Greg Jackson: “Wagner in the Desert”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” was originally published in the July 21, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Betsy

I love lists, especially lists that end with a good punch line. So Greg Jackson had me from the beginning of “Wagner in the Desert.” Lists give me the expansive sense of knowing all about something, whales, for instance, something I know nothing about. In this case, Jackson starts his story listing all the drugs he and his pals did over a vacation “waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.”

And despite the fact that drugs are not a part of my life (and why that is is a long story, but I will give you this — paranoia is not something I’m willing to risk more than once), anyway, despite that fact, I loved this story.

I am always wanting “to return to a place from which [I] could begin again.”

So that it is part of why I liked this story. (Also, I have to be partial to someone whose mind also thinks in the “from which” vein.) And, to be able to begin again is part of the daily double — to want to do what’s important despite maybe not knowing, at any given time, what something being important would be.

The narrator’s friend Marta has her own list — a “Baby Bucket List” — all the things she wants to do before she has to get sensible. These include:

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.

Eli and Marta have invited two friends who don’t know each other (the narrator and Lily) to spend a vacation in Palm Springs getting as high as possible. The four of them (and all their buddies) are peas in a pod:

a particular sort of modern hustler: filmmakers and writers (screen, Web, magazine), who periodically worked as narrative consultants on ad campaigns, sustainability experts, P.R. lifers, designers or design consultants, social entrepreneurs, and that strange species of human being who has invented an app. We rubbed elbows with media moguls and Hollywood actors and the lesser known but still powerful strata that include producers and directors and C.F.Os, and the half-famous relatives of the more famous.

The list continues, and continues to be interesting, and then observes, “We thought we were not bad people. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent.”

In the course of this drugged-out sojourn, the writer-narrator has several encounters: a couple of Hasids appear and disappear; a ranger; a Hollywood producer-financier gives a brilliant speech; and Lily, the blind date, explains it all.

I liked this story a lot for several reasons. Mostly because of its service to the idea of wanting to get back to where we can begin again, but also because I loved the long, expanding sentences, and I liked how real it seemed, how somehow trustworthy, despite the drugs. And, of course, I loved spying on a life I don’t live, but always thought would have been interesting if I weren’t so scared of falling off the edge.

I have more I want to say about the writing, but I would rather let you get to it.

While I wait to see what people have to say, I want to comment that Greg Jackson needs a web-site. Who knew there were so many Greg(g) Jacksons? Until one appears, however, it seems that Jackson has recently gotten an MFA from Virginia in Charlottesville, won a big prize and is on his way. Best of luck to him. I really enjoyed this story.

36 thoughts on “Greg Jackson: “Wagner in the Desert””

  1. Yes, I thought this one was excellent, too, Betsy. It’s not that the premise is new — someone who has life rather easy trying to fill up a spiritual void — but it’s great that the narrator already knows that such a thing is impossible for him, at least the way he’s going about it. He (or one of the other characters, particularly the financier and Lily) is able to pick apart each attempt at some great, fulfilling experience, and yet he still feels compelled.

    I thought Jackson’s writing was wonderful, a nicely established tone and style which might be surprising for someone’s debut. I need to revisit it as I read it rather quickly this morning, but I’m looking forward to the revisit, much more than I’ve looked forward to the recent New Yorker stories themselves.

  2. Archer says:

    I haven’t read this yet, but I’m happy to hear these positive responses. It’s good to see the New Yorker publishing a debut story. A cursory Google search yielded very little about the writer, so it seems to be a real discovery.

    And it’s worth noting that Mr. Jackson must have the distinction of submitting the longest answers to the author Q&A in TNY history! It’s probably longer than the story itself!

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/07/this-week-in-fiction-greg-jackson.html

  3. Betsy Pelz says:

    Archer – thank you for that link to the author Q&A! I couldn’t locate it all this morning, but your link works perfectly.

    It’s tremendously worth reading.

    I liked this, a remark he makes regarding the success stories on a drug addled vacation v. the Hasidim:

    “I find it energizing when contradictory worlds come into close proximity, because it forces us to consider the choices we’ve made—or haven’t made but defaulted to—and the contingency of our lives. The more time you spend around people like you, of course, the less often you are compelled to ask tough questions of yourself and to justify your own decisions and values.”

