CULTURE APRIL 5, 2010
by Jake Silverstein
W.W. Norton and Company, 231 pp., $23.95
The famous magazine writer is a paradoxical figure, because he or she is famous mainly to other magazine writers. This may have something to do with the landfill destiny of magazines themselves or, more likely, the typical length of magazine pieces. Yet again, size distressingly matters. Most famous magazine writers eventually come to terms with this and publish a book.
Since publishing “What Is Poetry? And Does It Pay?” in Harper’s Magazine in 2002, Jake Silverstein has been a famous magazine writer—and on this reviewer’s short list of the best young magazine writers in the country. (Silverstein and I are both contributing editors for Harper’s, though to the best of my knowledge we have never met.) In the essay, Silverstein submits a poem to a dubious outfit known as the Famous Poets Society and is shortly invited to its annual poetry convention in Reno, Nevada. There, he is told, he will compete with several hundred other poets for a $25,000 cash prize. The catch is that registering for the convention will set back the young poet almost $500. “It was not exactly what I had imagined,” Silverstein tells us. “I’d taken this for a legitimate prize and not the shadowy scheme it now appeared to be. . . . I was about to throw the letter away when it dawned on me that there was still the matter of the $25,000.”
Off to Reno Silverstein goes. Of course, his awakening to the contest’s “shadowy” aspects is as patently manipulative as claymation. This is exactly what Silverstein had imagined, and the delight of the essay is in watching him maintain his false innocence as he befriends his fellow poets and good-naturedly describes the contents of their verse. Of a poem entitled “On My Way to Shea,” Silverstein writes that it “rhymed and had a metrical structure that [the poet] regularly defied. There was a clever twist at the end when the narrator, who you think is a fan, turns out to be a player.” He goes on to assert that another poet’s elegy for Dale Earnhardt “was every bit as mournful and sad as Shelley’s ‘Adonaïs.’” It all sounds very mean—and, I suppose, it is—but it is also heartbreaking.
One crucial part of the essay that is not faked is Silverstein’s interest in the lives and aspirations of the poets he meets. But when Silverstein’s poem unexpectedly takes third prize, and he walks to the podium to accept his $1,000, he writes of having an out-of-body experience so powerful he momentarily forgets his own name. Here Silverstein manages, unexpectedly, to collapse the distance between himself and his fellow poets. In this beautiful moment, he is as unironically happy to have been honored for his verse as anyone else in Reno. I have probably read this essay twenty or thirty times over the last eight years, and every time I marvel at its velvet-scalpel descriptions and its wonderfully tricky empathy.
“What Is Poetry? And Does It Pay?” now goes by the title of “Chapter III” in Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction, a title so awful one can only assume its awfulness is intentional. This is a book about journalism, by which Silverstein clearly means magazine writing, as one of his recurring gags is getting interested in some topic (a newly elected Mexican mayor, a biblically prolonged drought in West Texas) only to find that The New Yorker has already published a long piece on the subject. It is also about the Devil, and whether he is at work in the desert outland of the American southwest. It is also about a certain laconic young man’s journey from small-town journalist to great magazine writer (though Silverstein, of course, never puts it that way). It is one of the weirdest books I have ever read.
We may begin with the most obvious weirdness: half of the book is fact and half is fiction. The factual chapters alternate with clearly identified fictional chapters, though Silverstein remains the narrative’s central character, and his determination to become a journalist, though somewhat sundered near the end of the book, is the presiding emotional impetus.
The preface explains why Silverstein chose to divide his book between the actual and the invented. It seems that one early traveler through the American southwest, a Franciscan friar named Marcos di Niza, lied enthusiastically about what he saw there. Most of Nothing Happened and Then It Did takes place in West Texas and northern Mexico, and Silverstein wonders whether the monk simply succumbed to the region’s “giant solitudes. . . . [a]lone on the plain, a man tells himself stories about who he is that draw from both domains,” which is to say, the real and imaginary. Silverstein writes that he has “taken great pains” to avoid the monk’s “fundamental error” by telling us what is factual and what is fictional. Silverstein assures the reader that he has no “wish to deceive by passing off fiction as fact, as so many have done.” What he does want is to “permit the real to mingle with the imagined, as it does in the deserted labyrinth of the mind.”
