The closet in my old room at my parents’ house has, in recent years, become a museum of my adolescence and early adulthood. There, amidst numerous graduation gowns, discarded jackets, outgrown suits, old videotapes, a dusty Chinese violin, a long decrepit type-writer, and hundreds and hundreds of books, lie all the assorted debris that marked my own particular version of growing up: the certificates, the report cards, the yearbooks, and thousands upon thousands of pages of writing.
A few weeks ago, for one reason or another, I decided to rifle through this mess of memories, with a box of trash bags and an eye toward making some kind of sense of the disorder in front of me (or, at least, behind the closet door). Once I got through the clothes and the books, chucking the more damaged items into the trash, I uncovered a huge pile of loose paper, more or less stuffed into the back of the closet, in a way that the 20 year old me would have found routine.
Most of this paper turned out to be, at least in my current estimation, thoroughly uninteresting. Endless poems, to-do lists, term papers, short stories, play-bills from concerts and shows, a couple of long-forgotten porn magazines (surprising in that I- the owner of the magazines- thought hard-copy porn was a thing of a by-gone era, like vinyl records and baseball cards) - it was pretty much the standard stuff that might fill a closet that hadn’t been cleaned in several years.
There also, though, the prize of my own personal treasure horde, was something a little bit more unusual, or at least a little bit more surprising- the 220 pages of the novel that the 19 year old me had written in the winter and spring of 2008.
“Sturm und Drang and Schadenfreude”, as it was titled, was the effort of 5 months of a feverish winter and spring spent studying at the Queen’s University of Belfast, an experience, at least in retrospect, that was notable only in the fact that it produced “Sturm und Drang and Schadenfreude” and that it resulted in me both losing my virginity and taking up smoking cigarettes (for some reason, I continue to link the two, though, from this vantage point, I’m unable to discern which was cause and which was effect).
Belfast, if you have not been there, is, at least to my Southern California-accustomed reckoning, a little like I imagine Soviet Minsk or Rostov. It is peripheral. It is cold. It is shockingly Caucasian and monocultural (aside from certain small portions of the city). It is a city of grays and browns.
I arrived there at 19, having experienced very little of the world, but having just spent a year putting myself through a crash course survey of all the literature I would have been required to read at the University of Chicago but was not required to read at the University of California. I read Dostoyevsky and Flaubert and Woolf and Montaigne and Tolstoy. I read them not because I necessarily enjoyed them, but because they apparently comprised what educated people read, and were, more importantly, what Penguin published, and therefore were easily accessible through the library and Barnes and Noble.
As such, having read a little for a little while, having quickly exhausted and repelled my Northern Irish girlfriend Fionnuala (who was, and is forever, my last “girlfriend”), and having found it unpleasant to leave my room to brave the rain and wind storms in the street without the help of Tesco’s “Imperial” brand vodka (the taste and quality of which is emblematic of the state of the British Empire in the 21st century), I decided to do what seemed most appropriate: I decided to write a novel.
The best way to do this, it seemed to me at the time, was by mimicking what I thought had been the way that Joyce and Woolf had written: by, essentially, belching words onto the page and then worrying about the rest later. What followed, through 5 months of 5 hours of writing per day, was a Sherman’s march of a book, whereby each day dawned with an established goal of at least 1000 words of forced marching, and then the following hours of editing burnt down the majority of the captured ground. In between, I made various innovations that I thought very original. These included multiple narrators (named “the narrator”, “me”, and “the I”), and references to such figures as Susan Sontag, the Grateful Dead, Joan Lunden, Rembrandt, Robert McNamara, Pat Sajak, NAFTA, Aslan, the Power Rangers, Maureen Dowd, and the Oracle at Delphi.
Probably by the 2nd month of work on the book (which was, of course, autobiographical, and which I’d begun to envision as the first of a trilogy, the other portions of which were to be titled “Bisserwisser” and “Kulturkampf”, in keeping with the multi-syllabic Germanness of the title of the first book), I’d began to attempt to rush it out as quickly as possible so as to avoid the actual hassle of writing in the first place. I hit on the magic number of 65,000 words as respectable, at least for a first novel, and at least for a 19 year old. This seemed reasonable, given the fact that, being 19, the fact that I’d written “Sturm und Drang and Schadenfreude” would, at the very least, have some appeal in being a novelty. I was, and still am, a fan of the film “The Hotel New Hampshire”, which features a very young women who becomes famous for writing a novel at a very young age, and I was, in addition, also aware of the fact that Stephen Crane had been 21 when he wrote “The Red Badge of Courage”, so it seemed a reasonable assumption.
By May, with my time in Belfast rapidly nearing a close, I managed to tie up all the loose ends of the book, at least to an extent that seemed satisfying enough for me to consider it done, and, by the time I’d returned to the United States, to send it out to various literary agents in New York and Los Angeles. What followed was an avalanche of rejection letters, of “We’re sorry, but this isn’t salable”, of “try again next time, of “we were pleased to read...” I did get one bite, from an “agent” named Leo (“Leonid” as in “Brezhnev”; not “Leonardo” as “da Vinci”), whom I spoke to on the phone once, and who promptly asked me for several hundred dollars as surety for his skill in representing my work.
In the months that followed, “Sturm und Drang and Schadenfreude” went from being an everyday obsession to a conversation starter to “a funny little thing I did last year”. Being 19, I turned from a zealous dedication to writing a novel, to a zealous dedication to reading all of Philip Roth’s or Orhan Pamuk’s books, to a zealous dedication to learning Russian, to a zealous dedication to a first boyfriend who was not zealously dedicated to me. All that zeal was bound to unzeal itself sometime.
In any case, as I leafed through the loose pages of it those weeks ago, trying to set it into the right order, trying to smooth out the crumpled edges of the typing paper that, in the ensuing years, had already begun to yellow, “Sturm und Drang and Schadenfreude” came back into full view. And in its ambitiousness, its brashness, its naïveté, I saw just a shade of the version of me who had written it, back before it was consigned to the closet, back before it and its writer became, like the Chinese violin and the old porn magazines, just another sign of things gone by.