I haven’t seen Ivy in nearly a decade now and haven’t spoken to her in longer. Really, there was only the briefest window when we were anything akin to friends, back in the first days of graduate school, before I made the surprisingly consequential misjudgment of supposing that because she kissed me once she would again. For some years she crossed my mind only rarely, if at all, though now, as I wile away the final days before the publication of my debut novel — plagued by anxiety, yes, but also aswim in preemptive nostalgia for these last hours of innocence — she flits through my thoughts with increasing regularity. In fact, it might not be unreasonable to posit that Ivy, or at least the version of her that is trapped, Persephone-like, in my psyche, is as intrinsic to the book as its very binding. Sometimes I think I wrote it for her.
The opening line goes like this: “Frankly, I’m only a joke because I decided to be.” I intended to establish tone and voice, of course, but I was also responding to something, possibly the last thing, Ivy said to me, although I am not sure she will recognize it as such, or if she’ll even read the book. I have thought of having my publicist send a copy to her agent and request that it be passed along, but in the end I would rather she find her own way to it. There was, early on, some discussion of asking her to blurb the book, as she has made a success of herself and I was rash enough to let slip that we were acquainted, but I managed (barely), with some vigorous backpedaling, to quell my publisher’s excitement and forestall what would have been some intolerably mortifying and in all likelihood unsuccessful forelock-tugging. In any event, my narrator, the writer D.M. Murphy, both does and does not believe what he says, re: jokes and our universal status as same, since he is (drumroll, please) unreliable. He is also, incidentally, me. But, at the same time, not.
The Canon According to D.M. Murphy, a novel by D.M. Murphy, is to be released this Tuesday — released, finally, from the cardboard ova in which its thousands of incarnations are currently incubating in stockrooms and warehouses around the country, released into the hands and minds of this reading public I’ve heard so much about, let loose to make its own way in the world. It’s a kind of birth, this.
There’s more to be said about Ivy, but as that word, birth, beckons irresistibly toward an origin story, I find I am compelled to digress briefly into the many births, many beginnings of D.M. Murphy. So. In the corporeal sense, I entered the world on April 11, 1980, via C-section, at Hart County General Hospital, up near the tip of Michigan’s bemittened middle finger, not far from where Hemingway spent his boyhood summers. I was Daniel Manitou Murphy on my birth certificate, Danny to my parents, Dan at school. (Yes, I hear the Nabokovian echo.) My middle name is a folly of my mother’s, albeit one I long ago embraced, and has as its referent a pair of islands in Lake Michigan: North and South Manitou, forested oblongs that, according to legend, were the Great Spirit’s memorial to twin bear cubs drowned while swimming after their mother to shore. Why my dear genetrix would bestow on her infant an epithet belonging to another mother’s dead offspring remains something of a mystery, but nonetheless I have always liked the name.
My father was an orthodontist before he retired, and my mother worked as his receptionist until they divorced, though I decided long ago that my literary alter ego should have no mother. She ran off, or possibly died — I left the details murky, but her absence is fundamental to the character.
When, five years ago, I first queried my agent (Fitzy, to friends) and sent him one of my D.M. stories, he wrote back, “The satirical elements of this are sharp and at times quite funny, but right now the story’s self-awareness isn’t developed enough. If you can get there, though, the results might be very interesting.”
This took me by surprise as I hadn’t meant the story to be satirical at all, and I did not pursue the correspondence.
At the time I was living in a part of Brooklyn that serves as a kind of voluntary gulag for writers, where gloating shoptalk is the lingua franca and attendance at dull, squeaky-microphoned barroom readings the nightly obligation, and though I wanted few things more than an agent then, I could not yield to the idea of D.M. as comic foil (nor did I grasp the eminent exploitability of the literary world’s appetite for the subversion of self). The character as I’d envisioned him was an embodiment of artistic struggle. Through him, I would take the boredoms and frustrations of my own life and from them spin the golden floss of literature, which, properly stitched and woven, would seduce my readers into feeling my own emotions as profoundly as I did. I saw myself as conducting an experiment in radical empathy, and to strip D.M. of his dignity and make him into a figure of fun seemed both a failure and, worse, a betrayal.
Two years passed, two more trips around the sun while I toiled in obscurity, and then, one blossom-wreathed spring morning, as I waited for my then-girlfriend Elinor’s yoga class to end so we might brunch (I had somewhere entered that phase of bourgeois adulthood in which one uses brunch as a verb), I watched through a studio window while rows of women, legs spread, bent to press their hands to the floor, lifting their spandex-clad asses in my direction. I knew they were not offering themselves to me and, in fact, that I was being a creep, but still I couldn’t help but imagine going from one to the next, pollinating. As they transitioned to Warrior Two, I imagined the consequences that would befall a man careless enough to articulate this passing fancy to his girlfriend. The poor lustful fool would fight to pull the argument from the realm of the emotional to the philosophical; he’d cling too tightly to a rational defense of the harmlessness of fantasy, the value of honesty. A whole narrative fell into my mind, delivered unto me by a dozen or so muses in Lululemon.
