Peter Orner drives me nuts. I’ve spent an hour or two for the last few mornings with Am I Alone Here? and spent twice as much time challenging him. Quoting him, discussing him, offering Kathy bits of his background over breakfast, I tell her what she already knows, “Orner drives me nuts.”
This morning Orner tells me a tale spun from an everyday scene at a sidewalk café in Tirana, Albania. Explaining his presence there while eavesdropping on a couple gossiping in a language he can’t understand, he says, “For weeks I felt that life could not possibly be worth living until I sacrificed for my art by heading, with godspeed, to Tirana to conduct essential research for a story.”
His café companion, as always, is a book. Sipping cold coffee while mildly obsessed with the gossiping Albanians, he’s reading John Cheever. Cheever’s story, he says, is about ‘another displaced fool.’ Of Albania, he says, “it’s been two days and already I know this was another screwball idea.” While I sit in bed soaking up the morning sun and Peter Orner’s well-crafted missives, applauding his restless world travels, grateful for his honesty, jealous of his pungent narrative style, I want to yell at him,
“Orner, so what if you didn’t find your ‘cement-colored story’ in Albania. You found inspiration. You read Cheever, wondered perhaps if you might turn into Bascomb — the old poet Cheever has writing ‘FUCK FUCK FUCK’ across one blank page after another — but you needed to face that question and what better place than Albania. Albania changed you, elicited fond memories of your mother and, a couple years later, reminded me of mine, more fondly than I’ve remembered her in a while.”
Later, Orner went on to call himself “a goof representing another failed idea.” With that I want to grab his book and slap him upside the head – perhaps the thank yous at the back will reconnect with his brain. Thank yous that include his loyal editor, Pat Strachan who is, in his own words, “brilliant, generous and patient.” His agent is a “supportive champion.” And his own brother, Eric, “stayed up late, and got up early, to finish the beautiful illustrations of book covers.” Perhaps another swat with the front of the book with the sticky note graphic on which Dave Eggers thanks god that Orner’s book “defies any category.”
I do not doubt and I certainly don’t mean to disrespect the insights and heartfelt emotions that Orner commits to these pages. Maybe it’s my instincts as a crisis counselor kicking in, maybe it’s just the way I’m wired. But, here’s how the dialogue would go:
Orner: “I confess I’m drawn to stories about people who are even more depressed than I am.”
Me: “Yeah, you opened the chapter about Robert Walser with that admission. Walser – who checked himself into a sanitarium, saying ‘I didn’t come here to write . . . I came her to be crazy.’ Walser – who praised Heinrich von Kleist, the German brilliant writer who took his own life after euthanizing his sick girlfriend.
Orner: But, “He’s happy the way depressed people can be sometimes, recklessly happy.”
Me: “You mean happy the way Franz Kafka was happy? He knew that his work was depressing, so depressing that he wanted it all destroyed after his death. I’m sure he’s posthumously pissed off at his old friend, Max Brod, for betraying him, for foisting the word Kafkaesque, and its looming potentiality, upon humanity.
Orner: “Still I have loneliness.”
Me: And, you lament, “I spend too much time alone in my head.”
Orner: [a bit of extrapolation here] ‘But, I don’t feel sad or alone when I’m with Eudora Welty. And I want to share her with everyone.’
Me: Indeed. You even used the world ‘sublime’ while detailing your passion for her stories. And yet where is Welty while you’re falling asleep in a little park on Caesar Chavez with Imre Kertész telling you a story about a guy born at Auschwitz who kills himself after his wife leaves him. Peter, Peter, Peter.
Orner: [further extrapolation] ‘So, everything I read and write about in your estimation contributes to my loneliness and depression?’
Me: No, not everything. Bernard Malamud made you realize that you love your father (although you came to that conclusion thinking of Malamud’s ‘My Son the Murderer.’) But, there’s hope for you.
Me (anticipating Orner tilting his head, lips twisted, eyes squeezed into an incredulous expression as I tell him): You’re a man of action. You lived in Prague where you and M were “poor and young and stupid and happy.” You ran off to Albania on a whim. You worked with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico. You swam at the Garfield Pool in San Francisco, lived in Bolinas, cloistered yourself in an Iowa abbey, canoed on Upper Moose Lake in Minnesota, and littered in Daly City, CA . . . OK, just the one book. My point is, you don’t just sit around reading sad books, you go to cool places and read sad books. I like that you threw Julian Barnes out the window and rescued Virginia Woolf from the Minnesota lake.
Orner [taking up his own defense]: ‘And, I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in ranking writers or that writers needed to explain why they write. I called “bullshit” on that notion a long time ago.
Me: You hope to write ‘sentences that breathe’ and you accomplish far more:
Rationalizing the urgency of your time with the Zapatistas – “This crucial assistance given, I’d go back to California and become, of all possible unsuitable things, a husband.”
“In fewer than ten pages, Salter can cut so deep into the desperate clench of a marriage he’ll make you wonder if he’s been hiding out under your bed.” You explain your tug-of-war with James Salter, “He reels you in. He repels you. He reels you in.”
The truth about Peter Orner is that I find him compelling even while he’s pissing me off. And, because of my tendency to emulate writers I admire, I know I have a whole lot of sad books to read. I’ve read, and long ago stashed away, Kafka, Melville, Maddox Ford, Chekhov, Cheever and Virginia Woolf. I’ve read and reread Saul Bellow. But, Breece D’J Pancake and Robert Walser, suicide and mental illness, no matter the beauty of their prose, they don’t sound very inviting.
I’m open to Eudora Welty, Heinrich Böll and Gina Berriault. Welty lived to be ninety-two, Berriault to seventy-three and Böll to sixty-seven. Although in admitting that I have not read them, I’m admitting not just my taste in books but my scattergun approach to reading. Even more damning than my reading habits – I prefer Vonnegut over Kafka, Jim Harrison over Ford Maddox Ford, Toni Morrison over Virginia Woolf and Haruki Murakami over Melville – is admitting that I am happy.
Orner wrote, “I’ve always resisted the notion of fiction as consolation.”
I don’t need to be consoled, either. I do need inspiration.
With that final admission, I owe Peter Orner an apology and a thank you.
“Thank you for pissing me off and making me think, Orner.”