Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Why I Went to Yale; or, The Year of Living Dangerously

Or, Lives of the Novelists Part XXIII. Or, a Requiem for Drazen Petrovic.

A while ago I decided to write something explaining why I went to Harvard and then Yale. Because people ask me about that a lot, and the answer is funny, sort of.

I explained about the Harvard part here. Now I’m doing the Yale part.

This involves telling the story of one of the strangest and most miserable years of my life — a whole year of my life that I almost never talk about or think about. And yet it happened, apparently. It’s been on my mind lately because I’m fictionalizing a version of it in The Magician King.

[These images are more comprehensible, slightly, if you mouse over them and read the alt text … ]

The story picks up at the end of yet another autobiographical piece, one that ended with my fleeing the state of Maine with my vestigial tail tucked between my legs. (If only it had been a prehensile tail. Then I would have shown that state what for.)

That was in February of 1992, less than a year after I graduated college. I fled to New York City, where I served a brief and inglorious term as an intern at a non-profit publishing company, which due to its alert staff and intellectually rich back catalog was able to survive my disastrous stint there. Suffice to say that I did not find my calling in book publishing.

Though I will say that I became a top-notch Xeroxer there. No kidding. To this day I make quality copies.

But I was lousy at the rest of it, and plus New York freaked me out. I lived on 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a much more extreme location back then. Giuliani time was still a long way off. The neighborhood did have its charms: there was an arcade within walking distance that had Magic Sword, which is my all-time favorite arcade game, and was open 24 hours a day. Such were the joys of the old pre-Disney Times Square. (I don’t think it had a name, but it was the one with the red police-light spinning over the doorway, you too haunted Times Square back in the day.)

But the little kritch-kritch sounds I heard as I walked to work in the morning were the sounds of crack vials popping under my shoes. That felt like bad news. And my room-mate turned out to be a prostitute. I answered his phone a lot. He’s not here? Would you like to get together instead? Your voice sounds nice.

That felt wrong to me too. I’ve heard my voice, and it’s not particularly nice.

By June I was back in Boston, where, having learned nothing from experience, I did another publishing internship, this one at Faber & Faber, under Fiona McCrae, who has since gone on to great and deserved success running Graywolf Press.

But by August I had run out of publishing internships, and out of ideas, and out of money. Whatever force college had launched me into the world with, I had already used it all up. I sold my car and moved into a cheap apartment in Allston. It was located only a block or two away from the future location of the fictional tennis academy in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (This being 1992, it hadn’t been written yet.)

It’s hard even now to explain, or excuse, the fact that for the net 8 months I was incapable of doing almost anything. At the age of 22 I was lost in space. It was like I had shot the albatross.

(It’s selfishly comforting to me to know that Wallace went through a similar aimless period handing out towels at a health club in Newton, Mass. Although he was a much better writer than me, with much better reasons for being depressed.)

I actually tried, sort of — I did send out resumes and make calls. But I couldn’t imagine anyone anywhere giving me a job, and I think that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I showed up at interviews looking weirdly ashamed for suggesting that anybody should hire me. As a result legions of publishers, magazines, newspapers, bookstores and libraries lined up to not offer me jobs. I realize now I must have been depressed.

I did do some temping during this period, thus deploying my only marketable skill, which was typing. Sometimes I transcribed tapes of corporate focus groups. It was strange moving through the world of normal people who hadn’t been infected by whatever zombie virus I had. The only assignment I specifically remember was doing word processing for a firm called CompuKing, which I remember because how could anybody choose a name for their company that had the word “puking” in it?

I remember once getting a call about a promising temp assignment, and just as they were about to give me the details and close the deal, my left hand grew a life of its own and spontaneously ripped the phone line out of the wall. You don’t have to be Jacques Lacan to see some self-defeating psychological mechanism at work there. (I cannot accept this promising temp assignment, for that would be killing my father…)

Fall became winter. The money I got from selling my car whittled itself down to a tiny nub. I moved (by which I mean skipped out on the rent) from http://quotecorner.com/online-pharmacy.html my Allston apartment to an even cheaper, even worse apartment in Cambridge that listed visibly to one side. Every morning (by which I mean afternoon) when I woke up the kitchen was dusted with a layer of fresh new-fallen cockroaches.

