Anniversary

It’s been exactly a year since I started taking photos in the morning while walking the dog. I only posted them on Instagram at first, but my behavior looked suspicious to the algorithm (I can only post on Instagram by telling my laptop’s web browser to pretend to be a cell phone), and Instagram locked me out of my account after a few weeks, so I started putting the photos up on my blog in August. The idea was to photograph time, the way the color and the feeling of everything changes. A friend sent me an email recently, after reading Overthrow, saying that he lived in California now and liked being reminded of seasons. This made me very happy, because almost the first thing I imagine about a story is when in the year it’s happening (and also, when in the liturgical calendar, even though I’m not a churchgoer any more).

My initial plan was to take a picture of the same vista every day, but even on day one, I could tell I didn’t have that much discipline. I just photographed what caught my eye. The first lens I had could do portraits, close-ups, and landscapes, but not long distance, so flowers and mushrooms were more likely subjects than birds or butterflies. It wasn’t until March that I got a second-hand telephoto lens, just in time for the spring migration season for warblers and their friends.

Almost my first impulse, when I see something that I want to take a picture of, is to be ashamed of wanting to photograph something so trite. Oh, that’s always there, I tell myself. Everyone sees that all the time. It’s not true. You may think, as a way of dismissing yourself, that there are going to be a lot of mornings when the sun slants through the grove of American sycamores, while its rays are being made visible by a mist, and that it isn’t special, but in a year, there was only one morning when that happened.

A dozen digital photos cost as much as one, so I take a lot, and sometimes, later, at home, while reviewing a series, I’ll discover that the moment that caught my eye was even briefer than I suspected while I was caught up in it—that the light was only at the necessary angle, and in the right hue, for a few seconds, for the first photo or two in the series.

There are two kinds of wild raspberries in Prospect Park—one with white flowers and compact berries, and one with pink flowers and dome-shaped, sweeter berries. I only figured this out a couple of days ago. Often, if a passerby asks me what I’m looking at, I mumble, because I don’t know. I aspire to being able to figure it out at home later, but I don’t even always manage this. Or they ask, “Are you looking at the hawk?” which I’m almost never looking at. For some reason, I almost never see a red-tailed hawk except in the evenings, when I don’t have my camera.

Is it peaceful to spend an hour in nature in the morning? I don’t know. There’s a lot of conflict in nature. Insects aren’t the friends of other insects. It occurred to me yesterday, while watching sparrows flitting about with the detritus of mostly-eaten insects sticking out of their beaks, Oh, they don’t have arms or hands, so they can’t wipe their mouths, and probably dinosaurs also went around with the gore of the last meal drooping from the sides of their maws. If I’m able to identify a flower, it often turns out to be invasive—to be a weed, basically, flourishing in large part thanks to human disruption of the landscape. But that’s the almost universal condition for flourishing, now; that’s what it is now to be alive.

The old soft shoe

Hi! It’s been half a year since I sent out an issue of this newsletter. Evidently I still haven’t quite figured out what it’s for.

My new idea is to send out a selection of my nature photos once a week, as well as recent personal news, if I have any. (Apologies if you’re seen or heard some of this before!) Above is a black-crowned night heron, doing the old soft shoe on a branch floating in the Lullwater in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Clicking on any photo in this newsletter should take you to the original post on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.

A twelve-spotted skimmer, in Rockefeller State Park Preserve. I have a new article in the New Yorker titled “An Accidental Activist” (in the June 29th print issue; online title: “Frank Kameny’s Orderly, Square Gay-Rights Activism”). It’s a review of The Deviant’s War, a new biography by Eric Cervini of a buttoned-down man who lost his career in astronomy after he was caught cruising a men’s room, and who spent his life championing gay rights.

A cloud of gnats, in Prospect Park’s Nethermead. By the way, if you want the complete photos, rather than the selected, and you want them daily, it’s possible to subscribe to Steamboats by typing your email address into its right-hand column. (If you’re reading this, you’re subscribed to this newsletter, called Leaflet, which is a different entity.) I also post the photos on Instagram.

