When I read I am too permeable. It sounds like an affectation but if I read something bad, or not even bad, just something that doesn’t excite me, something that doesn’t give me a contact high, the act of reading it takes on a kind of existential magnitude. I look up at the sky, hate myself, and ask what I am doing with my life. I’ll become depressed for days and then imagine things like becoming a florist, taking less antidepressants, taking more antidepressants, or dressing in white and joining some cult out in the hills.
To stave this off, I find myself rereading the same books I know I can rely on, though rarely with any linearity. I’ll flick to a page and begin. This has the effect of making me somewhat scattered, both in my daily life and my writing. I’m always trying to find new books that can anchor me and generally how I find them is through editors, their publishing lines, their journals. I’m looking for two things; I want sentences that cut like razors and I want writing that asks the reader how to be. A divorcee in a David Gordon short story blames his fate on reading Stendhal. As absurd as that is it makes perfect sense to me. I get it. That’s the kind of writing I want, the kind that will ruin me.
Luckily, at the moment, I’ve read two books that did just that. The first is Chiara Barzini’s debut novel Things That Happened Before the Earthquake. I found Chiara Barzini by watching a YouTube video of a launch party for Diane William’s journal Noon. This was in 2014. Barzini read her story, ‘Adult’, about a teenager losing her virginity on a volcanic island in Sicily. The man the girl sleeps with has a large penis, a large black dog and a star sign tattooed on his back. Barzini read aloud, ‘I would not have fallen in the Scorpio den if I hadn’t seen the other girls on the island fall before me.’ In that moment I fell for her.
Her debut novel, out last month, only made it to me a few days ago and I’ve already finished it. It’s set in LA and follows Eugenia, a sixteen-year-old Roman whose family migrate to California in 1992 to make a horror film. The Rodney King riots have just taken place. Eugenia watches them; ‘I looked at the flaming streets from our television in Rome and tried to imagine our new home somewhere among those fires.’ That home is in Van Nuys, where the colours red and blue are banned at school and ‘the actors who lived (there) were B-rated stars or grown child actors who got into trouble with the law.’
As Eugenia moves through LA, Barzini traces what one character calls ‘the luminous unseen’—a current that runs through the city, a way of light reflecting through water, the possibility that somewhere in a crowded room Johnny Depp might pass through like quicksilver. Whatever it is, it’s something transformative that turns some into stars and others—or, often, those same people further down the line—to junkies, to alcoholics, and, eventually, to bodies lying cold in bags. No one can say which way it will go. People die, a movie is made, Eugenia’s pupils dilate in the middle of the desert, a boulder falls, a boulder is lasered in two.
I place the novel next to Ottessa Moshfegh’s LA stories and Eve Babitz. The city is always present and in Barzini’s novel the San Andreas fault shudders with Eugenia and there’s this sense that at any moment everything will be torn down. It’s that sense of being young but also a kind of recklessness—a recklessness I desire if not in life then in writing—that if everything falls down, everything is already falling down, and whatever happens will be beautiful and colossal and profound.
Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book shares that charge, lets it loose in a scream. I found it through Giancarlo DiTrapano. Giancarlo’s family own a villa in the hills of Sezze Romano and I’m heading there next month for a workshop with Giancarlo and the essayist Chelsea Hodson. I’m excited. I’ve followed Giancarlo’s publishing house, Tyrant Books, for years. Their most recent release, this June, was McClanahan’s latest novel. I’d been hesitant to read McClanahan’s writing for vague and unfounded reasons that had something to do with photos of him I had seen online.
I read it and I’m glad. The novel is autofictional in the way I admire. Scott McClanahan writes about a man named Scott McClanahan and his divorce with the woman he loves, Sarah. How much is him is besides the point. McClanahan is an alcoholic, Sarah is depressed. At the start they made each other happy and then, at no discernable point, they didn’t. They never stop loving each other, whatever it was they had just wasn’t enough.
In an interview about the book he quotes Norman Mailer or I think he quotes Mailer, saying ‘sometimes a divorce is just a divorce.’ And the one in The Sarah Book is, but there’s something bigger than it, or, like great literature, it makes itself become the biggest thing there is, two people trying to be happy, unable to hold onto it.
When I read it I was coming out of a long break up, the kind that lasts two years, and reading his sentences I wanted to crawl on my hands and knees. In the book, toddlers drink Mountain Dew, Scott sleeps in a Wal-Mart car park, junkies shoot up in battered vans, and nurses pay for boob jobs with credit cards they then default. Throughout, Scott teaches and reads. And then, after 233 pages, it was over.
In a few months I’ll reread it. For now, I’m waiting for a new book to speak to me and flicking through old copies of The Paris Review. While I wait I keep thinking of a passage of McClanahan’s in which he quotes Ovid. It encapsulates Barzini, McClanahan and, really, everything I want in writing, everything I want to feel while reading, the sense of being alive;
Later that night I sat and read Ovid and the first line that says, ‘I shall speak of how everything changes.’ I saw that there was something else I knew about the world besides losing things. And it’s this. No matter what happens, everything changes. ‘Are you happy right now? Well just wait.’
Paul Dalla Rosa is a writer based in Melbourne. He is a former Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and was a 2016 Next Wave Writer-in-Residence.