I approached Jackie Corley about writing this review a number of months ago. No one twisted my arm. I had read Lee Klein’s book in two marathon sittings in May when it came out, liked it very much and said to myself, well, you should write a review. Now. Right now. Or tomorrow. Or sometime. Whenever you get to it is fine.
It is now seven months later, and there have since been other reviews written about the book. Among them is one at Bull Fight Review, which does a fine job of surmising the books fine points and flaws and fearlessnesses—in fact, the review goes so far as to call the book darling. Goddamnit, I was going to call the book darling.
But, as I said, I’ve put it off. I got busy—cogs were spinning. Things happened. I quit a job I loved at a quaint public library, moved out of Cincinnati—my home of six years—years which had held within them such overgrown things as the last years of High School, a first attempt at College, the loss of faith and the invention of a new one. I relocated to a small town in Virginia on the Tennessee border and got a job assisting the mentally handicapped in a group home. The purpose of the move—to be closer to a girl.
Let me give you advice—never move for a girl, even when she asks you to. Never move for anyone who has the ability to change their minds as easily and as often and as thoughtlessly as sneezing.
But I am here. And right now I’m sitting in a grassy field attached to the East Tennessee State University (ETSU), beneath a gigantic tree with leaves the color of yellow and red and green apples. You know what I’m saying. Bright. Like Las Vegas climbed a tree. The lawn extends for a good distance in every direction, ending in more trees—and beyond these are mountains. They look as if a gigantic, colorful quilt has been laid over a sleeping giant. On the lawn, college students lie around, take pictures of themselves, ask each other their majors.
There’s a certain magic to being on the campus of a college of which you’re not a student. Maybe it’s just that you don’t have to make small talk about your major.
It’s sunset and the end of October. In the distance, there is a gazebo where a friend was married in a beautiful ceremony in which the sky threatened to rain the whole time and made all the grandmothers wrinkle their wrinkly foreheads in worry. The rain held off until after the last pictures were taken—it was a day when things had perfect timing. And—I’ve been avoiding it—but right here, right on this spot of grass (I’m pretty sure), is where I fell in love with the girl. Where we fell in love. Like the last two legos on earth—something you’d have to pry apart with your teeth.
There’s the sound of a train in the distance. Cincinnati never had this. It’s nice.
Okay. Let me tell you how it happened—all this falling in love stuff—because it was a moment attached to a whole adventure that I’ve written about elsewhere—a trip to DC, a march against a war, a few bad jokes—but I never wrote about this particular moment—the moment on this patch of grass—and I’m not sure why. I usually will take any excuse to write a moment up—regardless of whether it was interesting or spectacular or anything, really.
We had just met. I had driven down from Cincinnati and we were waiting for our mutual friend to get off of work so we could start our drive to DC. We were just hanging around together, cutting and pasting together every single getting-to-know-you conversation we’d ever had. We went to a small coffee shop and had veggie sandwiches. We talked about why we were vegetarian. She said (jokingly, I think) that I needed a better reason than the one I had (which is the loss of my faith in God. No, I can’t explain it because it doesn’t really make sense to me, either). She talked about going to Thailand to teach English to students in a Christian school—she aired her moral questions about working for such an ideology. She said she didn’t want to get into anything serious guy-wise because of the move. I must have made a face or something (remember—this was still in our does-she-like-me-do-I-like-her-uh-uh-uh stage) because she quickly added:
of course, if I met the right guy, I wouldn’t just tell him, sorry, you’ll have to wait a couple of years.
Okay. We talked a little while longer at the cafe. Then we drove around and talked some more. I gave her a Bad Day Package. A Bad Day Package is a thrift store moment wrapped in the Sunday comics, to be opened only in the case of a bad day. In the past, the thrift store moment has been a wordless Japanese children’s book about a little girl with a red umbrella, a copy of Cyrano De Bergiac that had been shared between two high school girls throughout their junior year (1997). It has their notes between them, their high school name calling, talk about their crushes and what they wanted to do to them. Silly, maybe.
I don’t know if Bad Day Packages help. All I know is that they’re the sort of thing I would want somebody to do for me.
The thrift store moment I gave her, by the way, was a copy of Grand Street from the 1980’s. One particular story (and I forget the title now, forgive me) is signed by the author with an enigmatic inscription:
Dear Steve, Thanks for suggesting that I not give up on the Margarets of this world.
The short story, by the way, is perfect.
Anyway—so we got to the park. This park. And we laid down on this great expanse of lawn—which looked then like it does today, right down to the grass blades—and we were lying really close. Really close like the-television’s-on-but-no-one’s-watching close. We were quiet for a little while, just watching the clouds. She wrote the word henthai on my shoe with a red pen, because she thought it meant something—what exactly, I’ve forgotten. All I remember is that we found out later that it doesn’t mean what she thought it meant—it doesn’t mean anything—but when I got new shoes some months later, the first thing she did was grab a pen and write henthai across the sole.