A teenage gray catbird, Prospect Park. Two friends of mine are publishing new story collections this week, both of which I highly recommend. They’re also both holding virtual book events in the next couple of days. At 7:30pm on Wednesday night, July 8, at the Center for Fiction, Ben Nugent is talking about his funny and heart-breaking new collection, Fraternity (FSG), which re-imagines the inner life of a group of bros. And at 7:30pm on Thursday night, July 9, at Community Bookstore, Andrew Martin is talking about his melancholy and sharp-edged new collection Cool for America (also FSG), which furthers the adventures of some of the slacker would-be writers who figured in his debut novel Early Work.

Bubbles blown by turtles underwater, in Prospect Park. In the time before coronavirus, I was interviewed by the writer Barbara Nichol for a three-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program called “Reading with a Grain of Salt,” about the social roles and meanings associated with literature. The show, which just finished airing last week, turned out to be quite interesting and, despite my participation, not dogmatic about any particular viewpoint. Other guests are Fran Lebowitz, John Carey, and Michael Dirda. Here are parts one and two; my cameo is mostly in part three.

I don’t know what plant this is—probably a rudbeckia of some kind? A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed the translator Donald Nicholson-Smith about his new translation of Serge Pey’s new story collection Treasure of the Spanish Civil War (Archipelago Books), and the interview is now streamable online.

A song sparrow with his mouth full, Prospect Park. Back in May, two late but great reviews of my novel Overthrow came in. Phil Christman, author of the new book Midwest Futures, discussed Overthrow and a few other books about technology and political power in a great essay for the Christian publisher Plough, writing of Overthrow, “It’s a Philip K. Dick plot as experienced by Henry James characters.” And Pekka Torvinen wrote what seems to be a generous review of Overthrow for the Finnish student magazine Ylioppilaslehti, though I can’t be sure, because it’s in Finnish.

There probably won’t be as much news next time, if I do this again. Maybe instead I will have Thoughts.

Pluralism

I'm reading Buddenbrooks. It’s a very dry kind of funny, and it occurred to me the other day that maybe even the title is funny. It's a little odd in English, anyway (maybe it isn't in German?), to refer to a family's last name in the plural without a definite article. The family name is Buddenbrook, no s, so in English, the usual title would be "The Buddenbrooks." Mere "Buddenbrooks" has a little spin on it. There's a little diss of generalization, as if Mann were saying, "Enclosed please find some Buddenbrooks," or "Buddenbrooks: A Representative Sample." Or, with a shake of the head, "Buddenbrooks, man."  

Peter, trying to get into Huckleberry Finn, a couple of months ago: "There's kind of a lot of Tom Sawyer fan service."

About six months ago, I started bringing a camera along when I took Toby for his morning walk. My original idea was to take a picture every day of the little vista that Toby and I see when we first reach the Nether Mead, which on some mornings is so beautiful that runners stop to snap it with their phones. We pause there so I can take off his leash. The series was going to be deliberately a little boring but it would be a way of photographing time, I told myself. Unfortunately I am too much of a jackdaw and on the very first day, even one photo of the vista seemed boring, and instead I have ended up taking pictures of whatever seems noticeably pretty or noticeably ugly, which I know is rank middlebrow pictorialism—too much studium and not enough punctum—so you don't have to @ me, photography critics. Mostly I have only photographed natural things: mushrooms, flowers, clouds, parts of trees. For a few days in late summer I was earnest enough to post photos of leaf blight, which did not win many likes on Insta. (But did you see the leaf blight, person who scrolled by without stopping? Did you really see it?) I like the way the photos register the gradual shift of the seasons when I flick through them, which can be done on my blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything or, in a selection and in a square format, on Instagram. So you see I am photographing “time,” after all. The record isn't rigorously a daily one, because once a week, on Saturday, Peter takes over the morning walk while I go to the green market, plus I've been out of town a few times, and some days I just don't manage to take any photos worth sharing. On good days, though, I take more than one photo, so I have coverage, as the cinematographers say. There's at least one photo for every day, if not of every day. Maybe what interests me most about the undertaking is that almost every morning I go into the park fairly certain that probably nothing of interest will come up, because after all I walk pretty much the same route every day, and it’s only a day later than yesterday, so what new thing could there be. Yet almost every morning, there is something. (On one banner day: Slug copulation! They coil around each other, upside down, and then translucent sex organs come out of the sides of their heads, which in turn coil around each other. Very much NSFW, if you’re a slug.) But not always. Which makes it like writing: consistent self-discouragement vs. unreliable pleasant surprise. Bonus: A couple of times, Prospect Park's Instagram account reprinted one of my photos, making me famous, so there's that. 

