Writing books is so much creepier than readers know.
Version 1: Lifestyle
I started writing my third novel, Class, in 2011. A couple years later, Kanye West told the New York Times that while he was working on his newly released album, Yeezus, in 2012, “this one Corbusier lamp was like, my greatest inspiration.” I had industrial design and the modern consumer experience on my mind then, too: the iPhone 4; British Airways’ all-business-class flight, BA1; the new residential developments on the Williamsburg waterfront; cocaine. Before my novels take shape, a handful of images and objects emerge as totems. For my first novel, it was a Jim O’Rourke album for Editions Mego and the jagged face of a granite mountain. Characters are never involved in complex plots in my books; as in my life, they dabble in Girardian triangles, or squares—it’s their circumstances I’m most interested in.
Right around the time I started thinking about Class, my parents happened to buy tickets for the all-business-class flight. They flew from London to JFK via somewhere in Ireland, where they precleared US customs quickly and efficiently, far from America’s incoming crowds. Every seat on the Airbus A318 was comfortable and folded out into a bed. The subtle work of trying to determine what precise stratum of the upper middle class one belonged to was starting to resemble medieval theology.
I also found myself lingering on the view out the window of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment my parents owned at the time. A photographer I was hanging out with in New York, in parks and cafés, would occasionally corner me to tell me that my parents had picked the wrong neighborhood. (He was living in Park Slope.) All this jockeying for social position—which I was a part of even when I wasn’t—was giving me vertigo. And for better or worse, the best jockeying in the Western world seemed to be happening in New York. There was a cloud of congested desire hanging over the city, and I was drawn to it. I started taking notes about New York the way the people in Close Encounters start sculpting that mountain out of mashed potatoes and shaving cream. Class would be my American novel, even though I was still writing in Italian. In order to tell a certain kind of story of upper-middle-class delusions, I had to get my characters on a flight to JFK.
Between 2008, the year after my first wife and I broke up, and 2017, the year the American edition of Class was published (and also the year my parents sold the apartment), I was flying back and forth between Rome and New York regularly. I had visited New York before, once with my parents—for upper-middle-class Italian families in the 1980s, the journey to America had taken on the aura of the Grand Tour—and once with my first wife, who ended the relationship after I brought her to the city in 2007. She was usually the one in charge of these things, and this was the first time in our eight years together that I had proposed a trip. The general appeal of the city notwithstanding, my wife decided that my decision-making abilities were impaired, and that it was time to let me go. None of the parts of New York I already loved—all of which would later surface in my novel—were appealing to her. Soon after she broke up with me, it started to feel like I was there all the time.
Thanks to these routine visits, and a group of American friends who took me to parties and introduced me to their friends and colleagues, I was starting to become familiar with the US, or at least its largest city. But I was still hanging out with Italians—the elite or near elite whose parents’ money had subsidized a provincial-international way of life for them in Williamsburg and Lower Manhattan. If Class depicts—or rather, exploits—any one group of people, it is them, the Italians.
Which isn’t to say they were actually a group at all. The Italians were hipsters (you’ll have to forgive me for using such language, but this was a long time ago), but of two distinct kinds: the first got where they did via family money, while the second was more entrepreneurial, relying on their talent and unhinged mania to get ahead (though they weren’t going to turn down family money when it was available).
In 2010, I met two representatives of the second and more interesting of the two genres. The first was a young man who was seven years my junior (I was 33). He had released two songs online that I’d loved, so I got in touch and we started hanging out. I watched him assemble his debut album. His power was dark and compelling (the artist character I loosely based on him goes by the nickname “Cugino Hitler”), and he had an intensity I would subsequently associate with this kind of hipster. Soon enough—after his first album became an overnight sensation—we had a massive falling out, breaking up the way friends are supposed to according to that Seinfeld episode, like a couple. The young man started dating my ex and hanging out with my best friend and is now considered a major innovator in Italy’s indie-pop scene. The second representative was a young woman, 22 at the time, who came from the Italian provinces and was in the process of conquering first Milan, then New York. She was a savant of style and form, and she was assisting a big photographer.
The young married couple at the center of Class is an exemplar of the first, parent-dependent kind of hipster. They are way less talented than their hardworking peers but attracted to the same vision of society as a place where big, beautiful things can happen. They want to live in the center of the empire. They want to lead sexy lives. They are chic, but because they don’t want to be in charge—because they don’t want to run a country—in the end they cannot sustain the interstellar overdrive this kind of life demands. Eventually, they leave.