I texted Elinor a rain check on brunch, went home, and banged out a first draft. (I turned down other plans 4 u. Next time more warning plz, she replied, though she was appeased by a marked-down bunch of bodega roses.) Within the week I’d sent the story to a literary journal that had been previously impregnable to my charms. The editor’s acceptance email praised my wit and ruthlessness, and though I felt a twinge at his description of D.M. as a “jackass,” I was generally well pleased. I mailed a paper copy of the issue to Fitzy with a note that began, “I don’t know if you remember the work I sent you two years ago, but...” Insert here a misty montage of phone calls and emails and old-school boozy lunches, and today he resides deservedly at the top of my acknowledgements page. Fitzy of the eagle eyes and hollow leg, you saw D.M.’s potential before I did.
Speaking of acknowledgements, there is one person who does not appear in mine but perhaps should, as I have her to thank for suggesting the notional possibility of my vocation. I mean Miss Giles, my sixth-grade teacher, whose knee-length corduroy skirts and patterned tights dominated my pubescent erotic reveries. In the fall of ’91, she cooked up the idea that our class should, over the course of a school year, write novels. Perched on a stool at the front of the classroom, knees crossed and cheeks fetchingly flushed, she talked earnestly about character and suspense and scene, and every month we each slipped a new chapter between the cardboard covers of our books-in-progress. The other kids never seemed to think about their books except when due dates drew near, but I mulled mine over near constantly: while I rode in the car or played left field or sat in front of the television with my father watching the anodyne sitcoms he favored. I became crabby and secretive — “dreamy,” as my mother put it.
“It must be hormones,” I heard her telling my aunt on the phone. “I thought boys weren’t supposed to be like this.”
I went outside and hit a tennis ball against the garage door again and again, raging at her misapprehension that I was under the thrall of something so common and sordid as hormones and not, as I was, possessed by beings and stories I’d discovered while bushwhacking through the wilds of my own mind and spirit.
My best chapter followed the protagonist, a boy named Buck from Chicago (a place I had visited twice and found both terrifying and thrilling, a decadent and transgressive Cockaigne compared to my small, staid hometown), as he had braces installed by his orthodontist father. I had recently undergone said procedure myself, but whilst I had endured in gape-mouthed silence, Buck went abruptly berserk and bit off his father’s index finger. I was proud of the cliffhanger ending and my rendering of the spurting blood, but what Miss Giles praised were details I’d borrowed from life: the bright, hostile lamp poised on its steel arm above Buck’s face; his father’s hairy, overhanging nostrils and invasive, latex-covered fingers; the maddening winching together of his dentition. Miss Giles liked the chapter so much that she ascended her stool, crossed her knees, and, one heel popping idly in and out of a clog, read the whole thing aloud to the class.
A more nimble writer than I would find a subtle way to mark this moment as formative, even primal, the ur-accomplishment that would forever lie beyond the green light at the end of the dock. But I will say only this, openly and bluntly: The sound of my own words issuing from the mouth of a pretty woman brought me ecstasy such as I had not known life might contain.
“You have a real talent for writing,” Miss Giles told me when she handed back my book. As I turned toward that word — talent — like a sunflower toward Helios, she added, “Maybe you’ll be an author when you grow up.”
“Definitely,” I said. “I definitely want to be.”
“I should probably ask for your autograph now, then.” She smiled and squeezed my shoulder, triggering a puny, childish erection mercifully concealed by the mille-feuilles of wood pulp and laminate that were my desk. At the end of the day — I cringe at the memory — I handed her a sheet of lined paper with my signature carefully inked in the empty middle.
Let us skip that Rabelaisian era known as adolescence and hop jauntily to my twenty-fifth year, when I, Daniel Manitou Murphy, received my acceptance letter to a master of fine arts program in fiction writing. This particular program was not my top choice, nor, frankly, my second or third, but I was offered a nice fellowship and the opportunity to teach undergraduates and an excuse to live for two years in the Rocky Mountains, where I’d never been but where I thought I might become an intriguingly rugged version of myself. The biggest draw, though, of course, and the reason I’d applied in the first place, was that Baker Forge taught there. Baker Forge! Hero of my youth. Stubble-faced, denim-swathed pillar of literary manhood. Author of Onioning and You Only Ever Know What You Already Knew and a staggering abundance of terse but heartbreaking short stories and, of course, the much-lauded Reginald Banksman trilogy. (Though, I will regretfully own, I’ve come to conclude the trilogy is a mite overrated.)
When the fateful letter arrived, I was living in Chicago, the siren metropolis of my childhood that, once I began my freshman year at the University of Chicago, had quickly ceased to impress me as anything other than a disappointing gray hive of unfashionable Midwesterners. After graduation I had stuck around out of poverty and baffled inertia, living in a cheap walk-up with a guy named Gerard who’d served with me on the editorial board of our college literary magazine and had since become a paralegal, which I thought of as a woman’s job. I brooded continually over moving to New York, but at the time I lacked the courage, which made me ashamed. I worked in a downtown bookstore. I wore corduroy blazers with pocket squares and tried to the improve the customers via esoteric suggestions. “Try this,” I might say to the matron asking for a good book club book, handing her a copy of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, my arm straining at the weight. “There’s a great deal worth talking about in there.”