I didn't mean to be the sort of author who would start a newsletter and then drop it as soon as his book was published. But publishing a book is a little . . . disconcerting? (I’m doing better now. I joined a Cross Fit “box.”) The book news since (oh gosh) September 4, if you haven't already followed it on my blog, includes a couple more nice reviews. Nicholas Dames, for Public Books: “It’s a novel that keeps faith in even the unlikeliest candidates for where redemption might next come.” Tim Pfaff, for the Bay Area Reporter: “Crain is a true craftsman, but the writing mostly doesn't care what you think of it and shows off shamelessly.” And I sat for a few more interviews, including with Shaan Sachdev, for Bookforum; with Emily Homonoff, for Reading with Robin; and, on video, with Kevin Moore, for Cuny TV's Twilight Talks.

Mere news

I’m afraid this issue of my newsletter will contain only news, rather boringly about me. This is what comes of having a book published.

There’s still time to come to one of my bookstore events! Tomorrow (Thursday) night, Kate Bolick is interviewing me at the Strand, 828 Broadway (at 12th St.), New York. The admission ticket is your purchase from the Strand of either Overthrow or a $15 gift card that can go toward any book they sell. (For example, you could use your gift card to buy a copy of March Sisters, a new collection of essays on Little Women, including one by Kate!) So really the event is free, sort of? I’ll be bringing my blue, green, and black-and-white stamps, which together create the heraldic emblem of the fictional Working Group for the Refinement of the Perception of Feelings, visible here.

Hope to see you there! Or at one of these:

  • Sunday, September 8, 4pm: McNally-Jackson, South Street Seaport, 4 Fulton Street (a new location for the store!), Manhattan.
    In conversation with Astra Taylor, author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, about her book and mine.

  • Wednesday, September 18, 6pm: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco.
    In conversation with Anna Wiener, author of the forthcoming Uncanny Valley.

  • Saturday, September 21, 4pm: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California.
    In conversation with Elaine Blair, essayist for the New York Review of Books.

Overthrow has received some lovely reviews. Julian Lucas, for the New York Times Book Review: “A 19th-century social novel for the 21st-century surveillance state.” Anthony Domestico, for the Boston Globe: “Legitimately great psychological fiction.” Jane Hu, for Bookforum: “It is, at heart, a novel that repeatedly asks: What makes a good reader?” Garth Greenwell, in The New Yorker: “Like seeing a world made hyper-real, crisper and more intense, as through some phenomenological Instagram filter.” Mark Athitakis, in the Washington Post: “Overthrow accomplishes its mission.” Annalisa Quinn, in NPR: “A carefully unsentimental book.” I know that it’s rare these days for a novel to get so many well-written, insightful reviews, and I’m deeply grateful.

I’ve been interviewed about the novel by Gil Roth for the Virtual Memories Show podcast, by Christopher Bollen for Interview magazine, by James McDonald Feder for Kirkus, by myself for Powell’s bookstore, and by Amy Guth of Chicago’s WGN Radio. I also did an Instagram “residency” for the Chicago Review of Books, where I showed off my mood board, my messy manuscript, and my Luddite writing tools.

In other news, I wrote a review-essay about labor unions for the August 26th issue of the New Yorker. It focused on Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up and Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock, as well as two older books, Jake Rosenfeld’s What Unions No Longer Do and Nelson Licthtenstein’s State of the Union. (I posted a note about these and other sources on my blog.) The article seems to have put me in the good graces of the Party:

Sorry this newsletter is so one-note! I hope to go back to reading books and having thoughts soon. In the meantime, please come to a bookstore and buy a copy of Overthrow! And if you happen to like it, please tell a friend. Word of mouth is the way books like mine find readers.