From a distance, these two groups of people often resembled each other, and the distinctions between them weren’t always obvious, even up close. History seems to have passed them by, in search of new stories. Readers weren’t and aren’t especially interested in which specific category of educated, white, upper-middle-class Westerner should be rewarded for their hard work perfecting the kind of boutique-capitalist spirit the hipsters brought into being at that moment. At the time, as a reader of the 19th-century French novel, I was intrigued by the damage talented people might do to untalented people in a small and competitive environment, and the moral implications of that damage. In Class, the young married couple end up beaten down and crowded out by the hungry and the talented and, as a result, are felled by the particular cocktail of depression, anxiety, and paranoia that helped make Xanax such a big part of the 2010s.
On my flights back from New York, I alleviated my fear of flying and the claustrophobia of the middle seat with noise-canceling headphones and, yes, Xanax. This was the first thing I’d ever done in my life that really felt like the zeitgeist. Before that, I’d been an obsessive Catholic who’d practiced the body art of sexual abstinence and the abstract art of counter-history, both of which I’d instrumentalized in my previous novel, The Story of My Purity, which follows an impotent Catholic anti-Semite from Rome to Paris. (This is the kind of thing that would be the zeitgeist today, if I or anyone else were trying to pull it off.) In the course of my trips to New York City I was starting to understand that for this class of people, for both groups, cocaine was making Xanax inevitable. “The city never sleeps, better slip you a Ambien,” as the anthem of the time went. Sitting on the plane over the North Atlantic, I had no time to reflect on what was compelling to me about these people: that they lived everywhere at once, that what I was sampling was exhausting, problematic, polluting, mesmerizing. I only wanted to write about airports. Ambien and ambient music for airports.
Once upon a time these strangers might have been called expats, or the jet set. As late as the early 2000s, you could have said that they were straddling two continents. But all that implied deracination, readjustment, some minimal degree of cultural compromise. None of these people had to compromise anything. Their phones worked on both sides of the Atlantic, or they worked well enough. Kanye and Drake and Devendra Banhart were as popular in Pigneto, the SoDoSoPa of Rome, as they were in Williamsburg, the SoDoSoPa of New York. They never had to change their clothes or their affects or their references.
I was one of these people, in that I, too, was staying in an apartment my parents owned and, back in Rome, moving into a house originally bought with my grandparents’ money. I liked parties and bourbon and nice speakers and drugs, or at least it didn’t seem criminal to me to like those things. It would be irresponsible not to admit all this, but at the same time, I seemed to have problems these people didn’t. My main problem was my conviction that everything I did or tried to do after my very Catholic marriage crashed down to earth was pulling me deeper into hell. I didn’t even have to feel this myself—I saw it in my mother’s eyes every time we had a conversation. But where I truly diverged from my globalist cohort was that I didn’t think the life we were leading was worth settling into. I was a pilgrim from the Catholic Church. I was looking for some modicum of pleasure, but in the end I knew I had my literary work to do, my peace of mind to locate. No one in the hipster scene knew anything about that. It didn’t seem possible to live this way for more than a few months before experiencing some kind of deep psychic exhaustion. In that same Times interview, Kanye says that he’s “a minimalist in a rapper’s body.” That didn’t work out for him in the end, but I relate to the feeling.
Anyone who has read Class, in either Italian or English, won’t be surprised by these descriptions of my transatlantic interregnum. In the novel I tried to describe this social world carefully, attending to brands and habits and the relationships these people had to the thin spaces and thin culture they inhabited and imbibed. The Italian reviews of Class were harsh, full of the kind of loathing I was also filled with. The critics thought the book was about the faults of a group of people that amounted to a kind of smallest generation, that added up to nothing. At the time I attributed the reviewers’ attitude to their horror of being implicated—everyone seemed desperate to distinguish themselves from the materialistic and vapid characters in the book. This reaction made me realize that I had written a book so angry that its readers felt complicit, and thus desperate to condemn the whole scene, and, sometimes, my book itself. I got drunk at all my readings. At a bookstore event in Bari, a young woman asked me why I wasn’t promoting Class at these events, why I was blabbering on about anything and everything else. I replied—drunkenly—that I wasn’t there to sell my book at all. I seem to remember saying that I wasn’t interested in Class, or even that I hated it.