If she asked what it was about, I would say, “The elusive nature of truth.”
The night of the acceptance letter, to celebrate, I goaded Gerard into joining me on a bender, starting with shots at our local dive and then moving, at my insistence, in a taxi I paid for, to the lobby bar at the Four Seasons. As the waiter set down a silver tray containing three kinds of bar snacks, I said to Gerard, trying not to slur, “I feel like I’m living that moment in a short story, the one you’re supposed to write toward, after which nothing will ever be the same.”
“I think,” said Gerard, who had also applied to MFA programs but had not been accepted, “that moment is supposed to come when the character realizes something. The realization is what changes things.” He grabbed messily at the wasabi peas. “Epiphanies are internal, not circumstantial.”
“Right,” I said. “Exactly. That’s what I’m saying: I’ve realized nothing will ever be the same. My future’s just like” — I chopped at the air a few inches in front of my face — “right here.”
“Must be nice.” He opened the cocktail menu and made a show of recoiling from the prices.
“It’s on me, man,” I said, and when Gerard didn’t protest, I added, “I insist. Let’s blow some of that sweet fellowship cash. Next year when you get in somewhere, you can return the favor.”
I see now, of course, what a tiresome poseur I was and how little I knew or understood of life and art, but one of my problems has always been that I can never identify and avoid, in the moment, behavior that will come across as dickish or insufferable. I can, however, thanks to my self-critical nature (a volatile witch’s brew of blessing and curse), almost always identify my mistakes in retrospect, sometimes just moments too late, and so I live with the constant feeling that I have been tied to a post on the beach and left to face an endlessly incoming tide of shame. Though I have learned to harness the latent power of such a reliable inflow and channel it productively through the guise of D.M. Murphy, the sensation of self-recrimination remains unpleasant.
For example, I already regret the dedication I chose for my novel — “To Life” — but it has been printed thousands of times and cannot be undone. I regret that my author photo depicts me against a brick wall, eyebrows arched, in a shawl-necked cardigan, not that any of these things — wall, eyebrows, cardigan — are inherently offensive per se, but taken together they render the photo derivative and betray my hopes for consequence. I feel, sometimes, an unease when I am making such a choice, but always my ego overrides it, blinding me to a predictable outcome. This is a process I have tried and failed to subvert and so am forced to dwell with, as though with a less-than-ideal roommate. I regret thanking, in my acknowledgements, the authors who “paved the way for this work,” none of whom I’ve ever met or corresponded with and most of whom are dead. Thank you, Italo Calvino. Thank you, Roberto Bolaño. Thank you, Paul Auster. Thank you, Virginia Woolf. (My editor urged me to include a woman, and Woolf is extraordinary.) Thank you, Diderot.
That night in Chicago, I felt smugly certain that Gerard would never get into an MFA and would go on being a paralegal forever. Then the following year he was accepted into the program that had been my first choice. Do I feel a pang of jealousy? I wrote in my congratulatory email. I confess that I do, though also I believe I have wound up in the right place, for me, for now. But, as it happened, he went to law school instead, and from what I can glean from Facebook, he is rich and happy in his Lake Forest mansion with his three small children and blandly beautiful trophy wife. (I present his carefully curated family images — the figures in them, as Barthes says, “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies” — ostensibly as evidence of his rosy contentment, though I know full well everyone is a flimflam artist on social media. I myself am one. Lately, I’ve been posting every scrap and snippet about The Canon to create an impression of hubbub. I confess I have retweeted compliments. I have described myself, without cause, as “humbled,” though, honestly, what should one say?)
I remember the luxurious heft of my glass at the Four Seasons, how I waved it around as I told Gerard I would quit my job the next day, just walk into the bookstore and say fuck it to everyone and everything, since now I was going to be the one writing the books. I would be the one they put out cheese cubes for and plastic cups of wine. (“I’m really happy for you, man,” Gerard said.) Someday soon I would be staying in hotels like this, paid for by my publisher (ha), and I would sit at the bar nursing a dram after a packed reading or a symposium of some kind, and a beautiful woman would sit next to me, and we’d get to chatting, and when she asked, I would say I’m a novelist, and all women want to have sex with novelists.
This is not true — I know that much by now — though something in me, not the best part, rebelled at the idea of embarking on the publication of The Canon while still attached to Elinor. “So,” she’d said with some bitterness when I ended things a month ago, “you want to be free to fuck your groupies? You think you’re going to have groupies?” I told her that wasn’t it at all. Truly I don’t expect to be flocked by randy, MILFy book club ladies or starfucking MFA students or effervescent chick-lit writers, and I tried my best to explain to Elinor how the issue was more that, at last, after years in the wilderness, I have found myself at a bustling crossroads of possibility. I am living a moment I believe I am obligated to savor and explore to the fullest. What I wanted to make most clear, I said, was that none of this was meant as any denigration, as she had been nothing but lovely and supportive, and I would be forever grateful to her.