  4. Roger says:

    What an amazing story. Those expansive, brilliant sentences, piled one after the other. They are ironic, often hilarious, yet at the same time illuminate so much wisdom. I’m looking forward to reading his collection. Betsy, thanks for the biographical information, and of course for kicking off the discussion.

  5. Trevor says:

    You know, I kept running into those expansive lists and sentences, thinking they’d show how young the author was, but they are incredibly well done. They are controlled and yet still suggest a spontaneity. It really is a strong story!

  6. juliemcl says:

    Great story. I need to re-read, but upon my first read I felt a mixture of dismay, recognition, and delight, something along the lines of “I hate these kids, I was these kids, we (i.e. the country of America) are these kids”. (“kids”! It may be the first time I’ve used that formulation) I absolutely loved the interview too, probably the best of these I have read.

    I really wonder what the process is for the NYer finding a story like this – unsolicited submission? The author seems to be previously unpublished. Wow. Or maybe just unpublished online. If anyone can find any other story would love to know about it. There’s a Greg Jackson on Amazon who writes sci-fi who I’m pretty sure is not the same guy. I was able to find the following tidbit:

    http://www.thebridgepai.com/greg-jackson/

    Another site mentions he’s at work on a novel called “The Philosopher Kings”; that was more than 2 years ago, though.

    Anyway, I’m really impressed with all the stories by larely unheralded writers lately – this one as well as stories by Rebecca Curtis, Thomas Pierce, Dorthe Nors, etc.

  7. Betsy says:

    Julie – Jackson won a big prize while at the University of Virginia MFA program.

  8. Betsy says:

    “Topiatarian” is a word Jackson uses early on to describe his buddies.

    There is no such word, except that we all get it as a musical play on utopia. Turns out that while “topia” means place in Greek, the “u” is unrelated to the “eu” (meaning well or good)of eulogy and euphoria. Instead, the u in utopia is derived from ou, meaning not. So Utopia actually originally meant “not a place” or “no-where”.

    These “hustlers” do seem to be a place of no-whereness. When Jackson leaves off the u to make “topiatarian”, he’s signaling (to me, at least) that there’s something missing here.
    The fact that topiatarian reminds one of vegetarian and Unitarian – both belief systems – suggests that what’s missing is a moral compass.

    Jackson devotes his first, magisterial, expansive paragraph to a catalogue of drugs: cocaine, pills, food, and alcohol, and maybe heroin. The list is long and insistent. In contrast, he spreads as many references to belief throughout the story, here and there, sprinkled like salt. The Hasids who materialize now and then capture the yearning for something that it missing.

    Baptism, palms, sacrifice, washing of sins, Christian martyr’s passion, Lord knows (twice), unforgiving, and catacombs all point not to a ridicule of belief, but a yearning for it. What is being ridiculed is the life of “enforced nullity”.

    He makes a point of the “unsacred” – and I read into this. Upon running into a Hasid out hiking, the narrator “wondered what it would take to imagine [his] way into [the Hasid’s] mind.” The reader is beginning to doubt whether it is cocaine that will do it. The narrator confesses: “I couldn’t. I could see it only through my eyes.”

    What I hear is a young man crying out that he cannot do the thing his vocation calls upon him to do: imagine other people.

    The Christian references are startling, really. This is a group of buddies who are Jewish. I have the sense that Jackson doesn’t mean that he wants his narrator to suddenly become a card-carrying Christian. What I feel is that he wants his narrator to be able to embrace a pursuit of meaning with a clear head, in the manner of a Hasid.

    His ultimate rejection of the Dionysian use of drugs appears as the story ends. Lily says that she feels as if “it was all choreographed for me…”

    The narrator has already told us, very early on, that the drug party had brought him to a state of “near primal cognitive disintegration” , and so when at the end he says to Lily, That’s what being on drugs is, he’s more remarking on the wormhole-ness of the drug euphoria – the way being under the influence makes you feel so justified, so satisfied with being able to be completely self-centered. Except he doesn’t say it like that – so boldly, so flat-footedly. He just tells the story and lets us draw the conclusions.