Hot and cold

“All do not all things well,” sang Thomas Campion, and one thing that I don’t do well is the last few weeks before publication. My husband and I were trading anecdotes a few nights ago of how, in the month or so before my first novel was published, six years ago, I was a little sputtering butter warmer of rage and self-regard. I don’t want anyone to look at me! Why aren’t more people looking at me? was then the refrain of my days.

Frank Norris once said that he didn’t like to write but did like having written. It’s the sort of thing people like to hear from a writer, because it suggests that the writer is aware that there is something antisocial about the retreat from the world that is inextricable from writing, and that he is happy to reunite with the world at the end. It suggests, in other words, that the writer likes you.

What a lie. A writer is someone who likes other people much less than he likes to be able to say whatever he wants, in as rococo a way as he wants, at whatever length he wants, making jokes that only he may think are funny. For five years, while writing a novel, I have a life I never thought I’d be lucky enough to live: I sit alone for hours at a time, imagining people and a world, and growing fonder of them than of what is called the real world. And then, just when I think, Wow, I’ve finished a novel, what a good boy am I, I am told: You’re fired, sucker. Worse luck, my new job is salesman. Are my social media accounts tonally appropriate? What kind of pencil do I use? Are any of my characters based on people I knew in real life?

Overthrow is that cursed thing, a second novel. By “second novel,” I mean the book where one reaches—perhaps beyond one’s grasp. Herman Melville’s “second novel” was his third one, Mardi. (His actual second novel, Omoo, was just a sequel—more of the same of what was in his debut novel, Typee.) In Mardi, Melville attempted a novel that was also philosophy—allegorical, essayistic, stuffed full with oakum he had unpicked from his reading. It didn’t go over well. No, Herman, we liked it when you did boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism. Not watered-down Gulliver’s Travels but even more pedantic. For his next two books Melville went back to writing boy’s-own adventure with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, though he now appropriated the cultures of England and the American navy instead of those of islands in the South Pacific. In time the thwacked ambition of his “second novel” resurfaced, however. Moby-Dick is Mardi redux—a novel that is, once again, also a work of philosophy. But also with ambiguous sexual frisson and anthropological tourism, now of the culture of whaling. Melville couldn’t have written Moby-Dick if he hadn’t first written his failure Mardi. The challenge thus is not to mind failing. The proper stance to the reception of one’s work isn’t stovetop sputter but what I think of in my internal mental shortand as cool 1970s artist, wearing sunglasses and bellbottoms to her vernissage, cadging cigarettes from her friends in the back of the gallery, downing the yellowy white wine, not giving a shit because what’s important is to keep making the art, you know? Which of course is as much a lie as Frank Norris’s.

Quotes: “Les seuls vrais paradis, said Proust, sont les paradis qu’on a perdus: and conversely, the only genuine Infernos, perhaps, are those which are yet to come.” —Jocelyn Brooke, The Military Orchid

“A delightful feeling of rage seethed and bubbled over me as I read the letter. I was trembling a little and my palms felt sticky. Righteous indignation must be the cheapest emotion in the world.” —Denton Welch, Maiden Voyage

“If England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover, then New York is my own dear old whore, all flash and vitality and history.” —Thom Gunn, “My Life up to Now”

“The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style, lies in not having too much style—being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there.” —Thomas Hardy, 1875 notebook, qtd. in Early Life

News: There’s an excerpt from Overthrow, the novel whose impending publication is causing me so much agita, in the August issue of Harper’s. In late June (gosh it’s been a while since I sent out a newsletter), the New Yorker website published my review of James Polchin’s Indecent Advances, a history of murders of gays in the 20th century and the so-called gay panic defense.

Below, in Technicolor, is the info on my bookstore events. Please don your bellbottoms and lengthen your sideburns and feather your hair and come:

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