She, too, is in my acknowledgements, near the end. Thank you to Elinor, who always believed.
I’m afraid I behaved badly that night with Gerard, though I cannot help but murmur puny excuses having to do with youth and perhaps an excess of excitement during a rare and long-sought moment of vindication. My memories are clouded by alcohol and time, but I know I spouted on a bit and interrupted and self-aggrandized, and by the end Gerard wasn’t saying much. The atmosphere did not improve after the bill arrived — unasked for, but maybe I was getting a tad boisterous — and revealed that his two whiskeys were $30 each. We’d walked home in silence.
Lying on my futon, one foot on the floor to ground myself against the spins, I thought again about how I was like a character in a short story, how this was the moment when everything changed. Why not follow that to its logical conclusion? Write what you know, they said, so why not write about what I knew best, which was being myself and being a writer? At the same time I could explore thorny questions about fiction and reality — the elusive nature of truth, really. Here occurs another birth, of a sort: I would write both as and about a writer named D. Manitou Murphy. The name was distinctive, I thought, even intriguing. Satisfied, I was drifting off to sleep when it occurred to me to that the character would then be addressed by other characters as Manitou Murphy, which sounded like the appellation of a Native American detective or an Upper Peninsula fur trapper or possibly an Irish manatee. No, D.M. Murphy was better, I decided. Stronger.
Even before then, when my writing career was utterly nascent, autobiographical elements had already found their way into my fiction. The story that got me into my MFA was a blunt and rough-hewn piece, not uninfluenced by the work of Baker Forge, derived from the historical facts of my parents’ breakup: how my mother had left my father when I was thirteen, not for another man or because my father was cruel to her or for any reason other than, as she put it, she “imagined a different kind of life for herself.” The crucial difference between her old and new lives, as far as I could gather, mostly had to do with hobbies, as she immediately sought and was hired for another receptionist job (this time in a law office) but started making pottery and became a docent at the lighthouse museum and a volunteer at the animal shelter. She gained weight and doubled down on her earth-mother-ish sartorial proclivities, and she seemed untroubled by the fact that, for his part, my father had been thrown into the deepest of melancholias. Unable to bring himself to hire a new receptionist, he allowed his office to fall into disarray. Unconcerned with being a cliché, he subsisted off frozen dinners and cans of Budweiser, slept in a recliner while infomercials flashed blue over his slack features. I was obligated to visit him in this squalor, to watch game shows and eat from cartons of moldering Chinese leftovers while I seethed inwardly at my mother, who had inflicted this plight upon me. But all she would say by way of apology was “He’s a smart man. He could figure out how to cook and clean if he wanted to.”
In my application story, the mother character took up with a man who built sailboats, who eventually left her for someone younger, throwing her into despondency. It was a cruel narrative, but one I understood better than the reality, which was that, twelve years after the divorce, my mother was still alone but, she insisted, content. She had been the one, in fact, after that first terrible year, to step in and hire my father a new receptionist, a cheerful and competent and pretty-enough young woman who coddled him back to life and married him eight months later and immediately bore him another son — one family, in its mitotic splitting, yielding a new, superficially identical family. I suspected my mother had known she was choosing a replacement wife as well as receptionist, and I was embarrassed for my father, for how he had allowed her to expose the lack of depth or nuance to his preferences, his needs.
One month into Baker Forge’s fall semester workshop, D.M. Murphy made his debut appearance in a short story: “THE FAWN” by D.M. Murphy. It was eighteen pages long and had as its premise the writer D.M. Murphy’s frustration that no one would publish his challenging and unorthodox work. (Alas, I made sure to include secondary characters who told D.M. his work was not only challenging and unorthodox but necessary.) To blow off steam, he went hunting and shot a doe, who, when she fell, revealed a soft and speckled fawn. D.M. left the dead doe and instead slung the fawn over his shoulders and carried it out of the mountains and raised it on a bottle, but after he was betrayed by the woman he loved, he slit the fawn’s throat and butchered and ate it. The final paragraphs leapt forward in time, to when D.M. had become a revered writer. The betrayer-woman attended one of his readings, and they had a stilted and poignant conversation. “You always could tell a story,” she said to him.
