by Robb Todd
People complain about the city. There is never not something to complain about. The sidewalks fill with leaves — red and gold — and these critics still complain. Some people complain and never say goodbye but, sometimes, a complainer vacates. The complainer who vacates complains about the city long after she has left. She complains that when she first moved to the city, the city was great. The city was amazing — she never felt so alive. Best thing ever. Never had so much fun. But the city is not great nor amazing nor the best anymore, and it never will be again, she claims. It changed. Forever, she alleges. The city changed. Not the critical complainer, though, just the city doing all the changing.
As if the city should never change.
As if it could.
She moves upstate with her boyfriend to find new things to complain about.
When he is a child, he reads The Giving Tree and hopes that his life will be like that. A person should give him as much love as that tree and expect nothing in return. He still wants that, and has returned very little love to help make that happen.
When he is a teen, he reads The Old Man and the Sea and does not get it. Yeah, sharks will eat the fish right off your hook. Okay. He does not get “Hills Like White Elephants” either, but he feels the tingles of something important happening even though he is confused about some parts. “Let the air in? What does that mean?”
When he is in college, before everything is digital, he reads The Metamorphosis and thinks it is boring, even after endless critical discussions in class that are supposed to persuade him of the story’s greatness. Maybe, he theorizes, he is not smart enough to appreciate it. He does not have permission to like what he likes, like the way he likes Charles Bukowski.
When he is much older, after everything turns digital, he re-reads The Giving Tree and still adores it. His life still has not been quite like that, not yet. But there is still time to be as selfish as that kid. He thinks a lot about a tattoo of the boy swinging from the branches. But where to put it?
He also re-reads The Old Man and the Sea, this time on his phone, and loves it in a way that is so profound he wonders how he ever could have felt otherwise. He tells his girlfriend that it is, perhaps, the best thing ever written. But there are others that he says that about, too, depending on his feeling that day, such as Bluets by Maggie Nelson and Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. After he lists those, he usually remembers Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, Monolithos by Jack Gilbert, Crush by Richard Siken, and many writings by James Baldwin. There is also an e e cummings poem that he can recite by heart but cannot remember if it has a title. He loves e e too much to change his mind after he reads criticism of his poems that equates them to pop music. What is wrong with pop music? A critic of his tastes also says that there are too many straight white men on his list of favorites. He does not see the point in mentioning, as a defense, how much he also appreciates Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral and all of Amy Hempel.
When he revisits The Metamorphosis, he dislikes it even more. He tells his girlfriend, “I’ve never seen the point. It’s crap. Could cut it to seven pages. I think Kafka’s one who has been put over on us all. But I’ve never read him in German.”
The classic Russian novels are also lost on him, perhaps again because of translation, but just as likely — or more likely — because those shivering drunks were paid by the word. He wants to feel otherwise because he thinks he shares their dark marrow. But he does not. Feel otherwise, that is. The marrow is dark. Maybe, he sometimes thinks, he is just not smart enough to understand those books, too. So many brilliant critics love these dead Russians. The deficiency must be his. But not when it comes to Kafka. Fuck Kafka. And David Foster Wallace, except for a few short stories, a couple of essays, and that commencement speech where the goldfish are like “What the hell is water?” That is great. But Infinite Jest is just that: a never-ending joke on the person who reads it. He reads a defense of the book’s “genius” in which the critic described it as “a brilliant impersonation of boring writing.” He wonders why anyone would want to impersonate that, and even more so why anyone would praise doing so. Taken as a piece of performance art where the joke is on the pretentious clown in the subway lugging a twenty-pound book, sure, it is brilliant. But as a book, yes, a never-ending punchline, and no amount of the abundant critical praise for the novel will change his mind. Why should it? (He does not think he would feel that way about Moby Dick, but somehow he has never even opened it, and has no plans to, even though he participated in a marathon group-reading of that novel when he was in college.)
The best review of a book he has read starts “On the plane I was reading this book” rather than “I was reading this book on the plane.” Few people appreciate the chasm that separates those two sentences, he tells his girlfriend, who appreciates it. Also, the refusal of the comma after the introductory phrase, which she appreciates less. The woman on the plane beside the reviewer offers an unsolicited opinion about the author of the novel that is to be reviewed: “I’ve always felt he doesn’t like his characters very much.” The author is one of his favorites (he has read other novels by the author under review), and he loves the disliked characters most. When did writers have to start liking all of their characters? He thinks the review is exceptional in the way it talks around the book so that he feels the opinion of the reviewer, rather than just being told. He has read the review several times, even sent it to his friends, but still has not read the novel, which he bought immediately after reading the review several years ago.
They used to spend time reading different books together on the couch. They would share beautiful sentences along the way. They met during their MFAs in the city — one poetry, one fiction — and make good money as freelance copywriters. A drug company once hired one of them to develop the name of a new STD medication, which is not easy. (The commercial featured a smiling couple that is kayaking and riding bikes and not having a herpes outbreak.)
They moved upstate because there was too much to complain about in the city, but there are new things to complain about and they take advantage. Like politics. Like the general state of the world. Everything is aflame. Like how it is nearly impossible to make a living writing literature or poems unless you are also playing academia’s game. Or writing reviews of books, which many authors do because they do not make enough money writing their own books. Like the weather and all the melting. Like a lot of things. Yet they never forget to tell their subway-stressed friends that they do not miss the city because they stopped caring about whatever new ramen shop just opened. They brew their own beer and have an herb garden in a box outside of their window instead of a brick wall and the smell of wet trash. Their neighbor makes cheese from her breast milk — the cheese is delicious — although they were able to get that in the city, too, from a different neighbor.
Their last serious literary argument was over a plagiarizing songwriter who won the Nobel Prize for literature. “Everyone is a plagiarizer. There are no new thoughts. And, really, who cares? All awards are political,” one of them said, wanting the final words and not getting them when the other replied: “Well, Beyoncé better win the Nobel for literature — and maybe the Peace Prize, too!”
They do not read books much anymore, especially since pop music is art now, and social media is the front line of culture and politics. They still sit on the couch together, but flick and tap their fingers on their phones, eyes switching back and forth from there to the television. It is not lost on them that the critic who best understands the president of the United States writes about television. They ran into him in a bar a few nights after the election when they still lived in the city and had a fascinating conversation. Now that they have moved to the woods, they watch a lot of documentaries but drift into sitcoms and murder mysteries.
As if their relationship should never change.
As if it could.
A commercial came on during a show they kind of like but would not miss if it disappeared the next day.
All-new Chevy Silverado
It’s the official truck
Of calloused hands
And elbow grease
The official truck
Of getting to work
And getting to work
Of late nights
And date nights
It’s the official truck
And coming home
The all new Chevy Silverado
It’s the official truck
Of Real People
“Some wannabe poet got paid a helluva lot to write that garbage.”
“It’s actually pretty nice."
“You can’t be serious.”
“If I had more Twitter followers, my praise would have more merit.”
“It is in no way a poem. It’s garbage.”
“I bet it’s even better on the page. It deserves your uninterrupted concentration and steady focus.”
“Why am I with you?”
“Literary works reward critical attention. It’s different than entertainment.”
“No shit. And critics lack talent but abound in provenance.”
“Yeah, ‘provenance.’ I think that’s right. Look it up.”
“All anyone reads is themselves.”
Robb Todd is a journalist and author in New York City. He has lived all over the country and was lucky enough to live in Hawaii twice. He also lived in Texas twice. And North Carolina twice. Actually, this is his second stop in New York City, too. He doesn’t do things right the first time.