I hate to start this way. I hate to start a review of someone else’s writing by talking about my writing, as if I’m writing in any kind of way that can be taken seriously, but lately anytime I’ve gone to write something I’ll reach a point where a thought strikes me. I’ll be writing and suddenly I’ll stop and think: “What’s the point?” And usually, or always, my point is to make some kind of point, which ends up boring me so much I don’t continue. And if not exactly a point, the most innocent thing I might be doing with my writing is trying to be clever, or smart, which fills me with a boredom even more overpowering. What does it matter? What could I possibly have to tell anyone about? Seriously, we could be underestimating the permafrost thaw by as much as 50%. The United States Army’s internal research suggests societies could start collapsing within 10 years. How much could anything I have to say matter?
This feeling has leaked into other people’s writing as well, mostly—obviously—fiction. It’s as if all I see in other people’s writing is their striving to make a point or to be clever. I quit reading more fiction books in 2019 than I finished. It’s like, oh, you put a Chinese Muslim immigrant and an Iraq War vet together in New York City? Guess I don’t have to read the whole thing, because what else are you going to say besides the world has made a mess and therefore human connection is complicated? I use this example because I’m sure it’s not about the book being bad necessarily, but I can no longer convince myself to suspend acknowledging where the writing seems to be going. I don’t have the patience anymore. I understand the antagonism between the US and China. I know what we ask soldiers to do to Muslims. I know how fucked up immigration is in this country. It’s not that you can’t write about those things in fiction anymore, I don’t think, but setting up stories against realities like that is not only not interesting to me right now, it feels corny. It’s like, I know where the world is going, and it’s to shit, so I don’t know how you could say anything else with premises like that. To try to extract anything else, let alone something like hope or happiness, out of those enormous premises feels like an outright lie. Or it’d take nonfiction. The bad is becoming so big it’s outpacing our ability to even comprehend it. The American war economy is a hyperobject. The relationship between the last two superpowers at the end of the world is a hyperobject. Climate change is a hyperobject. You’re not getting anything out of it. You’re not subverting it with daily life because daily life is swallowed up in it. You can throw in all the tricks you want, but that won’t obscure the fact that almost everything at that scale is horrifyingly vacuous right now. Most things at that scale are where the world’s real nihilism exists. Allusion, realism, fabulism, dirtbaggery, whatever one might use to try to get anything more out of reality like that is crushed under the actual weight of it. And the same goes for poetry. Metaphors, similes, bizarre forms to mirror confusion and chaos, to signify a way to understand the text, to signify a way one is supposed to feel reading the text, for me it all gets crushed under whatever reality is being hinted at. If I see a poem going all over the place I don’t even bother. Your poem is in two columns and can be read in three ways? Is that not just a gimmick? In fact, devices like these feel so shallow compared to what they’re going after that they have not only been landing flat, I can’t stop seeing in them the attempts to be clever or make a point that I can’t seem to stop doing myself.
But then something like this comes along.
“Tater tots, untouched, in the trash / B-roll of hell / Stock photos of people losing the will to live / Every few hours a man with one eye walks by my desk / He sees the real me, eating lunch alone”
There are 741 lines of this, 741 unstructured, standalone, non-narrative lines.
“A music without sound / Michael Jordan crossing over Larry Bird / Allen Iverson crossing over Michael Jordan / Light from the computer screen while the city turns to dust / Hours pass… / Lie after lie delays the truth”
It’s immediately readable, and the readability, how fast you’re drawn in, is refreshing. There are no tricks. There are no gimmicks. There’s more blank space than text, which may be the way it’s supposed to be done. And it’s not that it’s just a bunch of nonsense. It’s not that it’s not going anywhere. I’m not saying that you need to be incoherent to say something interesting, because there is an absolutely recognizable feeling as one get deeper into it. There is an arc, however sporadic. It’s dark and sometimes funny. There’s no story. There’s no real build or climax. It starts to dawn on you that it’s like your life. It’s like my life. It’s probably like Andrew’s life. The peaks and valleys (especially the peaks) have been grinded down into a more or less straight line that just goes on and on. $50,000 is the most honest book I read last year. It was the best book I read last year. It felt like it was saying something important. It felt like it grappled with the question, “what’s the point?” and wasn’t crushed. But how could such a simple book do that?