The deaf woman downstairs blasted her TV all day and all night. I asked her to turn it down. I stuffed throw-pillows in the heating ducts to try to block it out. I stuffed earplugs in my ears. I’m ashamed to say that one night, Raskolnikov-style, I crept downstairs and out behind the house and I cut her cable line. That bought me 24 hours relief. To this day I can’t fall asleep without first putting a pillow over my head.

I wasn’t completely isolated. I had a roommate (and if you’re reading this blog, which I can’t imagine you are, I want to apologize for having been such a toxic, useless human being). I sometimes saw friends who were still in college. But however much you did or did not like him when he was actually in college, no undergraduate is really zithromax no prescription needed that happy to see the guy who graduated last year still moping around campus.

My overwhelming memory from this period of my life is depression — I thought about suicide all the time — and boredom. The world had forgotten about me. I only worked two or three days a week. I toyed with my first novel, which would later attain national obscurity as the-work-which-must-not-be-named.

The rest of the time I spent reading or writing or … what? What did I do all day, or all night, since I rarely got up before 2 in the afternoon, or went to bed before dawn? There was no Internet. I had a TV but no cable, and the TV was black and white and only occasionally got reception. The only video game I had was Beyond Dark Castle for the Mac Classic.

Somehow I managed to dispose of the time. I burned it down or threw it away or dumped it in the river, week after week after week. This was the heyday of the Romance of Slacking, but I don’t remember much romance. Maybe I wasn’t doing it right.

Oh, and when I could get alcohol, I drank. Fun fact: This period of time played host to one of the two times in my life I succcessfully drank myself to the point of vomiting. This is due not to my not drinking enough but to my incredible cast-iron stomach, which always insists on absorbing its full share of toxins and empty calories.

All I can remember from the night in question was drinking a lot of vodka at an undergraduate party and then walking home singing the circular song that opens the second act of Waiting for Godot (“A dog came in the kitchen/And stole a crust of bread …”) over and over again. Then I was lying down in an empty bathtub, and Croatian NBA star Drazen Petrovic was sitting on the toilet talking to me. Though I know this is impossible, because he had died shortly before that in a car accident in his native Croatia.

I was the CompuKing.

[Actually Petrovic died a few months after that, in June 1993, so where this incredibly vivid, specific memory comes from I don’t know — ed.]

I sometimes look back at this period and think, why did I not get my shit together? And also, why didn’t my friends and family intervene and make me get my shit together, when I obviously couldn’t or wouldn’t do it myself?

Recently I figured out the answer to the second one. When people try to help me I have a charming way of running them off the property with a shotgun. Eventually they learn from that and stop trying. People aren’t stupid.

I remember the day I realized it couldn’t go on any longer. I can tell you the exact date: March 13, 1993. I know this because that was the date of the 1993 Superstorm, a colossal blizzard that was the first storm ever to close every single major airport on the East coast at once.

I didn’t know this at the time. I had no access to the news — no Internet, remember. I just knew that it was snowing. By then I’d lost any real sense of time. Every day was the same, and I slept through most of them anyway.

But I did know that I’d finished The Hand of Oberon, book four in the Corwin Cycle of The Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny, and life could not continue until I obtained the next and final book, The Courts of Chaos, which I happened to know was in the Cambridge Public Library.

I attempted to walk there.

The snow was so thick and the wind was so strong that you couldn’t look straight ahead of you — you had to either walk bent over double or walk backwards. I had spent most of my life in the area — I grew up in Lexington, Mass. — but the landscape was almost unrecognizable. I wandered past the Peabody Museum, where as a child I’d been taken to see the poor coelecanth, the living fossil, pickled in formaldehyde. I knew how it felt.

I got lost in the Harvard biochemistry buildings, where just two years before I used to hang out with my then-girlfriend, whose lab was there, and who had gone on to high-powered biochemical success at MIT. Now it seemed huge and forbidden, an abode of giants and angels. People there had work to do and lives to live and experiments to run. What did I have?

After a while I just gave up. I sat down in a little alleyway between two brick buildings. It was peaceful, out of the wind. I had nowhere to be. Overhead, between the rooftops, the wind had formed an eddy. It was spinning the snow around in a perfect cyclonic oval. It was like a smoke ring — the white snow against the white sky. It was hypnotic.