I confess to admiring the syntax here (particularly the iambic loveliness of its conclusion) while being unsure as to what Silverstein actually means. If I had to guess, I think he is basically copping to what most magazine writers know is true, which is that some measure of fictionalization is unavoidable in what the trade calls “feature writing.” This is not to say that magazine writers make things up, exactly; but the magazine writer’s contrapuntal arrangement of detail and selective use of quotation is close enough to fiction writing to make the distinction between the two often nebulous. Whether a story is “true” has surprisingly little bearing on with the various decisions a writer must make. Where does one begin? At what point does one introduce narrative complications? And where does one end? A magazine writer takes a “true” story, breaks it down into artificial (if not arbitrary) narrative blocks, and shapes “what happened” into the one thing that real life does not and cannot resemble—a story. Nonfiction writers create stories; they do not find them.
One of the reasons that Silverstein’s nonfiction is so good is that it reads like fiction. As it turns out, he is also a good fiction writer. How does his fiction read? Pretty much exactly like his nonfiction. Every chapter here has a virtually identical, coincidence-heavy, almost Hardy Boyish arc. A naïve, bumblingly diligent young man stumbles upon some unsolved mystery (the location of Ambrose Bierce’s grave, buried treasure) or a fascinating character (a French cross-country racer, a Mexican-American wooden-pallet magnate) or a striking cultural gathering (a poetry convention, a McDonald’s opening in rural Mexico). The young man decides he would like to write about his discovery, and wonders whether he is up for the job. He journeys heavy-heartedly out, makes a catastrophic misjudgment, and ends up in the place where he began.
The book purports to be a chronicle of Silverstein’s writerly failures, and yet we have been reading his work in leading magazines for close to a decade and now hold in our hands his very good book. The fact and fiction, in other words, are less clearly labeled than Silverstein claims. Were he any less of a writer, his reappearing tropes and structural repetitiveness would grow wearisome. But his adventures, real or fictional, are at their worst highly amusing and at their best marvels of droll virtuosity. Indeed, his prose often reads as though it were composed by a noticing machine cooled by a bank of poetic heat sinks. Silverstein describes one man, for instance, as being “extraordinarily calm. Even biting his fingernails he seemed calm, as if the nails were too long and he was only making adjustments.”
The book has two weaknesses, one overt and one covert. The overt weakness arises whenever Silverstein resorts to pensées about journalism: “The journalist is a cipher. He has no nation, no family, no future, no past.” Or: “There was a believing and an examining frame of mind . . . and whereas poetry required an ability to believe, journalism required an ability to examine, since it was a tool by which secrets were revealed and truth uncovered.” (Both of these cryptic asides, it should be said, occur in fictional chapters.) The book’s covert weakness concerns the overly deliberate manner in which its fact and fiction are presented. A part of me wishes Silverstein had permitted the Cuisinart of his imagination to do its work and leave unclear which parts are fact and which are fiction, especially given that the fictional pieces all appear to have solid factual grounding, and that the “Jake Silverstein” of the non-fiction pieces is, I have no doubt, as fictional as anything in the book. (When I began writing magazine pieces, I found I could no longer write first-person fiction. My first-person voice now belonged to a recurring character of my own creation named Tom Bissell, a smarter and more clumsily likeable version of myself.) No publishing house in its right mind would have allowed Silverstein to go forth with such an unidentifiable book, and so one is left with a frustration less directed at Silverstein than our common labels of literary designation, which are as tightly enforced as they are, in certain cases, utterly insufficient. (Melville and Defoe, to name but two canonical writers, both published fiction as purported fact.)
This greatly entertaining and extremely funny book was conceived out of a clear dissatisfaction with our labels of literary designation. But the revolt is an indeterminate one, for the book does not slip through the bars designed to hold it; it embraces them. This is, in the end, why Nothing Happened and Then It Did is so weird. In its attempt to break the literary law, it dutifully stops at every red light. It is almost as though Silverstein asks you to follow him into a battle that both you and he know he will lose. He is such a good nonfiction writer that you follow him anyway. He is such a good nonfiction writer, in fact, that you do not believe a word he says.
Tom Bissell is the author of five books. His latest, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, will be published in June.
(Flickr photo credit: theseanster93)