The way Baker ran workshop, which is more or less standard, was that first he would ask the writer to read a page or two from the work, and then everyone had to find something to compliment about the piece. In this way, a layer of praise was deposited to cushion the critique that came next and was to be endured by the author in silence. For the first five minutes I jotted down (with a nibbed pen, in a hardcover notebook) praise for my muscular descriptions of nature and for the shocking reveal of the fawn and for the authority of my voice. Through this, Baker sat back in his chair, hands folded over his small potbelly, nodding along. I still wasn’t used to seeing him in person. His face was more lined and his mustache more gray than in the black and white headshots that occupied the entire backs of hardbacks I’d bought at used bookstores in high school, but there was an unexpected twinkle about him, a leisureliness and casualness, as though life were one long sundowner hour spent on a cabin porch, spinning yarns in good fellowship. A few years before, to mild scandal, he had left his wife for a student, a vastly younger woman, a lithe and freckled hippie type with blonde dreadlocks and unshaven armpits and tattoos of lotus blossoms and Sanskrit phrases. I saw her around town sometimes and regarded her with great curiosity, this groovy ingénue who’d stolen Baker Forge’s heart. Among the men in the program, more than one conversation revolved around what she must be like in bed, and our ultimate consensus — that she must be, in short, unusually uninhibited — carried tones of both praise and condemnation.
After the compliments died down, Baker said in his gravelly voice, “All right. So. That’s what’s working. What should Daniel think about when he revises this story?”
I held my ludicrous pen over the creamy pages of my expensive notebook, unnerved that no one had praised the daring move of inserting a version of myself into my fiction, and here, after so much prattling, we return at last to the raison d’etre of this monologue.
Ivy’s voice, low for a woman’s, cut through the silence. “It’s a little up its own ass, isn’t it?”
She was sitting directly across the table and staring down at the manuscript, one page lifted distastefully between thumb and forefinger.
I’d met her at the very beginning of orientation, Ivy. While we sat around playing getting-to-know-you games, I made a painstaking evaluation of her heart-shaped face, glossy black hair, slender figure, pert breasts, and small gold eyebrow ring. I followed this with a point-by-point comparison to the other women, and by the end of the day I had deemed her the hottest girl in the program, a preference that made me feel daring and cosmopolitan, given that she was Filipina, one of only three minority students. I struck up a friendly conversation (my habitual diffidence did not, for once, impair me, since the program’s small size made chatting natural and inevitable), and when she registered interest in the fact that my lodgings abutted a network of mountain trails, I invited her for a hike. I kissed her on that hike, and she kissed me back, and when I tried again later, she demurred, saying she didn’t want any complications while she was settling into the program.
In the weeks between the kiss and the workshopping of “THE FAWN,” I had been careful to be cordial and respectful and a handful of times invited her for a friendly drink that she twice accepted, and only once did I wheedle her about when she might be open to complications. She had laughed and put me off in a way I see now was meant to be discouraging in a permanent sense, but, in the moment, I was sure we would eventually find our way to each other and said as much, eliciting an eye roll that I then lightly and teasingly scolded her for.
I glanced down the workshop table at Baker, assuming he would be a natural ally since Reginald Marksman was both a hunter and clearly his own alter ego, but Baker, under the pretext of stroking his mustache, was hiding a smile. “There might be a more constructive way to phrase that,” he said.
“I don’t know,” Ivy said in a tone that did not actually suggest uncertainty. “The narrator spends three pages moaning and groaning about how no one will publish his fiction and how it’s all a conspiracy and how his genius is being, like, nefariously ignored by this cabal of narrow-minded lit journal idiots who we’re supposed to believe are jealous or something, but, as a reader, I can’t help but think — Occam’s razor — probably his writing just isn’t very good.”
“I have to say I agree,” chimed in another girl, Kendra, who was in her late twenties and on the fat side and aggressively alternative, with cat’s-eye glasses and dyed red hair and lots of colorful tattoos and the wardrobe of a celibate witch. “Like there’s nothing about this character that suggests to me he’s even capable of writing something worth reading. He has no perspective, you know? Also, slightly unrelated, but I think with animal death you really have to earn it, otherwise it seems like a cheap way to manipulate people into feeling something.”
“To me, the lack of perspective is what’s interesting about him, though,” said Fred, a fellow first year I’d been hanging out with. “He’s like an outdoorsy idiot savant. He’s completely baffled by human emotion, but he’s also roiling with it.”
Ivy jumped back in. “What I meant before, I guess, is that the story treats this deluded, silly, kind of horrible person with dire seriousness. So maybe the real problem is that the ‘narrator’” — she made air quotes with her fingers — “is a little too far up his own ass.”
“Hmm,” said Baker, his face now a study in neutrality. “Anyone else?”
After workshop, the tradition was that the two writers whose work had been critiqued would choose a restaurant for dinner, and after that everyone would go to a dark, sticky-floored bar with a depressing jukebox and get drunk as cheaply as possible. What I wanted was to go home to my tiny A-frame that I could afford only by editing college essays online and to get obliterated while watching a DVD and maybe some porn, but I went out to show I was a good sport, ate my burger with a wounded air, and allowed my fellow workshoppers to buy me drinks.
“Don’t let it get you down or throw you off,” said Fred, handing me a bourbon. He had a bushy brown beard and had once worked at a salmon hatchery in Alaska, a detail that, for a while, I contemplated adding to D.M.’s backstory, never imagining that D.M. would one day wear shawl-collared cardigans, live in Brooklyn, and take yoga classes in the forlorn hope of getting laid. “Not everyone in that room is going to be your reader,” Fred went on. “I think the key is to filter out the opinions that fundamentally don’t matter.”
