April 17, 2019KR OnlineNonfictionTranslation


Long before the book was published, its cover had become impossible to avoid. The color was a pancreatic pink that was popular these days, a cloying reminder in troubled times that on the inside we were all the same. The art on the cover was just a photo of a rock, quite a nice rock actually, mottled and smooth. It seemed more alive than normal, like a cocoon about to hatch, but it was not the sort of thing you would look at if you had options. I could imagine a writing teacher handing the rock out in class and asking you to write a serious poem about it, and you would turn in something that had ended up being about your mother.

That was the entire cover: the rock, the pink, the cheeky title, which was also that of a famous Russian novel, and the author’s name in a prim font. It was jeeringly simple. Whoever made it was probably betting that people who don’t give a fig about rocks will do an about face if you change the color a rock is placed against. This thinking annoyed me because it felt too easy, and also because it was correct.

My friend sent me an excerpt from the book several weeks before the book was released. He knew it would resonate. The book seemed to be about a girl starting her freshman year at an elite liberal arts college and feeling melancholic and lost, which seemed about right. I liked the excerpt and sent it to a few of my friends, who liked it, too. Even so, it made us all queasy. We had finished at such a college almost a year ago. Since then a peculiar flatness had descended, demanding new sensibilities I didn’t yet know how to assemble, words immune to the stasis they sought to describe.

We had banked on feeling amazing, which wasn’t the case. This gave us the impression that over the past four years there had been some horrible mistake—a miscalculation, a drowsy accountant fumbling a sum in her ledger—and I could see how most people did not want to spend their free time revisiting how that mistake had been made. I wanted to read the book anyway, however, so I waited for it to come out.

• •

In the month the book was to be published, I was midway through my second semester of graduate school. My parents were paying my rent, which was commonplace among my peers but nonetheless embarrassing, especially as school was going poorly. Instead of working, I lay on a mattress—never would I assume the fortitude to transform it into a bed—watching videos and playing games. The default wallpaper for Windows XP is an image of Sonoma Valley, California, of a green hill beneath a blue sky that is so smooth and the colors so bright you think it must have been generated by a robot. In fact, the wallpaper is an unedited photograph titled Bliss, taken by the American photographer Charles O’Rear in 1996. I was so much online that when I went outside to go running, I felt like I was running inside the two dimensions of Bliss: racing over the perfect hill, sweating under the perfect sky.

One evening I called a close friend from college. I told him, you know, we live by ourselves now, graduate departments don’t really keep track of you, and don’t you feel like if you wanted to you could just walk down some road and keep walking and disappear and nobody would know you were gone for at least a week. Isn’t that kind of awful?

Yeah, he said. I guess I never thought about it like that. But yeah!

I wished I hadn’t said anything, especially since I was definitely many times more likely to disappear living where I was, so deep in nowhere I didn’t have cell service, than where he was, in a well-wired city doing unfathomable science in a famous professor’s lab. My backyard wasn’t enclosed by a fence and thus didn’t really end, just continued to a small forest. At night, a deer family watched me put my bike in the shed. The lock was finicky, and I rattled my keys in a panic. I was surrounded by so many gooey eyes, like little puddings.

Before going inside I liked to study the sky. I had never before lived where I could see so many stars. Though trying to look at something knowing that you are being looked at, even by deer, required a frenzied concentration I had only won after being at enough uncomfortable parties. The night sky here, this bright, perforated expanse, reminded me of a cheese grater. Staring at it would have been overwhelming even if I knew anything about astronomy, or astrology, which I knew was dumb but seemed to be catching on with lots of people my age, and when that happens it can be difficult to hold one’s ground. When the deer finally ran off, they made a neat, even sound, like shuffling cards.

Then I went inside to do some writing. In college I had written a lot, and people I trusted had encouraged me to write more. After graduating, doubting myself became more convenient than writing, and I did not write for a while. I had sort of been writing, for many months, an essay called “Homecoming.” When I was feeling contemplative, usually after midnight, I sometimes added a few sentences here and there. In the mornings, I ceased to understand how the new ideas had ever passed muster, and deleted the sentences. This cycle repeated itself enough times that I began to feel as though I were making progress.