I must have sat there for 20 minutes, staring up at the snow going round and round, before I realized that I was looking at my life: trapped in an eddy, spinning in place, going nowhere. That was the moment when I realized that this couldn’t go on.

When I finally got to the library it was closed. Obviously.

I sat on the steps for a while, getting snowed on some more. Somehere inside me I’d hit my limit. I didn’t know I had one, but apparently even I couldn’t go on going nowhere forever.

A couple of weeks later I got a letter. The previous fall, in a 3-day burst of industry, I’d managed to complete an application to the department of comparative literature at Yale. It turned out I’d been accepted. No grant, no stipend, no frills. They weren’t overjoyed about it or anything. But they would take me.

And that was it. Yale was a dead end, of course, a red herring that I would eventually add to my list of abandoned careers, but I didn’t know that yet. At the time it suddenly seemed like I had a future. I started getting my shit together. I took an adult education course in Russian. I moved back home. And when fall came I moved to New Haven and did my best to forget about my lost year.

So that’s the answer. Why I did I go to Yale? Because I had nowhere else to go, and nobody else would have me.

23 comments on “Why I Went to Yale; or, The Year of Living Dangerously

  1. Jaimie says:

    Good story.

    I wonder if this is how I will reflect on my twenties. I am an expert Xeroxer. I’m also a fast typer and when people marvel at this I get red and mumble, “Yeah, I write a lot… for fun… some…” Then again, if I worked somewhere where artistic pursuits were normal and encouraged, I’d probably get annoyed real fast.

  2. Sara says:

    My “depression period” was very similar. Minus the suicidal thoughts. I did a lot of temp work that made me hate myself because I was doing such useless stuff just to have money. Sometimes I think my first boss took pity on me. Anyway, reading this was cathartic.

  3. GMinNJ says:

    Great post.

  4. Wonderful post … but I have to ask — is this a life style worthy of a magician king?

  5. M says:

    i may know very little

    but i know that if the WORST you can do is Yale, you weren’t trying very hard

    even at your worst, your academic rigor still outranks many of the best

    i sigh loudly for the rest of us

  6. Lisa Q. says:

    You know, I went from Yale to Harvard (English) with much less excuse, and hit my depressive period only after two years of grad school really drove the bad-idea-ness home, and so that went badly, and now I’m all high-functioning albeit not so much with the creative fulfillment. It’s a bit silly and everything but there are worse trajectories to follow. As a biographical point, it does buy you a second look, which is about all it does but a lot of times that’s all you need to get a frantic grip on whatever you’re after and pull.

    Also, comp lit, not English, at Yale in the 90s? Hard-core. I take my f-in hat off.

  7. Leverus says:

    @Q: I would be remiss if I didn’t correct you on that last point. Comp lit at Yale in the 90s was actually NOT especially hardcore.

    I thought it would be, which is why I applied there. At Harvard we were taught that a) critical theory is the shit and b) Yale is the where the hardcore critical theory happens in America. Nothing could have been further than the truth. In the wake of the De Man ‘scandal,’ anybody w/ any theoretical/philosophical inclinations had been purged from the department. W/ the result that the department was kind of aimless and sad.

    Anybody really hardcore — and there were such — went off and hung out w/ whatever national literature department they were affiliated with. I hung out w/ the English department people, who looked down on me because I wasn’t hardcore ENOUGH. And they were right.

  8. Lisa Q. says:

    Okay, well, I have some lingering theory trauma from a terrifying Literature Program course I took in junior year, circa 1991, but maybe I was early. And/or maybe lit was just its own scary little thing and I’m just projecting it onto comp lit. At any rate I retreated from the whole thing posthaste and took refuge in cultural criticism before giving up on the entire enterprise, though not before wasting two years at Harvard. Theory and I didn’t get along.

    I actually wish you would do a blog post on your relationship with theory, because now I’m siting here trying to figure out how that works. Baudrillard, I can see you with. A lot of the Lacanian foof, not so much.

  9. Leverus says:

    Probably you were just being taught by a bitter comp lit grad student who wanted to make you feel as worthless as he/she SECRETLY felt inside.

    I think about all that theoretical stuff sometimes. But it’s SO bad for writers. You think it’s really smart and important, but then suddenly you end up with a heap of too-clever metafiction that nobody wants to read.