    There are so many references to Christian belief that one could easily over-interpret the author’s purpose. But there are also numerous references to Greek mythology (Amazonian, Dionysian, the fates, for three, not to mention the drug induced trip to the underworld of Hollywood where you supplicate the producers for money. I am momentarily distracted by how Hollywood is a letter and a space off from Holy Wood).

    It is the “enforced nullity” that Jackson is tracking, and the sense that if something could be “almost moral”, something else might be actually moral.

    I think the story is tour-de-force. His style interests me. Late in the story, he points to the debt to Whitman (with his catalogues and lists), when he has the narrator, in response to a drug-fueled discussion about the nature of happiness, exclaim, “A hole in the bucket-list!”

    There is, in fact at least one hole in the bucket-list. The narrator, thinking now, muses on the possibilities: “Life, tomorrow, the astonishing insufficiency of memory.”

    Whitman is not the only debt acknowledged. The situation of the narrator as somewhat naïve and impoverished hanger-on reminds me of Fitzgerald’s narrator in Gatsby. In fact, late in the story, the narrator refers to “sons of a Trimalchio’s race”, Trimalchio being the touchstone to Fitzgerald. I notice, with sadness, the similarity of the drug-fueled week to Fitzgerald’s own alcoholism, and to the alcohol that is one of the engines of Gatsby.

    Trimalchio’s race would be those who get lost in money, in show, in excess, in being the childish center of things, in having what Wagner says is the ultimate Hollywood reward…being able to be surrounded by slavish “courtiers”.

    And that brings us to the issue of love. The narrator is troubled by whether there is anything such as love. To him, love is an empty grail, something not possible. And here I am tempted to say, in the manner of all grandmothers, oh honey, you’re just not there yet. It takes time. Love takes time, and drugs (uppers, downers, sliders or stretchers) have nothing to do with it. While the narrator is, as he himself says, “confused”, Jackson has all his faculties in this one.

    Somewhere between martyrdom and nullity exists the golden mean of love – and I sense Jackson knows that.

    This is a great story. I find it interesting that Jackson’s debut story is placed alongside a story about Matt Aucoin, a composer, pianist and conductor, another rising star. Aucoin has written an opera about Whitman, one I cannot wait to hear, just as I cannot wait to read the new book that Jackson has on the docket.

    “Wagner in the Desert” is great. The title, for instance. But the hour is late. I leave that to another time, or to you.

  9. juliemcl says:

    Great comments, Betsy, as always! Just a quick comment on what you wrote: I read that word “topiarian” as referring to “topiary”, which I took to mean that their social lives were highly curated or designed – who they would deign to spend time with, talk to, date – in the manner of a decorative garden. They would want to have some ornamental, eccentric friends here and there, some that they might only see at parties… In the next sentence he says “I remain unsure whether I rounded out our group’s eclecticism or stood in contrast to it.” He’s unsure of the place he has in the social garden, and what shape he took in others’ lives.

  10. Seth Guggenheim says:

    I eagerly await the forthcoming collection!

  11. Betsy Pelz says:

    I agree with you, Julie, about topiary. My riff on utopia missing the u was probably a stretch!

  12. Roger says:

    Another thought about this story: it wouldn’t surprise me if Jones is winking at Philip Roth’s 1960 story “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the most superficial level, both stories include characters named Eli and both include Hasidic Jews. But more significantly, both stories involve characters who participate in behavior while standing apart from it, recognizing it to be wrong, or at least experiencing strong doubts about it. And the Hasids are used (albeit much more so in Roth’s story) to illustrate incongruity and the feelings that are stirred up when a person is found in a place where he is not expected to be, where he does not “belong.”

    The Roth story’s protagonist, Eli Peck, is a young lawyer who lives in a suburb of New York with his pregnant wife. The time is the late 1940s, and the town’s residents are Protestants and assimilated Jews who get along, with the Jews believing they need to suppress their Jewishness in order to maintain their community’s ability to live in tranquility. They perceive that tranquility to be threatened by the arrival of a German-Jewish displaced person who acquires a rundown mansion where he sets up a Yeshiva. The most mortifying part, from the standpoint of the Jewish community, is that the man’s assistant is a Hasidic Jew who comes to town in his black coat and hat to purchase provisions for the yeshiva. This, they explain, is what they wanted to get away from when they left New York City. There are 18 children at the yeshiva, perhaps similar to the crowded house that the narrator, Eli, et al. inhabit in the Jones story.