Every time I opened “Homecoming,” I suspected that I was writing about something else. At first I had been trying to convey the experience of coming back to my hometown after college and seeing a place I had ceased to know intimately. Then I realized that this was a lie, that I had never really known or cared about my hometown, and that was why I couldn’t finish the essay, because I was not a good liar. I began to rewrite the essay as a dissection of my realization that I did not care about my hometown, which proved challenging and finally too complicated to convincingly write down, too complicated to be a real feeling, such that I must have misunderstood myself. The essay was at turns about my local park, my relationship with my body, and someone I had been in love with during my senior year of college but had never managed to tell. Everything I wrote around then seemed to be about him, even my more professional e-mails.

I wrote less and less. But I sent the essay to more and more people, hoping they would tell me what I was trying to say. Someone asked if the essay was about the loss of a parent. Another person thought it was about growing up as an only child. Someone else included with his edits a question if it was possibly about gentrification. Everybody was telling me to keep going, but I did not understand what I was supposed to be keeping going. Eventually I stopped writing the essay altogether; “Homecoming” is still on my desktop.

• •

When the book came out, every bookstore put a few copies in its front window. The book was like a child who must be coaxed to take a photo, but once facing the lens cannot help but pose. All of publishing seemed stranded on the rock that would float forever on the pink sea.

A friend alerted me to the book’s release. He texted me to ask if I had heard of the author. I have, I said. I really liked the excerpt I read—why? Her writing reminds me a lot of yours, he replied. This was a remarkable gesture, to compare me to a smart and famous writer, and like most flattery I assumed it had been ill-thought-out. Then someone else contacted me to tell me that she was reading the book and that I might want to read it, too, because it sounded like me. Then someone else, and then someone else. Now I was really curious. I asked to borrow the expensive hardcover from a friend.

Train reading occurs in spurts. I had to keep raising my eyes to make sure I had not missed my stop: watching the riders escape from the car like bubbles from a soda can, then after this intermission bumbling back to the word where I had left off. I saw other people reading it, too, the tongue-like cover blowing raspberries out of backpacks and beneath arms. A satellite would have captured a rosy tangle of readers in our city during these months. The book was on the train, in the park, in the snack aisle with the reader’s other hand considering a box of Triscuits. Almost all of the readers seemed female, which for once did not make me suspect, guiltily, that the book was not worth reading, but rather that we had bought up all the copies before a single man could bemoan his tardiness. We were a grand, simultaneous encounter; the collective wind our turned pages generated could have powered several reprintings.

The main character managed to be as senseless as she was wry. She claimed she was articulate, but was frequently at a loss over how to express the simplest feelings. Language and literature returned her affections more reliably than any person. We read characters through ourselves, moving toward what we find familiar about them like we would the warm spot on a bench. But I thought her resemblance to me went too far; reading it was less like trying to find myself than encountering my face on a milk carton. At around fifty pages in, I felt woozy. My friends were right. The offense wasn’t just that the protagonist and I shared certain biographical details. The book was strewn with sentence-level congruences to my own work: similar opinions phrased almost identically, a similar dry tone, a similar flow. The parallels continued to the extent that the protagonist condemns “The Gift of the Magi,” a story that I often seem to be alone in finding desperately stupid. I felt robbed, refashioned by a stranger taking careful notes, apparently more careful than any of mine had been about myself.

To the friend who lent me the book, I sent a passage that I had written to compare with a passage by the author, because sometimes you do not really know something until everybody else agrees with you. “Like I want to sue,” I texted. “I’m not bragging I’m just perplexed and litigious.” “wow that is PLAIGARISM [sic],” she texted back in solidarity. My friends were saying how funny it was, how accurate it was, and, said the one friend who had met her in person, how cool the author was. I pretended to listen when I could only think about the book with deafening apprehension. My textual doppelgänger was better at being me than I was. She was funnier, tried harder at school, a writer who actually wrote.

