Monday, December 15, 2008

A Short Catalogue Of Things You Think You Want

For a long while, my b.f. has struggled to share my passion for books, as he, along with many other people I know (mostly males, for whatever reason) tends to prefer to communicate and learn from listening rather than reading. For a long while, I have struggled to accept this, as I live and breathe through the books I read, and generally tend to share them and talk about them with everyone I know while I am reading them, and often for months afterwards. However, we had a bit of luck over this last Thanksgiving break, because the b.f. had a long drive home to his family in the South, and he quickly grew sick of the increasingly inane talk radio dominating the airwaves Down There. So he decided to try out audiobooks for the first time in his life -- and found that he thoroughly enjoyed them and retained the info very well.

And so it came to pass that for the last 18 hours of his drive up to Boston through the blue ridge mountains down in Tennessee and the traffic snarls of New York City, the b.f. became acquainted (at my behest) with one of my favorite books: "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith.

Ironically, it was because of this b.f. that I discovered Zadie Smith -- I found her book "White Teeth" (which I like even more than I like "On Beauty") sitting on his bookshelf, in the "purchased for an English class that I then transferred out of" section. I read it cover to cover with barely a breath or a meal in between, it was so enjoyable.

When the b.f. returned, the first thing we talked about (at five in the morning, in the dark with the dog sleeping soundly between us) was Zadie Smith. Her masterful command of tone and dialect and narrative. Her bizarre and lovable characters. Her ability to run up and down the black and ivory keys of race and class and intellect like a virtuosic piano player. Her ability, which she shares most notably with the writer Junot Diaz, to say words like "postmodern" and "dude" in the same sentence. Her ability to engage us both as a very particular kind of modern young reader, despite the fact that we experienced her in two different mediums.

I aspire to sound like Zadie Smith one day. Not to speak in her enviably smoky North London accent, of course -- which I remember clearly from when she held me and my fellow audience members in thrall at the Brookline Booksmith when she came to read "On Beauty" for the first time years ago -- but to play the keys of culture the way she does, in full-length narrative form.

In the meantime, while I work on my writing and we wait for Smith to come out with a new novel, the b.f. and I are enjoying this essay Smith wrote for The Face back in the day, which exemplifies the kind of range, humor, randomness and preternatural wisdom one will find in her longer work. It comes at a good time of year for me -- at a time where we're reflecting on how far we've come and trying to hang on to some semblance of humanity and simplicity through the insane holiday season. I've decided to post it here, in part to save my friends the trouble of having to listen to me rave about Smith one more time.

A Short Catalogue Of Things You Think You Want
by Zadie Smith

So, what is it that you think you want? The received wisdom goes that you want Fame, that we all want it now, the same way our parents wanted a good melon. But it only means one thing, it has only ever meant one thing: more people knowing you than you know people. Everything else is an accessory. Just don't bother with this thing, more people knowing you than you know people. Shun it. Put a black cross on your door. It's no fun. It's just for people who have lost something. Amputees.

What else? Well, you want Muscle Definition and at any cost. Nothing I can say can convince you otherwise, and you will get your trainer and your home gym, even though I am not alone and there are others who would like to touch you, soft as you are, in this hard city. But you think hardness is what you need to survive these days, and maybe you are right. I can't fight you (I'd lose).

Now, your mother tells me you want Something That's Comfy Like A Sofa But Doesn't Look Like A Sofa, because you hate the suburbs and you never want to go back there, but at the same time you appreciate the fact that everybody's got to sit down. This is a laudable statement. Only, it wasn't the sofa that made life suburban, and it wasn't the curtains or the carpet or the neatly trimmed flowerbeds. It ran much deeper than that. And no amount of Conran furniture and Japanese wall prints will change what's in the marrow of you.

You want it, I want it, we all want The Love Of Someone Better Looking Than Us. Maybe you have someone better looking than you sitting right next to you now, reading over your shoulder, stroking on the nape of your neck. It's like having the TV on, isn't it? Shiny, pretty, distracting. You've got human TV all the time, you lucky thing.

Of course, some of you are more hardcore than that. You want A Big Shiny Cause You Can Get Behind and, friends, I can see your point. After all, your great-grandfather got a war, so did your grandfather -- hell, even your dad got the Sixties. What did you get? Bupkiss. Or rather, a whole load of intricate claims and counter-claims, civil conflicts involving five different factions, rights that look like wrongs and vice versa. Feels like too much sometimes, huh? You'd like things a little simpler, more black and white. Well, that's over. Frankly, everyone's tired of protecting you from what some people deal with every day. Best advice I can give you is to start small. Sort out your bathroom cabinet and go from there.

Surely any right-minded 21st-century type wants to Get Sushi, Whenever, Wherever? And a Decaf Chocolate Mocha Espresso, Anytime, Anywhere? Well, want it, but know what it is that you're wanting. I read that Leonardo called it a service-station culture which takes the needs of a Fat White American and reproduces them all across the globe. No, I couldn't believe he said anything that smart, either.

Speaking of Leo, is it true you still wish to be Forever Young? To be, or to be with, The Perfect Woman? A cautionary tale: my 73-year-old father has the hots for the big-haired one off Friends. He thinks about her constantly. That is what happens in a culture that won't put childish things away. Remember: these two things do not exist. Remember: these two things will hurt you more than anything else, if you let them.

In the end, it's New Trainers you want and don't try to tell me different. Well, the good news is you don't only think you want them. You really want them. Despite their three-month life span, Nike's profits and the children who make them. Because they are beautiful, because they are Art. And as we have learnt these 20 years, Art will make you do shit like that, nine times out of ten.


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