04 March 2009

Fan letters, Pt. 2

This is a long one:

I’ve been writing fan letters since the jacket photo.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
Hi! How are you? I am fine. You are completely adorable in your picture. You were born in ’78? I was born in ’79! OMG, we have so much in common!
Anna Perleberg

My mother speaks German, so she helps translate:

Liebe Saša Stanišic:
Guten Tag! Wie geht’s? Es geht mir sehr gut. In deinem Foto siehst du ganz schön aus. Du bist ’78 geboren? Ich bin ’79 geboren! Wir haben soviel gemeinsam!
Herzliche Grüße,
Anna Perleberg

We don’t know how to translate OMG. Do they say AMG in Germany for Ach mein Gott? We don’t know.

He is adorable, with his long bangs and his sweet smile; he looks proud and happy to be here, in Kansas, in the bookstore where I work, in my satchel with my umbrella and my comfortable shoes. But that doesn’t excuse it. The fan letter is an embarrassing and presumptuous genre, and I know this, and I know I don’t know him, and I doubt he’d care whether a stranger thousands of miles away finds him attractive. I wouldn’t. (It’s like the horrid MySpace message I got yesterday from a nondescript, though local, fellow, which said solely:

so fucking sexy!!!! [sic]

Oh yeah, thanks. I so appreciate your undifferentiated probably drunk Internet lust. I hit delete immediately.) Hence the sneering parody-of-itself tone of the first imaginary letter. I don’t write it down, just announce it to my mother that night in a giddy singsong.

I start reading the book. It’s lovely—a child’s pattern of hazy memory and belief in epic coexisting with the ordinary.

I’m driving home that Saturday after work, half-starving, ready to splurge on Taco Bell. I’m playing my 90s-lady-pop-singer mix, and I’m singing along very loudly and feeling about 14 in all the best ways. The noise when the Mazda hits me is fantastic; he’s turning left, accelerating into my passenger door. I spin around and end up sprawled across two lanes, facing roughly west from my original east. I am more angry than I have ever been in my life. And the first words out of my mouth, after climbing out of the ruined Saab (O my poor Ulf, my sweet crumpled hatchback) and stalking down on him like Nemesis, fire in my eyes and Hello Kitty on my shirt: "You killed my fucking car." (Yeah, it’s from The Big Lebowski. I don’t realize that till an hour afterward when my sister starts laughing on the phone—it’s just the natural thing to say. I think this makes me awesome.)

Dear Saša Stanišic:
My car got smushed today. Can I come live with you in Germany? My German is terrible so far but I pick up languages quickly. I have a tattoo in ancient Greek.
Anna Perleberg

I know the German word for "terrible" is schrecklich, but I don’t know how to spell it. I’ll ask Mom.

I keep reading. I read sitting on the ground out back of the bookstore, in my green-and-yellow 20s dress, the grass crosshatching my calves. I read till late in my scrap-wood bed while it rains and rains and one cat is frightened by the thunder and one is unfazed. It’s a beautiful book.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
I’ve worked here for three months and I’ve been reading mostly young adult novels because they’re inventive and melodramatic and unselfconscious and most of the just-plain-adults are dull and overwrought at the same time. Your book is the first piece of grown-up contemporary literary fiction I’ve found that I’ve fallen in love with. I know it’s the book and not you but it’s easier to focus on a face, especially a lovely one. I’m lonely, you know?
Anna Perleberg
P.S. My boss, Sarah, said she met you in Louisville, KY, and went for a walk with you at 1 A.M., that she passed up walking next to Ethan Canin and Leif Enger who she has total crushes on to walk next to you. I was so kneejerk jealous I said OMG without a trace of self-parody.

So I guess he speaks English. Well, of course he does, he’s not American. I am, so I’m afraid I only speak English. I can read French and (some) ancient Greek, because I studied them in school, but my tongue has lost the former and never really had the latter, beyond the first few lines of The Iliad. The tattoo is the first three words: μηνιν αειδε θεα, rage, sing, goddess. I think it’s breathtaking and sad that the first word in Western literature is rage.

I do know a few words of German—ein kleines Bißchen, "a little bite," Mom taught me to say. Her father grew up speaking it on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. She majored in it in college. My dad speaks it too—the two of them grew up mere miles apart in Milwaukee but didn’t really meet until a mutual semester abroad near Reutlingen. When I was little, they used to discuss Christmas presents in German, but eventually I figured out what Kinder means.

I stay up until one Sunday night finishing the book. Which is fine cause I don’t work the next day.

Dear Saša Stanišic:
Your writing’s like water. It licks against the bank and falls back in on itself. It runs off in tear-tracks and laughs in eddies around bait-stripped hooks. I react to the plot, granted—one day at lunch I’m grumpy and then I read about fleeing Bosnia and OK, nothing has ever happened to me worth complaining about, which just makes me grumpier—but mostly it’s the words, the structure, the recursive flow of time that dazzles me, the immediate characters, the nostalgia it creates in me for places and times I’ve never been. I read a couple of reviews saying "stream-of-consciousness" and "magical realism," but I think both those designations are crap—the first because there’s such control to the narrative, how we hear a story before Aleksandar does, how moments that pass by almost unnoticed at first (the painstakingly counted headers, the spectacled catfish) resonate later like a common childhood. And the second is nonsense because, I think, there is nothing in the book that happens that doesn’t
really happen, in the most fundamental of ways, that magic is no less or more believable than that a whole country should get up one day and start murdering each other. The title image crystallizes it perfectly: this act of meaningless violence against an inanimate object, this moment of threat as the only possible reaction. It’s sad and true and terrifying. And it works. The world bends to unreason, again, to a hammer’s blind click.
While the fan letter remains superficial and ridiculous, this is something different, I think, an attempt at reciprocity: a writing back, a story for a story. Thank you, Saša, danke schön.

[June 2008]

And this is the best thing about my job: my boss passed this fan letter/parody of a fan letter/short story about writing a fan letter on to a high mucky-muck at Sasa's American publisher (Grove/Atlantic), who passed it on to him. And he wrote back. He wrote back in an echo of my style and a reciprocal awe, a "story for a story for a story." He looked me up on MySpace where there is much writing stashed away and this is what he said about it: "Reading you was trainy (fast, charming) and car-accidenty (pointy, ironic) and Sergej-Barbarezly [his favorite footballer] when he scores a header (JAAAAAA!)."

It's hard to describe fully what this means to me (in person it is simple: a hand to the heart and a slow sink to my knees). In The Madwoman in the Attic Gilbert and Gubar speculate about the traditional male-author-to-female-muse relationship, and what gender is a woman's muse? and for me, always, he's been a boy. (Well, almost always. When I was very young he was a book, a jewel-encrusted book with hammered-gold pages.) I am often apologetic about this, about the fact that I write most and well where there is a cute boy listening, but I suspect this a function of internalized double standards: men do not feel less than for writing for the women who enthrall them, and who are enthralled by them. Hearing from Sasa (and writing back, and hearing back again) is not simple chemical attraction, though: there is a mutual engagement and respect for each other's work that, wow. Words start to fail me. Anyone can think I'm hot, you know? But someone who feels the power and beauty of my words when they succeed, even at a distance. That's it. That's what I want.

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