When I reread the book a year later, in preparation for the English-language version, there was more disgust than I remembered. For all the details I got right and the dialogue I think I captured with real precision, I’d written the book in a haze of fury. You could see that haze on the page.
And still, the book wasn’t really about these people. Writing about America was to some extent a deflection, too—a successful one, since that’s all anyone noticed and maybe all I noticed as well. I don’t know that I would have put it this way at the time, but all those descriptions of New York and its party life gave me the space I desperately needed to write about my past in a more direct way than I’d done before. I’ve never really tried to obfuscate in my fiction—I don’t think obfuscation is what fiction is for—but I’d written my first two novels when I was young, when I was desperate to see my books published and desperate for validation. As horrible as I felt writing Class, I knew this was the first book I had written on my own terms. I could own its style and sensibility because for the first time, I felt I no longer had to prove to anyone the basic fact of my writerness.
I had to write about fathers who stifle their daughters, as this had been my experience of life in the upper middle class. I had to write about the illusion that being in love and in a couple is a simple template you can refer to and then execute, about the misguided idea that the template is enough for it all to work out. I had to write about panic attacks and the belief that work is only a ritual. I had to write about being raised with the notion that there was a wide array of both well-paid and well-respected jobs that signaled that one was giving back to society, even as the reality of those jobs felt eternally ambiguous. I had to write about a character whose brilliance and clarity of mind lead him to buy and consume as much as he can, in order to accelerate the earth’s self-immolation. I had to write about fascism. In 2011 Matteo Salvini, an eccentric Milanese politician, became famous—if he was famous for anything—for boycotting Italy’s 150-year-anniversary celebration by moving his desk outdoors, in front of City Hall. That same year, Donald Trump was hosting Celebrity Apprentice 4, which featured Lil Jon and Mark McGrath. But fascism had been with me all my life, and I wanted to tell the story of how young people could still find inspiration and aesthetic oomph in it, collapsing its sweeping curves and deco style into a kind of racist jouissance. How the hipsters, with their simultaneous cults of authenticity and experimentation, were wonderfully, intrinsically fascist. How they were impatient vanguards.
But in the first version of the novel I put out, what I’ve just listed didn’t come through clearly. I only found out later, when I got a second chance to work on the book, that I had buried these emotions under a pile of brand names and heinous depictions of sex and ambition that owed too much to Bret Easton Ellis. Though I felt real ownership of my writing, my novel was concealing its vulnerability under the flashy material. When you can’t be real, you go baroque. I was raised in a bleak house where, if values were music, the music played out of a laptop with no subwoofer to boost the bass tones. Values weren’t thumping in my parents’ bellies. As a result, all the teachings I encountered—honesty, religion, merit, goodwill—sounded flat and gloomy. Class showed me that my writing is the writing of a pilgrim who goes to the holy seat—literature—just to see it, who has nothing to offer whatsoever. After Class I realized that my books were probably never going to give any solace to people or offer them well-rounded experiences. I was never going to become a trustworthy conveyor of empathy and good values.
I didn’t think I was going to write any of this down, but now I have. This kind of confession is available to me when I write in a different language. I feel blind, like I can push through the darkness with some sense of freedom, all of which is way more complicated in Italian.
I wish literature hadn’t become a search for the wise quote, for feelings of warmth and closure. I’d feel better if that hadn’t happened. Every time I visit the Venice Biennale I regret not being one of those artists who can fill a painfully white room with debris and resist the temptation to offer comforting hugs and explanations. But I didn’t choose visual art—I chose writing, because my parents didn’t let me go anywhere that wasn’t our house or our church, which happened to be across the street from our house.
All I had were words, but I had no warmth to infuse them with. I felt I had nowhere else to go but satire. Satire shares something with empathy, but it’s a contorted relationship. Maybe they’re stepsiblings. They’re forced to live together, but satire spends all its time bullying empathy. The first version of Class had a big satire problem. Since all I felt was sadness and loneliness, and guilt about the pleasures of traveling and partying, and also about the way literature had provided a way away from my family and that specific church across that specific street, I retreated to my French literature gods—Proust, Maupassant, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert—and chose to make fun of society. Fucking society! I crushed those characters and their mannerisms. I didn’t know what else I could do.
Version 2: Industry
So many novels dissect the hypocrisy of the traditional family. Are these dissections substantive? Do they mean anything? Or does interpreting your role as a husband or a wife, a father or a mother, constitute its own ritual? Being a writer is like that. You need to sell books, but what if you’re selling them wrong? You are respected, but what if you’re only respected because you’re so niche that your non-fame makes the knower feel good?
The idea of personal fulfillment is a dangerous illusion, and it haunts the working writer. In a way the writer is like a hipster, only her reasons for doing what she does are deeper—she’s probably writing to find a balance she would otherwise lose hold of. Therapists and naturopaths I’ve met with have told me it’s surprising I’m not on antidepressants or tranquilizers.
We go around speaking into microphones and being serious or clumsily cerebral in order to look the part. The select few—the biggest among us—can afford to pull a Pynchon. For the rest of us, the risk is that if you disappear you won’t know you’re a writer any longer, even if you keep writing.
What is a career? It’s a projection channeled from the minds of people who think you are a writer. You go around writing the stories, but the main story you write is that you are a writer and people have to suspend their disbelief. It starts with telling your parents, at 17, that you are a writer. It never gets any less shaky or tentative after that.
My career was born when I published my second novel, The Story of My Purity. That’s when I felt it was coalescing into something. I was 33, and I’d convinced myself I was good enough to make it last. What exactly was that “it”? What I wanted was what I have now. Right now I’m lying in bed in a grim hotel room in Milan, where my wife had to go for a work trip. It’s early afternoon here. I don’t feel like I really have a life. What I’m happy doing is this: spending the afternoon writing. It might be the case that all I’ve really done in this paragraph is mitigate the creepiness of this scene: a 42-year-old man wasting his life away in a hotel room. But that’s enough. It’s a career.
In The Story of My Purity, I tried to reckon with my mother’s Catholic faith, and my own, which was keeping me (both of us? I can’t say) from developing, evolving, growing up, even writing. Upon realizing what this fictional story of an impotent Catholic anti-Semite was really about, I uttered the words, “It’s the story of my purity,” and now I had a title. My agents sold the book to eight publishing houses in Europe and the US—my first time in translation. I was invited to dinner in London with some of my publishers. (The dinner was canceled due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.) I had written the book to set myself free, to document and embody my breakup from my wife, and now I had given publishers hope that I might become a best seller.
I heard through the grapevine that at my Italian publisher they were running numbers, examining spreadsheets. There were jittery, maybe even giddy calculations at work. Perhaps I was the next big thing! My novel happened to share some vibes with a novel about Jewish life that had been a success just a few years earlier. That book was by my friend Alessandro Piperno, and so I was dubbed the Catholic Piperno by my Italian publisher, Mondadori.
But where people could relate to Alessandro’s novel, they couldn’t relate to mine. There’s a clunkiness to my writing that comes from a loneliness so extreme it never manages to warm up. I don’t suffer like a poet, I suffer like an office clerk. The second part of the novel offered no comforting hugs to anyone, nor did it provide any explanation of or knowledge about the impotent, Catholic anti-Semite at its center. The flamboyance of the style was an implicit promise to the publisher—and the foreign publishers—that their money would be earned back. But it was only style, and style is never enough.
So was the novel a success or a failure? It depends on how you spin it. A literary career is so elusive. In the US, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardcover edition boasted that the book was by “a young writer at the beginning of a tremendous career.” After it failed to sell, FSG dropped me, making me think that I wasn’t at the beginning of a tremendous career after all. It’s a free market, and they were trying hard to sell books. Still, as I was beginning to write Class, I nonetheless felt that the world had confirmed what I’d always thought—that I was a writer. We cry about these things. We pull the car over and weep when we realize a great living author has written us a kind email with compliments. We put a Gmail label on the email so that we can find it when we’re lost and alone.
Before I met any hipsters, while I was still getting used to being out of the church (I remain a praying man, to this day), my only aim with what was going to become Class was that I didn’t want it to feel like homework. Literary novels often feel that way, because as a writer you constantly have to prove your worth. You have to be manic and inventive and human at the same time. It’s exhausting. The template embodied by David Foster Wallace is a bitch. It makes American literary life feel like school. Before I encountered that class of writing, for me American literature consisted of drunks (the lost generation) and junkies (the Beats). And now, in the McSweeney’s generation, even the ex-addicts always seem to behave like valedictorians.
So I wrote a book that tried to pick up all the scraps of contemporary life but wasn’t trying to sparkle. I was feeling very low: I’d betrayed my mother and chosen a disorderly life. My Italian editor was a very smart man who had been through psychoanalysis and offered great insights. He gave me an interesting piece of advice I’ve used since. He said: Don’t be afraid to be sappy. You never will be anyway, it’s not who you are, but when you’re writing use sentences like “and he was broken up and started crying” or “and he felt so much love,” so that the emotion can find its way in there. You’ll dry it out eventually, but the emotional movement will linger. Thinking about it now, the analogy that comes to mind is that empathy should be used the way you use Noilly Prat in a dry martini: it’s there to coat the shaker and the ice, even if it gets poured out in the end.
I went back and finished a second draft, but this time around I was handed over to a copy editor. She would, soon enough, become an esteemed editor in her own right, running the Italian fiction department at a rival major publisher. She helped hone the paragraphs and omit some redundant or overwrought detail, but she couldn’t act according to her instincts and take a good look at the characters’ motives—that wasn’t her job as a copy editor—so the published version of Class was undercooked and overstuffed. I was being too bleak without any serene Houellebecqian mitigation.
Was this the crisis of publishing in action? Did it happen because the editor—the employee of a busy publishing house in a small market—didn’t have enough time to fine-tune a book with its author? I had come up in a small independent publishing house whose editor was a very good novelist himself, Nicola Lagioia. He had a lot of in-house help, and the place was full of talented people. But that was before 2008. I switched to a major publisher in 2009, so I can’t tell if the lack of attention to detail has to do with big publishers’ ostensible strategy of buying handfuls of literary authors and letting them fend for themselves until one, or some, break through, or with the recession having forced everyone to change their priorities.
Anyway, Class came out, and it did worse than the previous novel. I noticed two things about the reviews, other than their harshness toward the characters. First, the reviewer for one of the big papers, the oldest in the country, which has been speaking for the bourgeoisie since before it was problematic to do so, told my publicist they weren’t interested in talking about class, as a concept. It was so fucking cool to hear this in the form of an actual sentence, instead of as repressed reality. And second, the book was freaking out my younger readers, who were losing sleep thinking about how it was about them. One time, I was interviewed on satellite television by a pair of good-looking 25-year-old hosts who asked me: What’s it like to have it made? Their anxious tone betrayed a lack of confidence you rarely see on TV. It was so strange to see people that young, working in broadcast media, projecting such intense feelings of dread. An interview is all about the hustle—it’s the awkward pursuit of those elusive moments when the interviewer suddenly feels (and this happens to me, too, when I’m the one holding the recorder) that they’ve captured something good, something that will lead to an uptick in their reputation. I could tell that for the interviewers and the young writers who were watching, Class was a major bummer. It reminded them that the hustle was ridiculous in the midst of the hustle itself. And still they couldn’t stop, because what else could they do? Everybody their age assumed they were going to try and fail. This made me realize I’d written something more horrifying than I’d planned. The younger readers saw beyond the petulant mannerisms of my characters and made me realize that what the novel was really about was how those characters had no choice.
When my American editor at Melville House acquired Class, he killed me by delivering the cruelest proposition I’d ever heard. “I will buy the book if you’ll translate it with me,” he said. We were friends, which is why he could allow himself to say this. There wasn’t enough money to hire a translator, so basically I’d get my advance money—way less than what American publishers would pay for an American book—and translate it for free.
I cried often during the first days I spent translating Class. It was so hard. I knew my editor would be cleaning up the manuscript as he went, so I made notes on the different registers the characters were speaking in, the tones the situations called for, and generally tried my best. The editor knew all about the context. He knew my life, he’d spent time in the neighborhoods where the book took place, and he was aware of the status symbols: this was translation as friendship. The process was a monumental hassle, but of the kind that ends up being foundational. Still, summing things up in a nonfiction narrative like this can make things feel more fluid than they were at the time. The only way I can persuade you of how difficult and halting the process was is by saying that I’ve disappeared those months from my memories. I can’t remember in what season, or even in what year, I did the self-translating.
At the time we argued that this insane move made sense, because the book was a joke about how American English was haunting the Italian language, and also a joke about something that has emerged more fully since: the way people younger than me, in my demographic, are becoming truly bilingual. This is a new kind of conformity that, like all conformities, is endearing to a novelist who enjoys dissecting milieus.
We knew all this before we got to work on the second version of Class. But as I was getting deeper into it I found out something more. I told my friend that in the gap of time between when I’d last worked on Class and now, I had acquired the kind of separation that allowed me to hear what the book really sounded like. I vaguely remember the day I said to myself: I did not do what my Italian editor had asked me to do.
Paperbacks are books that went to heaven.Tweet
I kept coming across moments where the narrator—a dead Marxist writing from purgatory, where she’s been tasked with telling the book’s story and evaluating the female protagonist, a kind of punishment for her involvement in a cruel prank against the untalented couple at the center of the novel—would give away the gist of the scene, or its moral meaning, before the scene even started. I found myself pulling out those premises. Why would she do this? I wondered. Was it my fear of situations whose moral stakes weren’t clear enough? Was it that I couldn’t let my characters follow their hearts? I started thinking that the poor Sposina, the protagonist, wasn’t wrong to want to leave the family business (a failing bookstore–coffee shop her father had bought for her mother) to go chase her whims in New York. The narrator and I had been so cruel and judgmental in the original, and yet here she was, forced by her father to work in a store he owned, side by side with her mother. This isn’t to say that abandoning your mother is the humane move in every situation, but still, she was entitled to want to get the fuck out of there. My Marxist narrator and I were too busy judging her to realize this.
I began to think that whatever their vices, these were actual people who wanted things, and it didn’t make sense to constantly mute their desires. I let them breathe more. Which is what my goddamned editor had told me in the first place. If the Italian publishing house had let him work on the goddamned book, maybe we might have gotten there in Italian the first time around.
This second, English version of Class had the same structure as the first, and I don’t think I took out any scenes, but it felt very different anyway. It came out in the US and got good reviews, and Dwight Garner put it on his year-end list in the Times. I was so happy! I had lost money on this book (the unpaid translation and the tiny advance), but Garner’s praise, and Christian Lorentzen’s review in New York, were what I needed to keep going. In the end I’ll find the money to pay for my need to write. I’m desperate. I’m like them—like my characters. I don’t care. The following may not make sense, but to me it truly doesn’t matter if I get my money from my wife, my parents, the Italian encyclopedia where I work, or from you, my motherfucking readers. I hate you! I just need the money, because if I don’t write these nightmares I will die.
I hate what you are feeling right now. You are not seeing the breakdowns and the panic and the days we spend in bed with the curtains down. Authors show off their empathy and what the readers see is glamour. I hate all of this.
But I should add an ironic coda and hopefully provide a different, more legible kind of discomfort. When my agent read the English translation of Class, she asked me to ask Melville House not to publish it. She felt the translation didn’t read well, and that it could damage me in the long haul. I told her I couldn’t do that. I had worked on it with my friend—how could I stop it from happening? She agreed, but I had to understand the risk that it might not sell. She was sure she could do much better with the next one, so if I skipped Class we could manage to sell the new one in more countries.
The paradox is that I published the translation, it got great reviews, and my agent was right anyway. The book didn’t sell well, and publishers stop trusting you after two bombs. The next book—the one after Class—was bought only in the US, and nowhere else. (Though, in a further paradox, the publisher that bought it was FSG, which published The Story of My Purity and turned down Class.) I was being killed by the book that had given me the most fun and delivered the greatest rewards.
Version 3: Utopia
In spring 2018, an editor at Mondadori wrote to tell me that he wanted to put out a paperback version of Class, because he thought the book deserved to stay alive. Paperbacks are books that went to heaven. (I’ve jumbled the metaphors, but that’s how it felt—the same way you feel both alive and in heaven on a beautiful beach.) Aware of the hazy, semimythical story of how I had edited the book in the course of translating the English version myself, the editor asked me if I could bring the Italian version up-to-date.
A year or two earlier I had sent a young Italian critic both versions in PDF form and hired her to prepare a file with the Italian text, plus the English addenda and minus everything I had left out when rewriting it the second time. In the comments, she would note the minor changes in the parts of the text that were basically unchanged. I had done this in preparation for whoever was going to want to publish it next.
Last summer I took this file and started playing with it. Eight years had passed since I began the first draft, five from the publication of the first version, two from the second, and now I was trying to translate the English book into Italian.
As I was smoothing it out and translating the new English sentences and paragraphs that had never appeared in the first, Italian version, I realized I couldn’t just translate them back. I was writing a new version again. Was this, then, a “real” version—“the” real version? Or was I just doing something different?