    The assimilated Jews appoint Eli to get rid of the yeshiva, and its inhabitants, on the basis of zoning laws. Eli tries to carry out their wishes but has a hard time doing so because of the yeshiva director’s resistance, Eli’s own emotional problems, and, most of all, his pity for the newcomers because of what they’ve lived through in Europe. When he balks at carrying out his assigned mission, his friends and neighbors push him to follow through, and things proceed to get pretty crazy.

    Both stories mix humor with serious questions about identity, belonging, and how one should live life (admittedly these are broad themes). They are by no means identical, but I have a strong hunch that Jones was influenced by the Roth story and is paying it a bit of tribute here.

  13. Betsy Pelz says:

    Roger, this piece you’ve written in conversation with Jackson and Roth is really interesting.

    In addition, you remind me of Roth’s seriousness. I have to admit I read “Portnoy’s Complaint” when I was 22
    and felt that was enough Philip Roth to last a lifetime. That just reveals how naive I was at 22. In the meantime, I have completely forgotten the stories in “Good-bye, Columbus”, one of which is this one, “Eli, the Fanatic”.

    Other than re-reading “Good-bye Columbus”, where does a person start with Roth?

  14. Roger says:

    Betsy, I’m not sure what the best place to start is – but the novel I’ve heard the most about, other than Portnoy’s Complaint, is American Pastoral. Alas, I haven’t read it myself.

    I wish he’d written more stories. Other than the five published with Goodbye Columbus, I’m not aware of any.

  15. Did someone bring up Roth??

    I’d start with the Zuckerman books, in order, which gets through most of his late work. So that means the brilliant The Ghost Writer, and I’m pretty sure you’ll like it Betsy. Move from there to Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, to the strange standalone The Counterlife. From there you get the late brilliance of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist (my least favorite of all of this), and The Human Stain, finally ending with Exit Ghost. I highly recommend this.

  16. Betsy Pelz says:

    I have copied down your list, Trevor. Thank you! Nine books – Roth and Zuckerman are clearly good company for those of us who like to make a run with one author. Will let you know.

  17. I’m jealous, Betsy :-) . Going through those books was one of my favorite literary journeys ever. It also kind of coincides with this blog’s early days. The Ghost Writer was one of my first reviews.

  18. Judy Pokras says:

    Thanks for a fascinating discussion. I, too, hoped to find a website with more info about Jackson, other than the press release about his UVA award. I really like “Wagner in the Desert” because it’s so rich with ideas and references that delve deeper than the main storyline. So many writers just write the narrative. Jackson is idea-rich.

  19. juliemcl says:

    Upon re-reading the story tonight, I loved it even more. I also got a whiff very early on of a resonance with Douglas Coupland’s book “Generation X”. I didn’t really know why – something to do with the cadences of the narrator’s voice seemingly speaking for his entire generation at certain points (“We thought we were not bad people. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent. We paid a tax on the lives we lived, in prder to say in public, I have sacrificed, tithed, given back… We were affiliated. We had access.”)

    Then I went to look Coupland’s book up (having read it more than 20 years ago now) and re-discovered that most of it is set in….Palm Springs! It, too, concerns itself with 20 somethings not sure of their place in the new world order, trying to find or make some meaning, who also go for long drives and forays into the desert, have picnics and talk. Those characters were a little more disenfranchised, a little less outwardly “together” than Jackson’s characters, but perhaps that’s part of Jackson’s point (if indeed Jackson had that book in mind). All of this stuff, this searching, this confusion, is perennial, regardless of the decade in which it occurs and what else is going on in the economy or the culture. Or maybe, if not perennial, this story is the natural progression or an update of that story, this is where those characters would be now, if at their same age but living in this time. Not sure if I’m making sense – sorry. Coupland’s book felt so important to me at the time it came out (I was 16), it felt like he was speaking to me, for me, etc. Anyway, I wonder…

    Roger mentions above a resonance with a Philip Roth story – very interesting, now I want to read that too.