“Facts can’t change us; beliefs are too resilient / Agreeing to disagree may be all there is / Even though scientist guess we’re all just guessing / Because if knowledge, then ignorance and fear / So I mistake spilled coffee for a shadow”
It’s right there. Facts don’t matter. You’re not persuading anyone. “No answers only interpretations” he writes later, aping Nietzsche. What’s the difference between answering and interpreting? I think the difference is in $50,000 Andrew isn’t going to give you spilled coffee as a shadow, or a shadow of spilled coffee. He’s just going to give you him mistaking spilled coffee for a shadow. Why would you take spilled coffee as a shadow, anyway? They’re hardly the same color, and not even the same thing. One’s a drink and the other is an absence of light. What would you get out of that right now? Would that tell you anything about the world? I don’t believe it. In $50,000 all you get is Andrew mistaking spilled coffee for a shadow, and is that alone not something you can appreciate? Is that not good enough? While I don’t think many people would disagree that right now all we have is each other, and that we need to be there for each other, I think hardly anyone is willing to take the implications of that seriously. Implicit in that sentiment is the understanding that we are totally alone with each other, that there isn’t any sort of transcendence to look forward to or any tradition to fall back on. It implies a lack of any deeper connection to each other and to the world. Our relationships with each other and the world are not metaphorical or transactional. What that means is you don’t get spilled coffee as a shadow. The best you can do is try to appreciate that someone has it at all. It’s not mine and it’s not yours. What we all uniquely have or experience isn’t a metaphor, it isn’t something to be bartered and traded, nor should it be. If it sucks it sucks. If it’s hard then it’s just hard. I think this is where the misunderstanding of identity politics, or intersectionality, or representation occurs, when they’re seen as based on metaphorical relationships instead of literal experiences. If we can’t get to a point of appreciating the inherent experience each of us have in a way that might not affect us at all—or if we can’t present our experiences without attaching signifiers of ‘intelligence’ or a ‘better’ understanding—I don’t think we don’t stand a chance. As humans we’re all as disparate as the lines that make up $50,000. Why shouldn’t everything be this simple? There’s no real connection. We’ve got to make do with whatever kind of ‘one’ these lines, or we, form. Even if they don’t form a coherent narrative. Even if it doesn’t make sense.
Baudrillard called this world Integral Reality. Absolute reality, all there is is all you see. There’s nothing left behind all the faces and signs, there’s no greater, or more concentrated, or truer meaning. “Colville died last night,” Andrew writes in one of his lines. Colville is dead, and you can put together as many facts and anecdotes about his life as you want but you won’t make a metaphor out of it. All you’re left with is feeling bad for his parents. And if you can’t find a metaphor in something like a friend’s death, what chance is there of finding one anywhere else? It’s best to just quit trying. Just give us what you want to give us. Strip it all down. $50,000 does it literally. Line after line after line. Metaphors and similes minimal if they’re there at all. Of course I don’t know if this style has the kind of momentum and/or pliability to become a form, something that can be done again and again, but I also don’t think literary devices are inherently signifiers of fake things. They just feel, in face of all that’s going on right now, useless at best and lies at worst.
I hope people read $50,000 and try to strip their perspectives of all pretensions like this. Although it might be ironic that this places all the emphasis on individual voice and experience at the same time I’m saying I don’t care or want to hear your metaphor, it is more an act of trust, a trust in oneself and a trust in the other to be radically honest. I hope all writing, not just poetry, goes this way for a little bit, even though I obviously have no idea what that would look like. I guess it’s something you can intuit. And clearly I didn’t read all the books last year. I’m sure other people are writing in a similar way, but I struck out more often than not. The only other thing I read last year that wasn’t nonfiction that felt as real as $50,000 was Nick Drnaso’s incredible Sabrina, which is illustrated and written in Drnaso’s similarly bare form. It’s this bareness that feels interesting right now, this Benzodiazepined, how-much-longer-are-we-at-this kind of bareness. I’m talking about not pretending your writing has made things less fucked up. I’m talking about not lying. I’m talking about how Andrew opens $50,000 saying, “No matter how depressing this book may get, just think about how much positive thinking it must have taken me to finish it.” I’m talking about Joy Williams saying, “One of the great secrets of life is learning to live without being happy.” Or maybe I’m talking about Joy Williams saying this: “Imagination is nothing. Explanation is nothing. One can only experience and somehow describe–with, in Camus’s phrase, lucid indifference.” The big picture is morbid. Maybe Andrew has figured out that right now anything more, like happiness or hope, can only be gotten at fleetingly, in the minuscule, mundane cracks in between the pummeling the world gives.