“It’s pretty shitty to publicly tell someone they’re up their own ass,” I said, looking across to where Ivy was standing at the bar and chatting with a red-faced, white-bearded faculty poet, a notorious drunk and lech who wore safari shirts and was always referred to by all three of his names: Harold Tyson Slaughter. She laughed at something Harold Tyson Slaughter said, and he reached out and rested one hand on top of her head. She lifted it off and gave it a high five before setting it on the bar.
“Yeah,” Fred said, nodding amiably. “But the criticism might not feel so personal if you didn’t, you know, name your character after yourself.”
I gestured in Ivy’s direction with my glass. “She likes Lorrie Moore, and Lorrie Moore’s clearly always writing about herself. God forbid she should have a coherent critical rubric.”
Another guy, Garth, joined us. He was a poetry student who’d been in the Army and gone to Iraq and wrote exclusively about his experiences there, which I’d heard from the other poets in his workshop made his work difficult to critique because no matter how unassailably technical their quibbles, he would just mumble that that’s how it was. “What are you guys talking about?” he said.
“Lorrie Moore,” I said.
He pretended to choke on his bourbon. “Fuck,” he said. “Why?”
On our hike, when I’d asked what had made her want to be a writer, Ivy had said, without hesitation, “Lorrie Moore.” We were sitting on a boulder most of the way up a mountain, taking in the view and talking about writing, as writers will. “My parents split up when I was fifteen and already all sorts of messed up, or thought I was,” she said. She wrapped her arms around her shins. “I was going out with an older guy — he was like nineteen, so scandalous — and he worked in a used bookstore, and one day I was wandering down one of those overstuffed aisles where the books are crammed in every which way, and this little skinny spine caught my eye, and it said Self-Help. And I was like, that’s exactly what I need.” She laughed. “I thought it would be some actual self-help book. Thank god it wasn’t. It saved me.”
“I used to work in a bookstore,” I said.
“Yeah? Did you save anyone?”
I thought of Gaddis. “Hard to say. How did Self-Help save you?”
She lay back on the rock, looking at the sky, her hands folded just above where her shirt had ridden up to expose a narrow strip of belly. She said — I’m paraphrasing — that the stories had helped her understand that adults were just people, too, that they fucked up all the time without meaning to or knowing why and that her parents were peering out of their bodies with the same pervasive and permanent confusion as she was peering out of hers. She felt included by Moore’s second-person you, recognized by it, and, reading, she’d experienced a burst of delighted (if queasy) suspense about her life: all she would do, all the ways she would fuck up. She’d felt awe at the scale of the cumulative experience of all people, the living and the dead, which in aggregate was as vast and unfathomable as the universe itself.
“Chicks dig Lorrie Moore,” said Fred.
“My girl doesn’t really read,” said Garth, “which sometimes is annoying but mostly just makes things easier. One less thing to fight about.” For a minute we stood there in silence, all of us tall and bearded and in plaid shirts, bobbing our heads to the Radiohead track emanating from the jukebox, staring into our identical drinks.
I looked at Ivy again, who was still at the bar. Harold Tyson Slaughter was tapping her forearm with two fingers as he talked. I said, “She’s not going to fuck Harold Tyson Slaughter, is she?”
Garth swung around, made a spectacle of surveillance, swung back. “Probably. That motherfucker has gotten an unholy amount of poon over the years. It’s the whole reason these guys teach. Look at Baker’s little Birkenstock babe.”
“I think H.T.S. probably also needs the money,” Fred said.
“Just so you know, Lorrie Moore’s not always writing about herself,” came a voice from behind me. Kendra was sitting in a booth with two second-years, her chubby hands wrapped around a pint of beer. “You’re assuming that because her fiction is so convincing. But some people are capable of actually inventing characters. That’s kind of the point. And, no, Daniel, Ivy’s not going to fuck Harold Tyson Slaughter. She’s being polite.”
“I just find Moore solipsistic and twee,” I said. “That’s all.”
Sitting on that rock, I had told Ivy about my own parents’ divorce. I’d told her how lonely and sad my mother’s life seemed, even if she claimed she was perfectly happy — a denial that for some reason angered me. My distaste for the narrative she’d assigned herself had, unforgivably I suppose, driven me to neglect and avoid her. She and I had nothing in common, I told Ivy. She wasn’t at all literary or intellectually curious, though neither was my father, whose life I found equally unbearable in its bland domesticity. He sponsored his new son’s little league team, the backs of their blue jerseys emblazoned with “Murphy Orthodontics.” His wife festooned their house with signs bearing faux-playful drivel like “In This Kitchen We Dance” and “Keep Calm It’s Almost Wine O’Clock.” Friday was the day for going out for ice cream, and Sunday was the day for church and televised sports, and all of my father’s days, to my mind, were occasions for despair, as he progressed steadily and contentedly and compliantly toward death.
“I don’t know how not to be contemptuous of them,” I confessed. “Their lives have no heft.”