    One more thing about Jackson’s story: one particular sentence jumped out at me upon my re-read, electrifyingly. The narrator is describing wanting to read a poem at dinner one night but never gets around to it. He says the poem was “funny and affecting, and [he] saw it as a sort of moral Trojan horse, a coy and subtle rebuke to everything that was going on, which would, in the manner of all great art, make its case through no more than the appeal and persuasiveness of its sensibility.” I love when what you’re reading describes itself to you as you’re reading it. I didn’t pick up on this the first time through. Just…perfect.

  20. Betsy Pelz says:

    Julie – great stuff – you make a lot of sense – and that quote is good – regarding the artist whose art makes its case through “the appeal and persuasiveness of its sensibility….” One could look at Jackson’s story with that exactly in mind, I think, and it would take a whole morning. As for Coupland – that is really interesting.

    I’ve been thinking about the title. It’s a real stumbling block. I don’t have it down clean and pat. You could get lost thinking about the two Wagners (and the two Nietzsches, with one of whom Wagner said he had a falling out, the “exec over at Iscariot”. For that matter there are two Judases.). But what is going on here?

    Somehow I think it all comes back to “enforced nullity” that the narrator mentions.

    Wagner talks about how his two guests (Eli and the narrator) are after everything money can buy, and envy, and “courtiers”, who will do anything you pay them to do. But in the end, he says, nothing equals “pain”. Which is, he says, “The realest thing in the world”. The odd thing is that he pays for pain to be administered. So he controls it. It has nothing to do with the real pain, of say, the holocaust, which he is willing to make a movie about. So Frank Wagner may be speaking the truth but being a fake of the highest order.

    There’s a nullity at the end of the road if you go with Frank Wagner as your Virgil. At the same time, there’s a nullity in Richard Wagner – the composer who thought all Jews should reject their culture and religion, who wanted a Jewish conductor to convert to Christianity and then all would be better.

    As for Nietzsche – is he mentioned because he questioned the need for belief? – the need to find what follows slavish adherence to myth?

    The epic drug binge is like a Wagner opera – endless. Where does it lead?

    Wagner, the German composer, is a lightning rod. In many places, Wagner cannot be played. Actually, my head is one of them. Jackson knows this and is playing with it – but my own sense of horror around Wagner hardly allows me think through the implications of the title.

    Perhaps what Jackson is getting at is the sense of danger when you commit to belief, the sense of danger when the artist commits to belief. You might be wrong. You might be “almost moral”, but you might end up inspiring all the wrong human action, Nazism, for instance.

    There’s a blur of beliefs in this story – yet a positive yearning for belief you can believe in beyond the “enforced nullity” of drugs or fake pain.

    About the title – there’s also a play on Jesus in the desert, where he went after his baptism. But the link to this story is that the desert is where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Temptations abound in Palm Springs: money, envy, lust for slavish courtiers, the fake experience of pain, and where things might be “almost moral”.

    I’m looking forward to when Jackson lets his heroes feel real pain.

    So, back to the writer who makes his case through “the appeal and persuasiveness of its sensibility”. One sensibility I feel in this story is the writer’s sense of the peril an artist faces when wanting to say something – you could be as foolish as Frank Wagner or as dangerous as Richard Wagner. As the writer-narrator says out of his drug-dream, “Wait…Hold on. You’re the real Wagner?” It’s very hard to tell what’s what – what is moral and what is just almost moral.

  21. Greg says:

    Thank you Julie for all of your insightful comments! You have added to the pleasure of the story for me!

  22. Betsy Pelz says:

    Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, says in the PR blog (on July 25) , “Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” is the best fiction debut they’ve published in years.”

  23. Sean H says:

    You people are out of your minds and so is Lorin Stein if he thinks this is good writing. This kid and Lena Dunham should be driven out to the desert and shot in the head, the world would be a better place. He’s right that good-looking women will use you like a swiss army knife if you let them, and the old man snorting the cocaine was moderately humorous, but on the whole this piece was garbage. Castrated Bret Easton Ellis crossbred with a smirking, millennial narcissism and an overwhelming entitlement that is almost literally unbelievable. At the end of the story the guy actually writes the lines “We were not heroes. We were trying to find ways not to be villains.” and then sets those two sentences aside as a stand-alone paragraph as if they’re profound. Absolutely laughable fiction. One of the most sophomoric things the New Yorker has published in recent memory.