She said she wished she had a kite. We talked about the best gifts we had ever gotten from anybody. We watched a wedding rehearsal take place. We were quiet some more.
Later in the weekend, she told me that she wanted to kiss me that day on the lawn. It’s funny, because I wanted to kiss her, too. I wanted to kiss her so bad, the want was a kind of pulse, like the pain of a smashed thumb. But I didn’t say anything—neither of us did. We were silent because of the distance between what we wanted and what we had.
When a secret like that is shared, it never leaves you. It’s never left me, at least.
Gobbly gookidy goo goo gah. Okay. I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m here right now and my batteries are dying and I’m watching the college students talk about their majors and kiss. It’s getting dark.
The Next Day
Today is the last day of orientation for my new job—I’ll start work on Monday. Let me tell you about orientation—for six hours a day—three days in a row—I’m in a room full of southern fried middle aged women—at least two in stone washed jeans with big paunches around the belt line. They all say the word that before every noun (i.e, I love that Sopranos. I was listening to that Tim McGraw, you know? You heard of him?). It’s funny how they seem to objectify everything, turning the world into an aisle of a grocery store where the things around them are in packages. I feel as if I’m stuck in the back seat of the General Lee, and there are no handles on the doors or hand-cranks for the windows.
In sharp, buzzing lighting, we fill out forms together. There’s a dull chatter about reality TV (I watched that Survivor. That guy in that dress—wasn’t that funnnny?). Then we watch videos where minimum wage actors get into all sorts of workplace catastrophes—only to be saved at the last moment by a super-duper acronym. The lady next to me has sat through so many of these things for various jobs, she knows the videos by heart. She lip syncs to them.
I feel myself disliking these people—something slow. It’s a dumb feeling. I wish I could replace it with emptiness. Or marbles.
I pop open Lee Klein’s book for some repose. I turn to the chapter titled Arguments in Favor of a Generally Unpopular Belief. It’s a chapter where the narrator goes through great lengths to lay out just how disgusted he is with the girth of a secretary he has to work with. At one point, he imagines “If she were to accidentally serrate a finger…no blood would flow. Instead there would be oozing pus like when a crushed eclair spews its innards.” He sees the general animosity that rises between the two as a simple difference in the way their lives have played out—the nomadic Egotourist is affected with a robotic disposition from the Secretary’s stability, the Secretary dislikes the Egotourist because he reminds her of everyplace and everything she’ll never experiance. Later in the chapter, the Egotourist reels back on himself, disgusted with his disgust. And then back again, into a general confusion of uncertainty—something puddy-shaped.
I’m reading this chapter right now because this is what I’m feeling. With this room full of southern women with frizzy blond hair and pancake makeup. I’m having a love and hate spat with my dark side, and there’s nothing better for one of these then for someone to say
I know. I understand. Me too. We’re all horrible.
So that’s why I’m treading through again what most people might read as a fairly mediocre book (certainly enjoyable the first time through, but maybe not warranting further reads). I’ve been picking this book up a lot lately—and I think I can say with some certainty that I am one of few who has read Lee Klein’s book the way it is meant to be read. That is, as it was written. In limbo.
You want limbo? I got limbo.
Last night, the girl I moved three hundred miles for told me this wasn’t going to work—and she knows this after only three weeks. Three weeks. She’s very efficient.
This morning, I told her good morning and she swept right past me on her way to the restroom. Silently.
So that’s that, I guess.
I’m an idiot, I know. I made serious life plans around a girl who moves her feelings around inside her as if they were chess pieces. Things with strict rules and agendas. A girl who voted/votes Ralph Nader incessantly, and yet blames David Cobb and the Greens for splitting the progressive vote in 2004. A girl who takes everything too seriously, and couldn’t stay happy if her life depended on it (and someday, it just might). A girl who is an evangelistic liberal, yet is addicted to sweatshop hotspots. A girl who goes crazy bimonthly, yet rarely excepts the craziness in others.
She’s the most self-absorbed person I know. The tragic thing is, she’s not interesting enough to pull it off.
So limbo. Sure. I got limbo.
And this orientation—for example. It’s over. Monday I begin work. Or move back to Cincinnati and start the godawful process of job hunting again. Or what?
Thirty minutes later
Okay. I was unfair to her. All of that last part. She’s a beautiful person, mostly—and I’ve been just as horrible, or worse. For instance, I once told her (and I’m not sure why, possibly just to get on her nerves) that Nader was responsible for the deaths of Iraqi children—and when she got this stricken take-it-back face, I said well, it’s technically true (which it is, but if you ever have to use the word technically in your argument, you’re most likely an asshole, and assholes are always wrong). I was needy and suffocating and selfish at times. I didn’t always try to understand her craziness. I bought her too many books because I secretly thought the books she read were beneath her (this wasn’t much of a secret). I took her to clubs in which she had no interest—places where she felt out of place. I told her the same stories over and over. I forgot some of the anecdotes she told me because I was too busy thinking about the next story I was going to tell her. Or re-tell. When we had movie nights, I picked out movies that I mostly only wanted to see.