She sat up and gazed over the sweeping coniferous prospect below. “Have you written about that?”
“About that feeling of not wanting to judge someone for being ordinary but doing it anyway. It could be interesting. I think our worst qualities bear investigating, you know?”
“I guess, although I don’t think I’m judging so much as observing.”
“Why do you think your mom’s sad even though she says she isn’t? I think I’d want to believe the happier version.”
“Honestly, it’s less that I really think she’s sad and more that I think what she’s chosen for herself is sad.”
“I don’t know, maybe I think it’s pathetic to claim to be more fulfilled by dogs and cats and pottery classes than having a marriage and a family.”
“Maybe she’s glad not to have to tend to anyone.” She looked at me. “Is it that you’re angry at her for being happier without your father?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. Maybe.” I saw Ivy wanted to be right, to help, and I said, “Are you secretly a shrink?”
She smiled, showing teeth, and I thought of the word incandescent, an obvious but apt descriptor. “I’m a shrink sent here to infiltrate the writers. To study their neuroses.”
“Thank god I met you,” I said. “One hike and you’ve diagnosed me.”
She peered grandly down her nose, said with mock hauteur, “Indeed you are lucky to have met me.”
“Indeed,” I said. I leaned over and kissed her then, those full, soft lips. After a moment she pulled back. One hand, palm out, warded me off, but gently. When we were back down the mountain, parting ways, I tried again, but the hand came up more quickly and firmly; she angled her face away. Off balance, leaning forward, I felt as though I were falling through a ghost of her, of what I had thought she would be.
Kendra, in the bar, gave me a long look through her cat’s-eye spectacles. “And yet,” she said, “for some unfathomable reason, Lorrie Moore is famous, and you’re not.”
“Lorrie Moore’s like a million years old,” I said. “So she has a head start.” I knew immediately that this was neither true nor a good riposte, and Kendra saw that I knew and smirked. I turned back to my friends.
“Fuck Lorrie Moore,” Garth said. “Like really.”
Ivy had moved to a booth by then. Harold Tyson Slaughter was still at the bar. When I next looked for her, she was playing pool, and Harold Tyson Slaughter was still at the bar, squeezing the upper arm of a poet girl while he talked at her. After that the bar got crowded, and I lost track of Ivy until closing time, when it dawned on me that both she and Harold Tyson Slaughter were gone. “She went home with him,” I said to Fred. “I knew it. Didn’t I call it? Didn’t I?”
Fred steered me out the door. “Naw, man. I think she just went home.”
“Girls like that...” I said. “Girls like that...” I didn’t finish the sentence. I didn’t yet know what I wanted to say. I’d had the idea Ivy would approach me at some point during the evening to clear the air, perhaps even to apologize, but because she had kept her distance, I concluded she was ashamed of herself. I believed she was a sensitive, reasonable, and insightful person, so if she was ashamed she must have had good reason to be, and so by the transitive property, I decided she had endorsed my right to be angry.
I paced my tiny living room, nursing a nightcap along with my grievances. The small concessions she had made — to hike, to engage in intimate conversation, to kiss me even for a moment, and she had kissed me — now struck me as traps. She had been inviting me to misunderstand, to overreach, but my humiliating myself with my unrequited overtures hadn’t been enough for her. No, she’d needed to make sure the whole workshop saw me as she did: as unworthy.
A dawn alpenglow was pinkening the mountains by the time I sat finally at my typewriter. (In those days, when efficiency occupied a lower tier in my hierarchy of priorities than aesthetic purity, I worked on a tomato red Selectric.) Keys pistoning with a magnificently satisfying rat-a-tat, the first lines of a story clattered out of me: In my youth, before the publication of my first novel, I knew a girl who’d once let someone put a needle through her eyebrow and who went to bed with a dirty old poet. I believe she did this not because she was, as an uncouth soul might say, wanton or whorish but because she was seeking, with the reckless foolishness of the young, some confirmation that being desirable and being of consequence were one and the same.
When my mother died a few years later, I was sitting beside her and holding her hand, and this seems to me the best thing I have ever done. I don’t mean there was anything heroic about my presence or that I exceeded the bare minimum of basic decency, but this was the event I had most feared my entire life, and I didn’t run from it. I was thirty and at my most despairing even before her terrible diagnosis. She lived only a few months, as shocked as a person being hit by a bus, just slower. “You have been the joy of my life,” she told me there in the hospital, amid the bleeping machines, and the only thing I could think to say was that I was sorry. She didn’t ask for what.
My father attended the memorial with his wife (no longer so young and cheerful) and their son (a shambling teenage doofus with a wispy mustache), and when he shook my hand, he said, “She would never go to the doctor. It drove me crazy. She just took those herbs. This could have been avoided. Do you go to the doctor? Promise you’ll go to the doctor.”
Thank you to my late mother, who taught me to imagine different lives. I wish she had known I would write a book.