  24. Betsy Pelz says:

    Sean, your inflammatory remarks referring to shooting people are completely unacceptable. Loosely referring to shooting people is akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded building. This is completely unacceptable.

    I write Trevor under separate post regarding what our options and responsibilities are regarding these unacceptable remarks.

  25. Sean H, since you posted above I’ve gotten a number of emails from other readers upset about what I can only think is a mindlessly flippant comment that suggests shooting people if you don’t like their art. I simply cannot credit that you’re serious about what you wrote, but I’ve also never understood why someone would try to emphasize his point or disgust in such a manner. I respond only because I think other readers deserve to know that this site is not a place where such comments will be tolerated. That this is the second time I’ve gotten emails about one of your comments is ridiculous.

    No one cares that you didn’t like the story. If you’ve been paying attention to these conversations, there are often disagreements, and people are almost always capable of stating their opinion — or even their knee-jerk reactions — without being offensive and alarming, and rich conversations often result.

    While I’m not inclined to exchange words with you about the story due to your tone, I am interested in your viewpoint. I’m sure others feel the same way. When I began this story, I was wary as I also sometimes sense and do not like what you call “smirking, millennial narcissism.” I was resistant, until I realized that Jackson was much more intelligent and nuanced. He’s not symptomatic of what you dislike: he’s exploring it.

  26. I don’t know if this story is to be taken seriously or not. On the one hand, it makes kind of the ultimate parody of a certain kind of millennial tale. On the other hand, it comes off as rather self-indulgent and first-world-problems-y. The characters all seem beset by problems originating from their…social affluence? Like, they have so much social capital, that they have no propulsion in life? Like, they’re so established that they’re in need of something to shake things up? I mean, he does reference that in the opening, so he sets this story up as a kind of…frame story story of sorts in that way. So on the one hand, he’s shown us that he’s aware of the type of story this COULD sound like, but don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s not. I’m not so sure I’m reassured. The writing was luminous in places, very polished, but too often, he lapsed into a kind of pseudo-intellectualism to explain not only the actions in the story but to attribute them to some larger theme.

    For a debut, I’m sure it’s very good, but it still feels self-conscious, a little overworked, and low on genuine feelings. But then again, as someone with very little social capital, maybe it’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of group of people who literally have nothing to do except throw every possible drug into their system and wait to see what happens, just to feel alive. Still, you guys have brought me many insights to this story! I’ll reread and see if I can get past my initial feelings. I’m so glad I found this site!

  27. Welcome, Brandon — I need to read your comment more thoroughly fora response, but it’s great to have another somewhat dissenting voice. I think it strengthens everyone.

    I do want to say, though, that since it reared its head I’ve never been a fan of the dismissive “first world problems.” Afterall, art that doesn’t look at the social injustices in the world can still be art. They can still look at the world from a valid, human perspective, as infuriating as it might be. I’m just throwing that out there — your comment is much more nuanced than that and deserves a full response — when I’m back in the saddle!

  28. Trevor:

    I definitely don’t mean to be dismissive. I think that Jackson is getting at something here, I just don’t know if he’s getting at it on a very deep level. I think my own preferences tend toward “issue fiction.” I like stories that deal with seedy, uncomfortable topics. Here, I wasn’t really uncomfortable. I couldn’t locate the center of the character’s angst or his situation, so it was hard for me to gauge if all of the angst was “earned” in a way? I wasn’t sure if the character’s compulsion to do drugs and fling himself out of his current life (a comfortable one, despite his description as “poor”, relative to very well-off friends, it seems) was warranted. What about his life made it so unbearable that’d he’d want to shake things up so badly. In some instances, I don’t think it’s necessary to spell it out. For example, there are some movies, Salt comes to mind, where the motivation is really fuzzy at best, but you believe the character’s actions because they flow from an organic place. I didn’t sense such an organic place in this story. I feel like the secret center of misery was missing a bit, but that could be because my own experiences don’t align well with the narrator’s, so I’m less in a position to kind of “get him” without some prodding from the author. In a more nuanced and clear way, I think that’s what I’m trying to get at here. For me, I don’t think I’ve quite located the reason for the character’s driftiness, so it all feels a bit implausible. And if the character is unaware of it–which is certainly plausible. Who hasn’t woken up beset by strange feelings!–I can understand how that might be missing, but then it makes the story feel a bit flabby. Because the story isn’t lurching toward any particular understanding, it feels like.