The author’s photo graces the inside jacket. We shared short black hair and a neck on the long side. I thought we looked something alike, though her face seemed stranger than mine, which I found especially beautiful. You start to think you know what you find beautiful, as though it were really possible to have a type. But something wild and unexpected always turns out to be more beautiful than anyone would have thought, and then you rush to explain why this is so, why you have continued to understand yourself so poorly.

• •

I had almost finished the book when I saw her. The author was walking with another woman, laughing as they went through the doors of the bookstore across the street—it could only have been the author. I followed them inside. Truly, I loved the book like I loved few books, as much as it had unsettled me. With the book in my backpack and a pen I had swiped from the cashier’s desk, I pursued her.

The two women moved past a display, the author’s pink book crowning the pile, and stopped in front of the comics section. I studied the women from the column by the translated classics section and tried to time my interruption. The possibility that the author did not want to be bothered was immaterial; a tactless impulse bids that celebrities, however minor, owe you some evidence that you have been in their presence.

“Hi,” I said, during a lull—they smiled at me, I knew I was allowed to go on—“I just wanted to say, I really love your book, it has been so meaningful to me.” I opened my copy, tapping the space beneath the title with the stolen pen. “Would you mind signing this?”

“I’m so glad to hear it!” the author said, or something like that. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Alice,” I said.

“To Alice!” the author exclaimed, not knowing any better.

Her signature had none of the arrogant chaos that famous people’s signatures sometimes adopt when they have signed too many baseballs. The dedication was along the lines of: “Dear Alice, all my best.”

Outside the bookstore, I studied the autograph. The author and I had much in common, at least on the page. I wondered about an interaction in which I had not claimed to be somebody named Alice. But in the instant I knew I could never have introduced myself as myself.

In the next weeks, the chokehold the book had exerted on me loosened, then abandoned me suddenly, like a cat when it has tired of its plaything. School had ended for the year, I had accomplished nothing worth mentioning, and I considered more with each day the humiliating possibility of moving back in with my parents.

Yet I had begun to feel light, lighter than I had felt in a while. The feeling was involuntary, triggered by sun, but it was not unwelcome. I started to write again, at first some short observations, then longer observations that grew into stories. A few days later I left home for some months, and the intensity with which the summer had begun assumed new and dire forms, so colorful and insistent that I all but forgot how any of this had happened, or why it had seemed to matter so much.

• •

I have heard many a time that all writing is for somebody else. That the key to every essay, every poem, every novel is that it is epistolary. People love coming up with this bumper- sticker nonsense, but there is something to this. I think about the early version of “Homecoming,” the essay I still haven’t finished, in which I was writing about a person I loved. In another light, I was writing apostrophically, articulating what I couldn’t to his face, a confession manqué.

Did he ever understand how I was looking at him? Even for a moment?

As an experiment, I have been staring at strangers long after I have become uncomfortable, probably long after they have become uncomfortable. There is a thrill in seeing yourself occupy another mind, however briefly.

The gaze is difficult to sustain, however. We have not even gotten into the trap of trying to hold this sort of staring contest with yourself, you who can be the most difficult to stare at of all. You can try it in a mirror—do the Bloody Mary thing, whatever you want—or in a river, or on the street, when you catch yourself in a storefront window. You have never seen yourself walking so fast, with your face so set, and you want to look closer, but the crowds are unsympathetic. It is you, but suddenly you needed to be sure.

Photo of Jennifer Gersten
Jennifer Gersten is a violinist and writer from Queens, New York. Her essays, journalism, and criticism have appeared in the Washington Post, Guernica, and the Awl, and she has been an on-air essayist for the PBS NewsHour. Gersten is the winner of the 2018 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism, a $10,000 award given by the nation's top critics for demonstrating "outstanding promise" in the field. She is pursuing a DMA in violin performance at Stony Brook University.