The worst thing I’ve ever done was turn in that story about Ivy and Harold Tyson Slaughter to workshop. I called her Fern in it, and him Trevor Byron Stranger. I made her a poet of middling talent and vapid beauty who, having been spurned by, yes, the writer D.M. Murphy, throws herself at the old poet. I made Trevor Byron Stranger red-faced and white-bearded and safari-shirted. I wrote what I thought of as a bravely lengthy and unflinching sex scene that detailed Fern’s unkempt pubic hair, her groveling displays of submission, the way his small penis and protuberant gut limited their choice of positions, her orgasm while he instructed her to finger her own backdoor. That’s the word I used: backdoor. (Now who’s up her own ass? I thought as I wrote it). A subsidiary confession: I had to pause in the middle of writing the scene to jerk off right there at my Selectric.
Baker Forge, the day my story got workshopped, entered the room late, sat without speaking, and took a pair of reading glasses from the pocket of his denim shirt. He spent a long moment flipping through my manuscript. “Would you please read—“
Ivy interrupted. “I have a section I’d like him to read.”
Baker regarded her over his glasses. “All right,” he said finally. “Dealer’s choice.”
“Start at the top of page twelve,” she told me. “I’ll tell you when to stop.”
The sex scene was three pages long and took about five minutes to read. After I’d read the first page, I hesitated, but when Ivy only looked at me and waited, I felt, out of both deference and defiance, that I had no choice but to go on. In my peripheral vision I could see her across the table: very upright, radiating hatred. “Stop,” she said. A hot and rigid silence hung over the room. I stared down at the words I’d written.
When I said I might have written The Canon for Ivy, what I meant was that, perhaps, ever since that workshop I’ve been writing toward a magna mea culpa, punishing D.M. Murphy on the page as I’d once tried to punish her, using that fool D.M. as both acknowledgement of my sins and atonement for them. I hope this book will bring me worldly success, of course, but I also hope its publication will serve as a catharsis of sorts and bring me an aftermath of tranquility.
There was no ceremonial offering of praise; in fact, there was no discussion at all. Instead, Baker made a show of studying the manuscript and said, “With this one, we’d better start at the beginning.” He cleared his throat, leaned forward, and read, “In my youth, before the publication of my first novel, I knew a girl who’d once let someone put a needle through her eyebrow and who went to bed with a dirty old poet.” There was a pause. “It’s hard to imagine a more insufferable opening line,” he said, “but let’s read on.”
He went on, sentence by sentence, page by page. The classroom had a large picture window that framed a pleasant view of blazingly autumnal aspens, and I gazed out into the branches, my notebook unmarked as Baker calmly dismantled my story and laid out its component parts for all to see: fragility, arrogance, cruelty, self-indulgence, falseness, pretension. Among my most egregious crimes he counted my penchant for simultaneous prurience and prudishness. “Why say ‘backdoor’? Why say ‘went to bed’?” Baker asked the room. “Why flinch? If you’re going to go there, just say asshole. Just say fucked.” The sun dropped lower, casting a golden glow over the table, the scattered papers, the water bottles and coffee cups, the other writers. Ivy, her back to the window, wore a luminous halo.
Thank you to Baker Forge, for keeping me honest. I added that line to my acknowledgements a dozen times and deleted it just as many, wrung my hands and tossed and turned over whether to include it. Ultimately, I left him out.
“A good story assumes the reader is smart,” Baker said, tossing the spent carcass of my manuscript on the table. “This story assumes the reader is stupid.” He looked around the room. “Okay. That’s enough.” He picked up the day’s second submission. “Oliver, would you read to us from page nine, please.”
After class, as I was fleeing from the building, Ivy jogged up beside me. “Hey,” she said. “Look at me.” When I did, she said, quietly, “You’re a joke and you don’t even know it.” I flinched away, and I don’t think she ever spoke to me again, not directly.
If I’d had a gun, I would have shot myself that night. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I would have.
I heard, after I’d graduated and moved to New York, that Baker had left his young hippie wife for Ivy. They were together a few years, I think. The revelation gave me immense but temporary relief. Everything Baker had said about my story could, I decided, be explained away by the fact that he had been the one fucking Ivy, or was soon about to be. “I guess chivalry’s not dead,” I remarked to Fred, who had moved to Brooklyn too.
But this was around the time Fred stopped humoring me, around the time our friendship thinned to nothing. “Baker’s a good guy,” he said.
Ivy and Baker split after her first novel was published, a slender volume that was celebrated with some hysteria for its precociousness and fanciful lyricism. I heard through the grapevine that Baker was less than supportive. Her follow-up story collection was tolerated as a minor disappointment, and I’m sure you know about her second novel — you’ve probably read it. Everyone has.
Ivy Ocampo, this book would never have been written without you.
She had laughed, Miss Giles, when I gave her my autograph. It was in the nicest possible way, but she laughed before she thanked me and took the paper I’d offered her. ●
Maggie Shipstead is the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements, which was a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and the winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Her short stories have appeared many places, including the The Best American Short Stories, and in 2012, she was a National Magazine Award finalist for fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.