Part of my problem was feeling really above the Mid Western milieux. Objectively speaking, I’m too good for Americans en total, and in this I know I’m exploring a frontier first charted by Henry James. The only attractive people were younger and in fraternities. No professors slept with me, at first.
In Notes from No Man’s Land Eula Biss did one or two essays about Iowa City’s overt racism. Upon arrival this seemed ludicrous, because everyone on campus is colonial white/off-white. Look, I think tokenism is as bad as the next literate WASP. I’m sort of my own token, a Roman brothel token, spintria. Well. I waited for the tornados. I waited for my moment to sit around. Then I graduated.
Workshopping Doug Dorst’s Alive in Necropolis was this arduous thing. We could never get the balance right. “No, more ghosts.” “No, more Hollywood fuck-ups.” “No, give the rookie cop a taste for cocaine.” Sometimes people turned in chapters and I shouted across the table “This is mine, you stole it!” to waste valuable time. I told them what to write. They showed me they were writing down my instructions. Scrupulousness—the word is a cup full of broth.
Most attendees drove Celicas (Toyota). I drove something all-wheel drive in foul weather (Subaru) but usually tootled around in the Cabriolet (Audi). My pilot’s license counted for shit until everyone tired of the fog and sleet, and wanted to see downtown Chicago. I kept my biplane in a quonset hut on the edge of the city. I flew across to Ames to hang out with kids in ISU’s environmental writing program. At least they knew how to cook.
Roth’s Letting Go makes Iowa seem all about elicit love affairs between Teutons and Jews who hustle one another for tenured positions at the University of Chicago. Libby’s abortion shenanigans struck me as not so out of bounds, not so out of reach, and informed something of an achievable dream of mine viz Iowa. I never finished the Roth book. I, um, let it go. I never finished my own book. I terminated the work late in its gestative cycle. As a fetus, I referred to it as my shrimp-like non-starter, though it did count as a working-thesis for as long as I needed it to. This failure amounts to maybe three hundred pages of robotic pornography, not cutting edge stuff. Frankly I don’t know where my mind was during the writing of most of it—probably on shoes and clothes.
A lot of us really wanted to work with Marilynne Robinson. But she was detained for many months by her Guggenheim money, as tetchy and fleshy as a dragon atop its gold, and detained again by her Terry Lectures.
The resurgence of interest in John Berryman’s poetry is not a mystery. You put lazy-eyed Will Sheff behind the man’s fall, and anyone with half a heart will sympathize with the lunatic. The Beach Boys threw sand in our faces, Okkervil River patted it in our mouths. And I like The Dream Songs—they’re eminently quotable—but I tried not to talk to the poets. They had the look of rats about them, rats against a sinking tide, snuffling through the corridors of the library. I had the sense (corroborated) that they were eye-balling the shelves intent on lashing a raft. (This was when things looked especially climactic, book reviews folding, Stephen Burt exhausted.) But then Poetry filled up with pharmaceutical money from Indiana. Who knew the Lilly’s got hard-ons for hot rhymes? I’m a Pfizer man myself.
If suicide is the best consideration for MFA candidates, I count my self as the second-best consideration. I think third-best is a job as bank-teller. Fourth-best is living freegan and working at a bike cooperative. My friend does this and pulls so much tale his beard is soaked pretty much Friday through Tuesday. Fifth-best was freelancing in the books section of the Los Angeles Times. Now I need to consider a new fifth-best.
Speaking of Los Angeles: Even though I never believed in the worth of what I was doing, Elif Batuman’s comments still really hurt my feelings. As I understand it, rather than apologize to Mark McGurl, she’s taken it upon herself to personally correspond with the thousands of recipients of MFA degrees in the last decade. I’m number 3,232 and already I’m feeling ameliorated, just having a number.
If not for my independent wealth, I’d have to rely on my Ivy League pedigree, and that, my friends, is just senseless.