    In that way, the story doesn’t really rise above the type of story it seems to parody. It didn’t differentiate itself from a kind of “we are unhappy but for what reason, we have all the comforts of life!” type of story. I think it raises this question beautifully. It even paints the picture very clearly of people set adrift. And in the end, the character seems to sum it all up rather gorgeously: “We were high, but we weren’t courting death. We were just some nobody hustlers in the desert, trying to make a film about the economist Albert O. Hirschman, trying to read a poem and be present together and save the shards of hearts splintered many times in incautious romance from further comminution, trying to keep up with our Instagram and Twitter feeds and all the autodocumentary imperatives of the age, trying to keep checking items off our private bucket lists, because pretty soon we would have babies and devote our lives to giving them the right prods and cushioning so that they could grow up to be about as bad and as careful as we were, and avoid stepping with too big a carbon footprint on our African and Asian brothers and sisters and the Dutch. We were looking for a moment, not a perfect moment but a moment in which the boundaries of ourselves and the world grew indistinct and overlapped.”

    But I don’t feel like it ever really answers the question of just why they are all unhappy. It seems as though the character for the first time really comes to grips with the fact that they are all living shams of a life, but to me, it doesn’t round into anything except that realization. At any rate, thank you for the warm welcome! :D

    This discussion, by the way, is filled with gorgeous writing from each of you, and it’s an honor to be here!

    Brandon

  29. NME says:

    Greg Jackson was a recent Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. He gave an incredible reading from this story last winter.

  30. spakravan says:

    This story bowled me over. There is fabulous tone here, an already powerful personal style, pithy, amazingly true comments, the kind that makes you sit up and think, “Yes, he’s nailed it! That’s exactly it!” I’m a woman, I’m not thirty-something–far from it, alas–I never did drugs, even back in the days, but I slipped so easily into these characters and mainly the narrator, “Wagner” could be about me. It takes a heap of talent to take a reader so far into context. I look forward to reading this collection.

  31. Ken says:

    I agree that this story has been done before and is reminiscent of other writers such as Bret Easton Ellis, but it is so masterfully put forward here and so full of ambiguity that it works very well. The style is in itself amazing, but so is his dispassionate adjudicating of the situation without being judgmental or overly approving of it. I loved the final line–about how drugs make you feel the world is putting on a show just for you. I used to feel that way when I took hallucinogens. I don’t think we’re meant, per Betsy, to see this as a remark which indicates unacceptable narcissism from the character who says it, but a truthful statement about how one really does feel when tripping. I’d say that the drugs aren’t at fault at all. The fault is that there are no easy answers no matter how one attempts to reach transcendence and understand the moment. Interestingly, the narrator in the next story “Last Meal at Whole Foods” also wants to fix moments as perfect and as “memories” and is similarly thwarted and he’s not doing drugs.

  32. Betsy Pelz says:

    Ken, I accept your expertise here, and I admit my own inexperience about how drugs might make a person feel that ‘the world is putting on a show just for you’. I also get your caution re judgmentalism, especially from someone as essentially conservative as me. (But – for instance – how does a person view the loss, say, of Philip Seymour Hoffman? It is hard to be dispassionate. I miss him in this world.)

    But I think it too narrow a reading to think Jackson means only one thing by that closing comment (that drugs make you feel like the world is putting on a show just for you.). I think he has set it up to mean both things – that drugs can be a wonderfully euphoric experience and that they can also be an enforced nullity.

    Those times when reality falls away, when worries and loneliness both evaporate, when experience is vivid and comforting at the same time – don’t we crave those times? Being in a flow state, being an artist, being an athlete, might be akin to that. And being in a flow state (say painting, or say mountain climbing) also has risks: in the service of the flow state, one could easily choose to “nullify” everyday responsibility or everyday logic; the flow state could easily nullify one’s sense that there is anyone else in the world.

    True enough, and the person in the flow state doesn’t need drugs – they’re manufacturing their own drugs, and there’s not a lot of difference. Both states can be euphoric, and both states can do damage, in one way or another.

