Lots of the essays in Happiness were familiar to him. They were, as the cover promised, “selected by the editors,” and yet the overall effect was sort of curiously detached from the magazine’s signature issues (hipsters, Occupy). The pieces from ten years ago had aged badly. Mark Greif’s “Afternoon of the Sex Children” had sharp observations about the lasting effects of Lolita and lolitas in our lives, repeating “sex children” over and over and over again until he felt incredibly uncomfortable. Perhaps that was the point, but it felt at times an empty provocation, a case of the writer wielding his smarts like a bludgeon. Whereas Benjamin Kunkel’s “Diana Abbot: A Lesson” (a review of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello written in the third person) was a drag, an obnoxious short story pivoting on all the things that Diana learned, that women learned, that writers learned: “she gives herself over to someone else’s perspective and loses her own.” However, Marco Roth’s “Rise of the Neuronovel” seemed to counter Diana Abbott’s frustrations and conclusions by providing close and insightful analysis of the narrator’s role in books by Ian McEwan and Rivka Galchen.
N. felt a sense of relief when Happiness pivoted away from the quotidian and towards richer essays by women. Elif Batuman’s “Babel in California” (also in her wonderful book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) was a fantastic piece of writing about a California conference on the Russian writer Isaac Babel and the comic convergences that result from this celebration. Emily Witt’s “What Do You Desire?” starts in San Francisco, observing a porn shoot for the web series Public Disgrace. Witt rendered the scene in brutal precision, starting with porn and examining our own weird desires in an age of easy sexuality. It was a probing piece of writing, and N. found himself looking forward to the inevitable book that Witt would write on the topic (Future Sex, due in 2015 from Faber and Faber).
Even the editors seemed to have grown and changed as the years went on — Keith Gessen’s “Money” (also in the recent MFA vs. NYC) had a section written in 2006, when Gessen was a Sad Young Literary Man trying to save the money he earned from a magazine article, but bumping up against his lack of health insurance. When Gessen returned to the subject of money in 2014, he sounded older and wiser, taking a position as an adjunct writing professor, wary of the role that money had played in his career and the benefits (financial) of the writing life. The piece was a warning for romantic young literary youth, and the honesty was admirable, even refreshing.
But N. wouldn’t listen to it. He knew that. Really, for him, the essay that made Happiness worthwhile, something to think about and consider as it related to the span of his life, was the final essay: “How to Quit,” by Kristin Dombek. It is an elegy for many ways of life: being a hipster in Williamsburg, the opportunity for art and revolution that seemed real, at one point, in Brooklyn and the greater New York area, finding some sort of salvation in addiction, late nights, bad men, a stolen moment of transcendence. It was a dirty and merciless piece of writing, and it made N. feel feelings that he wasn’t sure he had felt before in that particular order. It also made him feel very, very old, as if his way of life had become obsolete. If he was going to look back on the 2000s, Dombek’s essay could describe just what it was like, in very specific detail. Much more so than something like The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. That book just felt like revenge.
N.’s coffee had gotten cold. Despite his best efforts, he had written many words on n + 1’s book. It had annoyed him, it had made him laugh, it had introduced him to a slew of people who did and would write books, some very good, and it had made him think, sometimes. Perhaps Happiness was worth the read. Perhaps n+ 1 — even though as a journal, it was basically the equivalent, much of the time, of the friend who makes sure to say, loudly, that he had gone to school “in Cambridge” — did work that was worthy of attention and reflection. N. had gone to school in Cambridge, and you would have to pry that topic out of him after several drinks. He was older and wiser now. He should really try to call Hannah.