What it’s like to read something you’re not engaged with if you have ADHD?
Read one line. Don’t absorb it. Read again.
Skip down to where
a word you like
jumps out at you.
The word is dancing, skittering on the page. Read me, it says. You like me. NO! EYES UP!
Go back up to the first line and read it again. It sinks in. Read the next line, and the next. Finally, you’re paying attention! You can do this. Now you’ve reached the word you like. Read it over and over. Think about how it doesn’t seem like a word when you’ve read it enough. Sound it out in your mind-voice. Again. Again!
Turn the page, the letters swim and you trace where the gaps in the words make white paths down the page. Follow. Back to the top, and read the first paragraph, but don’t actually read it? Read it again, properly this time.
Then try getting through an entire book like this.
My attention is a trickster god. It’s wily prey, a sly knot to pick apart. To catch it requires cunning. You have to woo it, wine and dine it with particular prose, plots like lightning. I mean, a book doesn’t need to be a masterpiece or anything. It’s just got to have that something, the shiny trap to pique my notice, keep me captured and coming back for more. (I can’t tell you how many books I’ve dragged myself through because I wanted to read them, wanted to be swept up in them. But the reviews—I plead with myself, trying to get through the pages. The acclaim! Why can’t you fucking pay attention? They take me months to read, but I persevere to have read them.)
Now and again, I don’t have to wrestle with my attention span, and I plunge into a book headfirst, rolling in the prose, my eyes racing across the lines like the shuttle in a loom. I treasure these books. I’m always searching for them, picking up volumes in bookstores: is this one? Will it catch me like a leaf in a rain-swelled gutter? The odds aren’t good. One in ten, maybe? One in 20? I got rather caught up in The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (post-apocalyptic-trope-smashing, feminist end of the world book), and I ripped through Bri Lee’s law, order and abuse memoir Eggshell Skull in one sitting recently.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the books I have to wade through. It’s not that they aren’t good. It’s just that they don’t pull me off my moorings and sweep me away. (Maybe It’s a little bit like love: sometimes it whispers in and takes work, sometimes it knocks you down and sends you sprawling.) When I hit on one that really grabs, pulls and throttles my attention, it’s hyperfocus, the kind of caught attention that consumes and leads to single-sitting reads, the kind where my hipbones ache from lying in the same position, moving only to turn the pages. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods had me so motionless for two days I was afraid I was going to get bruises where my hips met the bed.
Earlier this year I raced through Black Wave by Michelle Tea in a few sittings, all of which took place in the bathtub, coincidentally. I picked it up in Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle, where it had caught my attention the year before when I was in the States, but I had already blown out my book budget and had to put it back. I visit bookstores in the cities I travel to, pilgrimaging to the famous ones like they are holy spaces or theme parks, which, to me, they kind of are.
Anyway, the volume had cut pages and I’m a sucker for cut pages. It was signed and I’m a sucker for signed. The blurb said: ‘It’s 1999. The world is ending.’ and I’m a sucker for the world ending. The first time I thought the world really was ending I was drinking a Bacardi and coke at a rooftop bar in Newtown. There was a huge whooshing noise and I looked into the sky and a giant fireball bloomed and sank towards the earth. It was a moment of shared terror with everyone on the rooftop. All we saw was blooming fire and all we heard was booming and all we thought was, ‘this is it,’ as everything we’d done and seen flickered behind our eyes. Turned out it was a fighter jet dumping fuel, but we didn’t know that.
Black Wave is a jumbly mix of memoir and apocalyptic fiction, my two favourite genres. When I realised this I got mad, wishing I had come up with that perfect mix myself. That’s how I know I love a book deeply, when I’m angry that I didn’t write it. I’m a selfish cunt like that sometimes and I am okay with it.
Michelle Tea and her exquisite prose appeal deeply to my dirty, grungy, queer, former-drug-addict heart. Her careen through late-nineties San Francisco launches Black Wave. It ducks and weaves through fucking lots of women, patronising dive bars, doing a bunch of smack, and a move to LA. All the while, the world around Michelle is crumbling, metaphorically and like, for real. Why does Michelle choose this time to find herself a new life? In LA she drinks a lot of cheap wine (and every morning tells herself that she’s not going to do it again, a promise she breaks by nightfall in a devastating cycle I remember and feel deep in my bones), and she still shows up for her shifts at the book store, hungover and pissed off, while the world spirals towards the end.
Life and fiction spill hallucinatorily into each other all meta-like, as things go on and get worse. And better. People dream of each other and then seek their dream-strangers out as LA disintegrates around them. Michelle steals a gun. Famous Scientologists leap from the top of the Celebrity Centre. Michelle fucks Matt Dillon in the bookstore. You know, stuff like that. The Things Michelle Says Are All Capitalised Like The Title Of Something. The fourth wall cracks open sometimes. The nature of story disintegrates as the world does too.
I am in love with Tea’s dark, tumbling, egoistic, gritty, voicey novel. It’s a story where no one gets truly sober and no one finds true love and no one is truly redeemed, but that’s okay. It’s a divider, I bet. Some will love the combo of its grungy, queer core with how fucking clever it is. Some will fucking hate it for exactly that.
Black Wave is utterly and completely my jam and kept me riveted from beginning to end, no small feat. There’s nothing worse than dragging yourself through a book, and ADHD makes it ten times rougher but every so often I pick up one that grips my attention, hard. I can’t always tell when I’m going to find one of these, but I search them out, hoping that the next book on my list is going to gallop me away.
Marlee Jane Ward is an author from Melbourne, Australia. Her first novella, Welcome to Orphancorp, won the 2016 Victorian Premiers Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction.