Today is the first day of the annual #30Authors event! I’m thrilled to be sharing Kristopher Jansma’s review of Prodigals and and Wagner in the Desert by Greg Jackson. His piece is both stunning and relevant to the world we live in today and I sincerely hope you take the time to slowly devour every single word. If you’re new to Kristopher Jansma, know that he is the author of the Why We Came to the City, which I absolutely adored. You can learn more about him following the review.
#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.
Kristopher Jansma’s on “Wagner in the Desert” and Prodigals by Greg Jackson
After ten years of teaching undergraduates, I got the chance to teach a graduate fiction workshop last year. I was eager to delve into complex work with experienced students, but nervous that I wouldn’t be prepared. My memory of my own MFA days was that I spent a lot of time pretending I knew a lot about writers that I had actually never heard of before. I’d done a fair amount of catching up, then and in the years to follow, but there was always more. Now I was in charge. Now, in a classroom like this with just eight students, I’d have nowhere to hide.
A friend advised, “Your job is to kick things off, get them talking. Then it turns into the best conversation you’ve ever had.”
Sounded easy enough, but I worried anyway. Partly to avoid assigning insufficiently cool and obscure stuff, I decided to flip things around. On the first day I announced that each week the students would each bring in a beloved short story to share with the group. Clever, right?
I explained they should choose stories that had really impacted them somehow. Stories which were, as George Saunders described, a kind of “black box the reader enters” which cause “something undeniable and nontrivial” to happen to the reader “between entry and exit.”
As an example, I brought in a copy of Greg Jackson’s story, “Wagner in the Desert” which had run in The New Yorker the previous summer.
I’d first read the story a few months later, while riding the bus up to work. It had the kind of immediate awe-making impact on me that I wanted the students to explore.
It made my hands shake. Multiple times, I stopped reading to text friends of mine to ask if they had read it yet. How could they have, and not told me? I sent it to three people who I felt needed to read it, immediately.
This is not typical for me, but it is the high that I’m always chasing when I read, and when I write.
Without it, things are— fine. I like things, but I’m generally disappointed. Sometimes I’ll catch a little whiff of this high: a killer sentence or a wowza paragraph. I’ll dog-ear the page, maybe later copy it out. But with Jackson’s story, it was like every sentence and paragraph was more perfect than the last. It begins:
“First we did molly, lay on the thick carpet touching the pile, ourselves, one another. We did edibles, bathed dumbly in the sun, took naps on suede couches. Later we did blow off the keys to ecologically responsible cars. We powdered glass tables and bathroom fixtures. We ate mushrooms—ate and waited, ate and waited…”
The story concerns a gathering of friends in the California desert, involving—as you can tell—quite a lot of drugs and glamour and soul-searching. But instead of the usual bombast of a Hunter S. Thompson narrator, Jackson’s speaker works like a 21st century Voltaire, observing and intellectualizing and referencing and getting lost in critical loops of thought.
I should say quickly that I did not love this story because this is what my own life is like. I have never had such a lost weekend, never done these drugs, never even napped on a suede couch. But my public high school was in a very wealthy suburb of New Jersey and my classmates were the children of very wealthy people. Many of them had big parties and did a lot of drugs and were very glamourous. I lived several towns over, in a normal-sized house, in another tax bracket, where for entertainment we sometimes got into a friend’s beat-up car and drove around aimlessly, soberly stealing reflectors from people’s mailboxes.
So maybe there was some element of voyeurism in it, the way people watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians, to see how the other half lives, to see that they aren’t so different—to maybe exalt in them being actually a lot worse.
But it wasn’t just schadenfreude, always a cheap fix. Beneath the net-worth of the characters was a current of existential yearning for more that kept resonating. A year earlier I had become a father and was still in the midst of a radical rearranging of all my priorities. Maybe on some level the story made me nostalgic for a different time in my life, when I had wild times, even if they were much less wild.Find out which book @KristopherJans says sparked a conversation that changes how he teaches. #30Authors Click To Tweet
Two of the narrator’s friends in the story, Eli and Marta, are about to begin trying to have a baby. He describes their situation:
“They would spend the ensuing year attempting to get pregnant, and eventually they would, and later this baby, and their second baby, would grant them some reprieve from the confusion we were all afflicted by in those years. But before they had their baby, during the week when this story takes place, they had decided to do every last thing that a baby precludes, every last irresponsible thing, so as, I guess, to be able to say, Yes, I have lived, I have done the things that mean you have lived, brushed shoulders with the lurid genie Dionysus, who counsels recklessness and abandon, decadence, self-destruction, and waste. The Baby Bucket list, they were calling it.”
That might have been the paragraph that made me text a friend to say that I thought maybe someone had somehow brought David Foster Wallace back to life – Wallace being the last writer I’d encountered who had grabbed and electrified me this way, and whose loss I’d been mourning for the previous years, as I slowly ran out of his words.
The narrator in the story is up for the bacchanal, but is always something of a fifth wheel. Only he and another girl, Lily, are not in a couple, and they wind up becoming one almost by default.
“…her constant fidgeting neediness captured something we all felt: the ever-present urge to tweak or adjust the experience to make it a touch more perfect. “Can you just hold this?” Lily would say, or “Can you just do my back?” or “Can you just come and look at something?” and I slowly understood what it is to be a man for a certain type of high-strung, successful, and thin woman: you are an avatar of capability, like a living Swiss Army knife.”
Again, I don’t know anyone like this. I’ve never been the Swiss Army knife, though I have often yearned to be “an avatar of capability.” But with these sentences, Jackson summons a Lily I see and hear and believe that I know. In fact, I already like her more than many people I know in real life.
“Why should a real chair,” Virginia Woolf asked, “be better than an imaginary elephant?” Great fiction makes us at least ask ourselves this question, and it was thus that I introduced the story to my graduate class, proudly, on week two.
“I’m so sick,” the first student began, “of reading stories about privileged white people.”
“Oh…” I think I managed to say. “That—that’s what you thought of it?”
“Ugh,” the student said, “Haven’t we read this story, like, a million times already?”
I was so sure that we hadn’t—that I’d never read anything like it before. But this student seemed quite sure that we had.
As he elaborated, it occurred to me that it was, in many ways, a much better written version of the kind of stories at which I had similarly cringed, in my workshops ten years ago. Back then they usually came with a heaping dose of Fight Club machismo. Here it was replaced by a highly-sensitive point of view, but story-wise it was the same “man, let me tell you about that time I got so fucked up and maybe saw God,” kind of story that I had always disliked.
Maybe it was just that it was so much better written? I floated this idea to the group.
“It almost makes me mad that it’s so well-written,” a third student chimed in. “Because the language makes it seem OK to go on and on like this about stupid, white people problems.”
“Oh so we just shouldn’t ever read any more stories written by white guys?” a fourth shouted.
“Do we even know if this author is white?” a fifth said.
The sixth snorted. “He obviously is.”
So we were not off to a great start.
“Wagner in the Desert” was published in The New Yorker in July of 2014, about a year after George Zimmerman walked free after the murder of Trayvon Martin, and a month before the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – both African-American boys, both unarmed. Both portrayed by defense attorneys and in the media as enraged attackers. It was far from the first time that something like this had happened, but the reaction to it, particularly on social media was intensely different. Something was changing, and at the time I wasn’t sure exactly what or why or where it would go.
The Black Lives Matter movement was already in the news every week by the time I’d first read Jackson’s story that Fall – around the time that twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police for playing a toy gun. By then I had become aware that the literary community was becoming deeply connected to BLM, and many writers I knew were becoming involved in the rallies and protests. Many were seizing the moment to bring attention to ways that race affected our own industry: lack of diversity in the publishing world, underrepresentation of people of color and women in the major literary awards, and so on.
I had been paying attention to all of it, but wasn’t then sure how I fit into it. I was upset about the shootings. I’d taken to active listening, to follow people online who were more engaged than I was so that I could better understand the systemic racism that permitted these murders— but I didn’t know how to talk about it. Not even to friends, certainly not to my students. That high school full of rich kids that I went to? Out of 700 of us, I can think of five who were black. The only black person working there was the nurse.
I’d never thought of myself as a political writer, or teacher – more of an art for art’s sake kind of writer. Surely a good sentence is a good sentence, blind to the color or gender of its author, right? That sort of thing. I’d argued often that great literature must be subversive without being explicitly political, usually quoting Nabokov a little here or there. I cautioned students, as I had been cautioned by my teachers, that being explicitly political might make something timely, but never timeless, and that as artists we had to try to look at the bigger picture. More than anything, I believed that, being white and male, it all wasn’t about me anyway.Author @KristopherJans discusses diversity in writing in this stunning piece for #30Authors. Click To Tweet
But there I was, in charge, in a room with eight students all fighting about race on the second day of class. And it was about me – in so far as I’d been the one to give them this story about rich white people to read. I’d held it up, even, as the thing we should all be trying to write – and they wanted me to explain my thinking.
So, slowly, awkwardly, and with no small amount of frustration, we started a conversation about writing and white privilege that afternoon. It spiraled into another conversation, and another one. How could we stop thinking of authors as being white and male by default? Why do we assume narrators are the same gender/race/sexual orientation as their authors? How could we writer characters of other races and genders? Where does empathy end and appropriation begin?
My friend was right. Soon it became the best conversations I’d ever had.
And now that the class is over I’ve kept the conversation going in my own head. Why didn’t I have enough diversity on my other syllabi? Well, because I hadn’t been taught enough of it myself. So why didn’t I read more books and stories by people of color, or women now? And in the months to follow I discovered the old highs in new places: Rebecca Solnit and Renata Adler. Ta-nehisi Coates and Teju Cole. Kaitlyn Greenidge and Naomi Jackson. There’s always more.
A year later, it was with no surprise that I saw Greg Jackson was publishing his debut collection of short stories, titled Prodigals. I was also not surprised to find that it was widely-praised, or that came with its own small acknowledgement, in the jacket copy, which describes his characters as “strivers, misfits, and children of privilege […] restless, sympathetic.”
I was almost a little nervous to re-read “Wagner in the Desert” again for the first time since that class. It is the opening story in the collection and from the first sentence to the last it held up to my first memory of discovering it in The New Yorker. I dog-eared pages. I read passages out loud to my wife. I started to underline things I wished I had written myself, and soon gave up, because it would have been nearly all of it. The end left me with a chill and this time, I was able to put my finger a little better on what it was saying to me – that this particular style of American Dream of conspicuous consumption, of narcissism, of status obsession (the one embraced by so many of my long-ago classmates) was both beautiful and hollow.
In the story, the narrator’s dearest wish throughout the weekend is to read everyone a poem he has memorized, something that he has found deeply meaningful, that will show them all how empty this is. But the moment he’s been anticipating never comes. In a later scene, the characters hunt down the Wagner of the title, a powerful studio executive who might fund a film project that one of them is working on. He tells them:
“When you’ve bloated yourself on all the envy a person can take and you’re still not satisfied, you’ll see there’s only one place left to go. You have everything that can be bought, all the blow jobs the people who covet your power can give, but what you don’t have, you’ll see, is pain. […] And that’s real. […] It’s the realest thing in the world.”
In a sense it is the poem that the narrator never reads to his friends, but Jackson reads it to us. It is a Dead End sign. All the money, all the power, all the privilege, all the knowledge, will not only never make us happy, it bends our very pursuit towards pain. Obliterating our own pain, causes pain in others, until that vicious circle becomes everything.
I’m teaching another graduate class this Fall. I’ve thought about bringing “Wagner in the Desert” in again. I’m pretty sure that I will. Hopefully I’ll be better prepared for the conversation it might start as we enter its black box. In there, Saunders says, a great story will cause something to happen to us. It just turns out to be something much more undeniable and nontrivial than I’d realized.
About Kristopher Jansma
From author website: Kristopher grew up in Lincroft, New Jersey. He received his B.A. in The Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University. His critically-acclaimed novels, WHY WE CAME TO THE CITY and THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS, were published in 2016 and 2013 by Viking/Penguin.
THE UNCHANGEABLE SPOTS OF LEOPARDS wasan Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Prize, a finalist for the Prix de l’Inapperçu, andlonglisted for the Andrew Carnegie Award for Excellence in Fiction and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. It was a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick, an ABA “Indie Next” Choice, an ALA Notable Book, and an Alternate Selection for the Book of the Month Club.
He has written a column for Electric Literature about Literary Artifacts, and loving books in a digital age. His work has also been published in The New York Times (twice!), Columbia Magazine,The Believer,Slice Magazine, the Blue Mesa Review, and on The Millions.
He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz College and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.