The first thing I noticed was that I was again in the middle of the old struggle between empathy and satire. The first version had close to zero empathy. The second version was concerned with discovering the characters’ desires, and letting them be freer than I had made them originally.
It wasn’t so much that I thought I hadn’t found the perfect balance yet. I was coming to realize that there was no perfect balance. There was an inherent vice to the story. Empathy was untrue, and satire was untrue. And I wanted to exist in a place where we were never going to be saved and where those who were judging us weren’t, either.
The reason there wasn’t a perfect balance was that this book wasn’t even a book anymore. By which I mean that, in its reproduction and transformation, it had left the land of the product, the kind of thing whose specifics and details are discussed in reviews and clarified on the book jacket. This ever-changing text was now a battlefield to which I could return anytime I wanted. There, on the battlefield, I could play with my two little armies—empathy versus satire—reenacting every battle (that is, every scene) to figure out how, granularly, my characters were conquered either by warmth and fuzziness or by the prevailing needs of social critique and its drunken ally, satire. Maybe there could be a fourth version, or a fifth.
When I realized all this I opened a new door and a new way to figure out the problem of what the real, authentic version of the book was. While working on the third version of Class I was writing an essay on Mrs. Dalloway. Before the first version came out, I had done a final rewrite of Class through Mrs. Dalloway—that’s why the protagonist carried the book around with her. Clarissa Dalloway was the Sposina’s guardian angel. She was proof that I knew I didn’t know the truth about her even while—through the voice of my Marxist narrator—I was killing her. In the following years, Mrs. Dalloway would become the book that clarified and taught me about my new wife’s feminist politics. It was an ongoing education. It’s a book whose protagonist—a socialite—is in touch with the world, and with other people, able to listen to their desires, to negotiate her own and theirs. Last summer I was writing about Clarissa and reconsidering my own book, which turned out to be one of the most intense literary experiences I’ve had.
More than any other art, the novel is a product of the industrial revolution and its ethos. The novel is the form of art that became relevant when the industrial revolution informed every aspect of life. The industrial revolution was about cookie-cutter families with cookie-cutter needs, stories you could identify with, stories you could consume and never go back to again. It may seem like a tenuous connection, but I believe that this is what explains the desperation in publishing to move on to a new and different product, to the next thing. There is no possibility of reworking one’s own work because there is new work that must be produced.
I was saying all this to a friend who pointed out that there is a religious aspect to all this. We provide the work in order to be judged. Class was in part about purgatory anyway—the novel’s narrator is speaking from purgatory, even if she’s not exactly naming it as such—which was my way of joking about the fact that fiction is an immaterial thing that purifies the actions described in it, the way purgatory is a fire that cleanses the dead. A novel is a form of atonement, in other words. Embedded in the finished work is the idea that you’re going to be saved or sent to hell with the product you’re submitting to the jury.
Because Class was written during a period when I was in the process of beginning a new life, it resists any effort on my part to treat it as the last word on anything. As a case, it begs to be reopened. Were the trustafarians in my novel guilty? Who was guilty, if not them? Their parents? Capitalism?
I’ve wasted so much of my time and energy on this book. I’ve written it three times and it’s made me less than $10,000. I don’t even like it!Tweet
I asked myself why what I was doing was such a rare occurrence. If all that bounty can be found inside one’s own book, why isn’t self-revision a more common practice? Why did I only stumble onto it thanks to a mix of chance, poor luck, and my utter boredom with the workings of book publishing? It’s a shame (what a word in this context!) that novelists don’t typically reopen their own cases. Directors do it, via directors’ cuts (even though that gesture is always framed as some kind of triumph over the whims of the producers—why not do it on one’s own whim?); theater directors do it; choreographers do it; bands bring back entire records and play them live twenty or thirty years later, to confront themselves dynamically with what they have become. I’ll never forget Sonic Youth replaying Daydream Nation, or the choreographer and dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker walking her youthful, artful walks in an older body, decades after the first time.
I now saw before me the profound depth of my dissatisfaction with what the market and the publishing industry do to authors. The industry makes us forget that we got here because we couldn’t make sense of things, we couldn’t just pick up whatever shared sense of reality we were taught in school, in church, on TV. We needed to create our own, detailed reality. But then the industry makes you hurry up and go ahead, eager for you to craft a career for yourself, instead of a history.
