers and the tenderly frank and confessional texts of Pepys, De Quincey, Rousseau, and Nin. But my concern here is less with literary genres that have made it their business to foster this feeling (Gothic, pornographic, confessional, whatever), for all of serious literature has done the same – than it is with you, the Internet reader. This text reaches out, in this shady knoll, and lays a friendly hand on your leg, several inches above the knee. While this gesture may seem rather too familiar, it is predicated upon a basic kinship, this text itself being an Internet text. What it sees when it admires your parted mouth (moisture forming around your lips) and steals a look in your furtive eyes (quickly turning to look toward the grass) is a promiscuity every bit as liberal as the history of textuality itself – although you are so young, and so completely jaded. What it sees in that one kaleidoscopic glance is a swirling flash of your fickle mind, consumed by jealousy, ready to flee, teeming with colorful schools of images – jpegs, tiffs, gifs, clips, tweets – almost none of them wholesome or true. They swim by the thousands in silvery unison and turn, then turn, then turn by caprice. (What a funny way to comprise one’s mind.) Yet glancing down you look so demure, even if glancing to catch a stray text – not this text, but a chiming text message. This text responds, like Whitman, with force. It can’t compete. It has to pounce. Like poor Walt Whitman crossing Brooklyn Ferry, on whose public decks he felt so estranged that he sent his love letter one century hence and made a crude pass at future readers, so too will this text, pouncing on the cushiony moss of this glade, “pour my meaning into you.” But then, like that, like a nightingale, you have flown beyond the next tree and the next, and this text may as well never have been written.
John Beckman’s first novel, The Winter Zoo (Henry Holt), was a New York Times Notable Book of 2002. His nonfiction American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt (Pantheon, February 2014) is praised as “at once learned, thrilling, splendidly written and wicked smart…the best book I’ve read about popular culture in ages—or ever.”—Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Beckman’s stories and essays have appeared in Granta, McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Wallace Stevens Journal, The Washington Post, Arizona Quarterly, and Book magazine. A professor of English at the United States Naval Academy, he has taught novel-writing workshops at The Writer’s Center, Bethesda, Maryland. He lives in Annapolis, Maryland with his wife, the critic Marcela Valdes, and their baby daughter. (Photo by Michael Lionstar)