    But how do you balance that flow state (from drugs, from either without or within, coursing through the system) with the narrator’s “state of near primal cognitive disintegration” or his sense that this week represents a world of “enforced nullity”? .

    Convince me that those two statements are not part of the seesaw – that on the one hand, feeling like you’re a master of the universe is phenomenally wonderful, and on the other, feeling like you’re the center of the universe is also, inevitably, an “enforced nullity”.

    But perhaps I mistake what Jackson means by enforced nullity, and perhaps I mistake whether being in a “state of near primal cognitive disintegration” is good or bad.

    The narrator admits that what he hopes to get from his week of tripping is a new beginning.
    In that case, is the enforced nullity a necessity for beginning again?

    Or, in fact, does he himself doubt that the drugs will be a source of a new beginning?

    Do you get the feeling that this narrator will find the drugs an annual necessity for recharging?
    Or is he only saying – this happened. It was interesting.

    Where does this character leave us? Next time he needs to begin again (and don’t we all need to begin again,
    over and over?) – what will he choose? I think Jackson has given us enough about this guy that we could make a guess. But what is your guess?

    Hoping to hear more argument from you, Ken. As Trevor would say — : ).

    .

  33. Sean H says:

    Just to Trevor and Betsy and whoever else gets so incensed by comments on a website (and a good one admittedly, which is why I continue to read and very occasionally comment) that they self-righteously need to complain that I actually express points of view that are forthright and opinionated and yes, at times, even harsh in their dissent:. First of all, how facetiously wishing ill on Lena Dunham or Greg Jackson is remotely comparable to “yelling fire in a crowded theater” is beyond me (I don’t know what’s worse about the analogy, the inaccuracy or the cliched laziness). Secondly, this site and The New Yorker would seem to be bastions of old school liberalism. Liberalism is about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. When did the left get so uptight? That used to be the realm of cranky old conservatives and “get off’a my lawn” types. The new left has become as censorious, reactionary and intolerant as the old right ever was. God forbid someone disagree strongly with something and express derision flamboyantly. If I want a criticism-free zone full of ignorance I’ll go read something on Buzzfeed or Upworthy. I would hope Mookse be a bit more committed to the spirit of free inquiry and intellectual and artistic rigor instead of sanctimoniously policing language.

  34. Yes, say something offensive and then claim it’s just brutal honesty, which should be counted as a unique virtue in today’s world. They are not the same thing.

    Now, to put together my “Which Philip Roth Character Are You” quiz.

  35. Ken says:

    Betsy, I agree the statement could be read in two ways. I was reacting against what I thought was your rather judgmental tone towards it and simply pointing out the gleeful quality of hallucinogens and the idea of the world as private spectacle. I agree, though, that this all may have gotten him nowhere, but that he may feel the need to try this all over again but “get it right this time,” yet also doubt whether it will get him anywhere. In other words, I think ambivalence and ambiguity are all over the place. I’m not a cheerleader for drug use. I think drugs can be horribly destructive, although I think hallucinogens are less likely to cause addictions like cocaine or heroin which can truly destroy your life or if used daily turn one into a dufus the way marijuana can. While we’re at it, though, I’d say alcohol is probably the biggest killer of them all. Hallucinogens, though, can cause some pretty uncomfortable mental states although I don’t think there are very many who truly have a trip they never return from (a statement one used to hear a lot about rock musicians such as Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee of Love). On the other hand, perhaps this experience is also just part of the character’s own “bucket list” and he’ll no longer attempt such activities as he and his cohort move on.

  36. Betsy says:

    A propos of an earlier comment in this thread regarding Lena Dunham: the September 1, 2014 issue of The New Yorker includes “Difficult Girl” a piece about growing up, by her about how she used to be afraid of everything. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/difficult-girl) Dunham is apparently bringing out a book in September.

    Also a propos of that earlier comment, there is, in this same issue, a profile entitled “The Troll Slayer”. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/troll-slayer) It is a curious piece. Mary Beard, classics professor at Cambridge, author and BBC television personality, talks with reporter Rebecca Mead about how she deals with men who threaten her on-line with death, rape and etc.

    These are strange and interesting articles.

    Neither, of course, have anything to do with Greg Jackson’s terrific story but both remind me, a month later, of that earlier (off-topic) discussion.

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