Consider this. I started writing Class on January 11, 2011, and I set the entire first section in that whole week. I took notes on the weather (these were the days of the Snowpocalypse), notes on everything that was happening then. I had a lover at the time who was suffering from blood clots, and I asked her if I could use that detail from her life. I asked her to explain everything about her condition to me, as well as the drugs she was taking, as well as her fears. So then it was Sposina who had the clots. After that, time put distance between me and that week, which I remember to this day, which is what happens when you take lots of notes.
The relationship I had with that week reminds me of the weird theater the protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York creates to live a doubled, augmented life. It’s such a strong gesture, like the bed—My Bed—that Tracey Emin moved out of her flat and into the Tate.
When people say the word artist, they don’t usually mean writers. They mean painters, musicians, sculptors. I’ve always hated that—since I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist and not an intellectual. Writers in Italy are considered intellectuals. We’ve had Calvino and Pasolini, so it’s a noble tradition. Take Pasolini, though—he was an artist! For all the time he spent reflecting on things, above all he was trying out new shit. The balance he struck in his borgata novels—The Ragazzi and A Violent Life—is a long-shot experiment that proved him right, a stroke of luck. Even if he managed to articulate and think through what he was doing—which he did—I don’t really care, because above all he was an artist.
If I were one of the artists whose work gets displayed in large rooms at the Venice Biennale, this piece of narrative nonfiction would be considered part of the same work as Class, just another piece of the installation.
But instead we make products: the novel, the book, the autofiction, the memoir. We provide to the marketplace heartbreaking works of staggering genius. The work must be vulnerable and tight, it must tie up its loose ends, rein in every single strand. Even in the loosest of fictions, in the memoirs we’re in love with now, in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, the way a writer’s career is engineered creates terrified monsters out of us. Whatever the demographic we talk to and write for, we are scared into writing a new book for fear of becoming obsolete, missing a train. Then we edit it in a state of terror, our clumsiest psychological limitations weighing too heavily on the reading experience. Then the book comes out and we need to be at our best as we peddle it in bookstores and at readings. Then we count the hours before we realize whether it has taken off. We retreat, pop pills, get some rest, then queasily plan our next move.
Some of this I have to respect. It’s called work and so, the Bible says, it must be painful. That’s fine. By titling this section “Utopia” I’m not advocating for some bullshit, no-stakes version of the artist’s life. I mean something else, something closer to the idea of deconstructing capitalist realism, a notion whose popularity doesn’t make it any less useful. When we talk about the writer’s life as shitty, that’s not reality so much as a pervasive form of realism. Is it possible to create a different kind of realism for ourselves?
I’ve wasted so much of my time and energy on this book. I’ve written it three times and it’s made me less than $10,000. I don’t even like it! But I’ve spent half of my adult life in that sandbox, and my imagination has taken that sandbox anywhere—to purgatory, to a New York I’ve never really known, inside the soul of a young woman I’ll never be.
Something else just came to mind. The Sposina character and her fictional husband were inspired by two people who are friends of friends, people in the same milieu. The worst things I stole from the woman I based the Sposina character on—including the online marketing job she has and some of the actual things she posts on social media—and the most cringeworthy things about the aspirations of the man I based the husband on: all of it, back then, was a heavenly match made in hell. The woman’s grimy marketing work and the man’s half-assed attempts at filmmaking deserved each other in the fun-house mirror world my book was going to become. Five years after bringing these two random people together in my book, I saw them at a bar and realized they were now a couple.
This is what writing books is about! This is the black magic that is going on.
After my first novel came out I wrote another one, but my publisher turned it down because he said it was too bleak. Not good-bleak, bleak as in “we don’t see a reason why someone should read it.” I agreed and dumped it, and then later wrote the book about the impotent Catholic anti-Semite. When I dumped my too-bleak novel, I still hadn’t married my first wife, even though we were a couple.
The ditched book was the story of a couple who broke up without fighting. While I was writing The Story of My Purity, my wife and I broke up without fighting. The editor, who knew us well, came up to me and said—Francesco, that’s exactly what happened in that book we didn’t publish.
Writing books is so much creepier than readers know. Because all readers get to see is the industrial product. When I’m at places like the Biennale, I’m overwhelmed by the sense of kinship I feel wandering around these artists’ exploded inner landscapes. The publishing industry has found a way to harness the explosion, and that’s not good, and I’m fed up.