  10. […] texto recente no blog do Lev Grossman, colunista da Times e autor do livro The Magicians, fala de algumas […]

  11. M Blockley says:

    Agreeing with #7 above.

  12. dennitzio says:

    When we make the movie retelling (retailing?) of your life, we have to work on that scene in the alley. While I can see an expressionistic paper-bag scene (American Beauty) that would be cool but ultimately unmelodramatic enough for American audiences. In general it lacks a certain Obi-Wannity. Take another stab at it and just make sure you didn’t hear the voice of an RSC actor guiding you towards the Yale system, or get axe-chased by a successful Cambridge author through the maze of streetlight-hedgerows in Haaaavaaad Yaaaad all the way to New Haven. Or even mining a man-eating morph-monster from the library’s icey fountain that you had to kill with just your shoelaces and a deck of Tarot cards. Just think about it.

  13. Saoki says:

    I just want to thank you for this post. I have had my share of these moments, being in a “writer with a shite day job” moment right now, and stories like yours – about people that got through it – are what give me strength. Thanks.

  14. […] Oberon, I think at least one of the sisters) used in tribute in The Magicians. [ed note: I'm a major Amber fan. Maybe I should call the sloth […]

  15. Here I thought the post-Brakebills malaise of the Physical Kids was a plotting deficiency.

    But no. You were following the Red Smith dictum: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

    This post would fit that bill, too.

    It is comforting, somehow, that you paid these dues before your just-starting fame and success. You ain’t no Nicholas Sparks, thankfully.

    Enjoyed The Magicians. Your imagination is powerful.

  16. […] one of the worst years of my life, I drew solace, as much as from any book, from regularly visiting the swamp level of Beyond Dark […]

  17. […] I Went to Harvard and then Yale Part I and Part II Parental warnings: depression, fear, high school, extreme […]

  18. Heather Head says:

    I saw that photograph of a coelecanth when I was 13 and wrote a school essay about cryptozoology, and also decided I wanted to be a cryptozoologist, and also learned the word cryptozoology.

    I am not a cryptozoologist. But I do still enjoy saying the word. Obviously.

    Your books (Codex and Magicians, the two I’ve read so far) are beautiful and also depress me and sometimes I hate you. But, weird as this may be, this post actually makes me very happy. And not just because it means that you were utterly miserable at some point in your life.

    Also because it means that my swirling around directionlessness might not mean my life is pointless.

    Maybe some day I’ll have bestsellers and people posting on my blog about how much they hate me because my writing makes them love me so that it hurts more when I trample all over their feelings at the end. Which of course is what you do to me.

    And thank you for putting this out there. My “love/hate” meter on our (admittedly entirely one-sided) relationship just ticked a little more toward the “love” side. A little more love in the world is always a good thing.

  19. […] Boston to New York City. I grew up near Boston, and went to college there, and then spent some of my disastrous post-college years there. As a result there’s so much bad psychic ju-ju for me in Boston that going there […]

  20. […] The weird thing is, though, that I did eventually get somewhere. Because it turns out that talent, whatever that is, and that glowy aura, are only part of the picture. Once I graduated, other less glamrous skills came into play. Such as: the ability to stay focused on writing when nobody’s giving you encouragement. Related skill: the ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and double-check!) […]

  21. J says:

    Wow. This is amazing. And kinda the same as me right now (but not since I am not actually accomplishing much writing + there is no Yale in my near future or any other university for that matter…not with this debt I’m under). Depression, etc. etc…I found myself thinking toward the end of this post “but he went to Yale…he figured it out…it lead him somewhere”….then I read your last few lines, ha…but still it gave you something (practice at reading, writing, learning, sharpening your mind and craft). And this is where I am going blank. I feel lost , utterly lost.

  22. […] The weird thing is, though, that I did eventually get somewhere. Because it turns out that talent, whatever that is, and that glowy aura, are only part of the picture. Once I graduated, other less glamrous skills came into play. Such as: the ability to stay focused on writing when nobody’s giving you encouragement. Related skill: the ability to fail to get a job that’s more interesting than working on your novel-in-progress (check, and double-check!) […]

  23. […] an aimless young man who was mildly depressed for no particular reason. It was based on my lost years in my 20s, and modeled on Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and the Richard Linklater film […]

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