I didn’t try to love her only as much as she needed to be loved—and no more.
And her feelings don’t have agendas. They’re not like chess pieces—I don’t know why I said that, except to be clever, maybe (stupid, stupid, stupid). They’re just dumb, inconsiderate feelings. Same as we all have.
Everything seems so inconsequential, putting it down now. I don’t know. We had a rule, this girl and I—the only fights that really matter are the fights you can describe to a third party without feeling silly.
And I feel silly right now, to tell the truth.
A couple hours later
A few months ago, a friend came back from a semester abroad in Thailand. He was at home for the summer, before leaving again for college, which was an hour away. He temped (also the temporal occupation of the Egotourist). I bought him Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World, which he finished in a matter of a week or so. That was in June, and he still brings it up—various quotes, moments, feelings—every once in a while. He says he liked it. That it felt familiar.
In May, after my first read through, I loaned my copy to a coworker at the library. This friend was in the process of losing his job, going on to God-knows-what. I called him up the day before he left, asked him how he liked it.
“Well, it’s thick, man. I’ve been making notations, I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not.”
“I like it though. Yeah. You know. It’s pretty good.”
I told him that I had corresponded some with Lee Klein via email, and that he should email him his thoughts about the book after he finished. My friend sounded surprised. Maybe he thought Mr. Lee Klein lives in an ivory castle like most writers with actual corporeal books out. (Which he might, for all I know—but Mr. Klein does a fine job of letting down his hair).
A couple of months later, I called this friend to see if I could get the copy back for purposes of the review. His phone had been disconnected.
The next morning
I’m eating breakfast, and jotting this thought down on a napkin:
The most beautiful thing about Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World, is that it treats its moments as if they themselves were characters. In a macrocosmic sense. The way Klein describes the aspects inside of moments—the actions, the characters, the tiny zeitgeists, everything—is the way John Updike might describe an old woman’s eyebrows. And so the moments—moments such as a field party with a Black Sabbath cover band (an event whose participants have obviously outgrown), a falling out between insincere lovers, a nervous breakdown of a friend that is equal parts comedy and tragedy and destiny and hands-up-in-the-air frustration—all leave the reader with a picture. A picture of a face, with distinct features and soft recesses.
Aren’t faces always familiar?
Six hours later (and written on the blank pages of Incidents)
But the worst thing (and possibly, again, one of the best things) about Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World, is that it is what it is. A nearly 300 page graceful hurl through mid-twenties limbo. That’s all. The author doesn’t try to pretend that he knows more than his protagonist, or that there’s some greater moral or hidden thought to the work. The author is his own protagonist. All of the thought that went into this book is right there on the surface. It doesn’t play any clever tricks. It doesn’t pull any rugs out from under you.
I’m reading it right now. I’m reading the chapter entitled What Kind of a Young American Man Talks About a Decision Regarding a Distant Lover as “Veering from the Axis”?, in which the Egotourist is asked by Hannah, his long suffering, long distanced girlfriend, to move to her town. He struggles with his decision on this (ultimately, no). Waxes on and off about it. He jokes and pokes at it. This is my third time through this chapter, and I enjoy it a little bit more every time. This chapter does what writing should do—give you the experience of another person’s experience—an experience most people will share at some point in their lives. And this makes the world a less cold place.
Because in twenty minutes, I’m going to see the girl I moved across three states for and we’re going to make small talk. Neither of us will really be listening. I might talk about how orientation went. She’ll talk about her job at the bakery. College. She might ask me if/when I’m moving back to Cincinnati—maybe in a quietly pointed way.
I’ll tell you what we won’t talk about. We won’t talk about the day nine months ago when we were coming back from a play in Over-The-Rhine. We were stopped at a stoplight, and I told her I couldn’t imagine us ever going through that whole estrangement process you go through when you break up with someone. How you become artificial strangers, pretending that you don’t know everything about the other person. Pretending that you’ve never kissed slowly or created secret worlds together in the middle of the night, when everyone else was asleep. Or bored. No—all of that would be too weird to go through. Too painful.
She leaned over and kissed my ear and said, “Okay. So let’s not break-up. Deal?”
But we didn’t shake on it. Maybe we should have shook on it.
Twenty minutes later
Lee Klein set out to write a book, and it turned out to be about himself. I set out to write a review about that book, and somehow it turned out to be about myself. Maybe we both got tired of singing into bathroom mirrors.
Sorry, Mr. Klein. And thank you, too.