Sometimes I feel weakest when he’s being kind. My father is not afraid to say ‘I love you.’ He is tender. But no softness can hide his judgement: I am not who he is, or what he wants. It is love in spite of me.
He is so much bigger than I. A man, with all the right muscles and hair and that loud voice that yells my name. I am not intimidated: I quip, mock, sometimes shout. We laugh together. But his mass is always pushing mine away, always just that bit larger and heavier.
My father writes, so I avoid writing. He tells me about adverbs and colons and I say they are ‘not for me’. I say, ‘But I don’t write like that.’ Maybe other kids can sort their stories into neat paragraphs, but not me—paragraphs like that are his.
He helps me. He spends hours offering tips and tricks, words of praise or warning. ‘Break it up into little steps. Like Lego.’ I want him to help me; I like the time together, when he’s not at work and I’m not at school, and it’s a bit like when I was little. But I don’t want him to help me. It’s embarrassing. Humiliating. It makes it harder to keep going, seeing how little I know and how much he seems to. I fail if he helps me, and I fail if he doesn’t.
I like it when he makes mistakes. Maybe he does too—he laughs at himself. Once he was doing weights in the garden, and I walked into the dumbbells. I was a toddler, so the plates were right at my forehead. I was fine, but he and mum took me to emergency. I don’t remember, but it sounds right. He also gets lost easily, and is then amazed when I find my way. ‘Oh, is this where we are?’ How can one man be so laughably clumsy and yet have such confidence? Maybe he’s just stupid.
The worst thing is, he has the last word. Not just in arguments about whether or not I’ve made my bed, or whether or not I’ve cheated in a game. It’s always his voice that keeps on. Even when he dies, his words will keep living in people’s minds. Maybe not a lot. Maybe that’s why we can’t afford holidays. But even still, what he writes goes beyond our family and becomes other people’s business. And all his opinions become the truth. This is what I was like. This is what he was like. Will anyone ask me?
Well, he asks me. But what I say gets changed: like our machine that peels and rings and cores apples when you turn the handle. They’re still apples, but not the ones we started with. I’m not saying writing is lying. I’m just saying that, by the time things get to the page, they’re not true in the same way. Something like that.
Anyway, I love my dad. Really. But I don’t always want him around, getting in my way. He has too much power—especially when he’s trying to help. I don’t want to be just another one of the things he knows. That’s too much power for a man who can’t read a simple map. Someone needs to make my dad a nametag: ‘Damon Young. If lost, return to his pages.’
There are many easy emblems of the literary arts. Jane Austen’s 12-sided walnut table. Sigmund Freud’s desk, populated with mythic antiquities (‘grubby gods’, in his words). HP Lovecraft’s fuligin Waterman, chosen after 45 minutes of tedious testing. Emily Dickinson’s poesies, sent around the neighbourhood with her em-dashed poems.
My symbol, at least this week, is the stack of Woolworths 65-cent sardines in the kitchen cupboard. Not because they are special: a cute personal detail, from some obscure biography. (For the record, anarchist Mikhail Bakunin scoffed sardines.) Not even because they prompt a return to some lost time, like a madeleine for the working poor. The sardines are banal, the everyday meal of an author with twenty dollars in his everyday account.
To be clear, this is not a Romantic portrait of the artist; the limp pinch that tries to keep poverty and authenticity clasped together. If anything, it’s more Comstockian: you can sacrifice money, security and sometimes sanity, and still write little of note. For anyone without a trust fund or a wealthy partner, a vocational commitment to writing is often a guarantee of privation and little else. The difference between achievement and fiasco is perhaps one of satisfaction. (Note the ‘perhaps’. Witness Virginia Woolf describing her proofs for The Waves as ‘a dead cat’ to be burned.) In either case, the cheap canned fish remain.
The first consequence of this is that early, obvious literary failure can be healthy: get out while you can. Enjoy public holidays. Stock up on superannuation. Buy King Oscar brand sardines. Giving up the arts cannot promise anything in an ‘agile’ post-Fordist economy (‘There has never been a more exciting time to be alive’), but it helps.
For those who stay in the industry, failure can have an alternative cast. As I confront my own rushed planning, wavering attention, fumbling intellect—or, in retrospect, my inability even to recognise these as I write—it all seems like abject profligacy. Missed vacations, skipped groceries, broken rentals—all for this limp, dangling prose?
In his Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche remarked that the value of a thing is sometimes determined by the suffering it requires. Labour or pain takes precedence over the product, which is almost worthless as soon as it is achieved. This can apply to exercise and speculative thought, but not to literature—or, at least, it ought not. In moments of drab mediocrity, the work is wholly unredeemed by the gimcrack lifestyle that surrounds it.
So why continue? Vanity. Stubbornness. Bills. But also momentum. As Jenny Diski noted in ‘A Diagnosis’, writing can eventually offer a little confidence: not pleasure or plaudits, but a feeling for your own distinctive customs. It is, she said, ‘a nugget, like a pearl, like a tumour’. In my defence, I can only say that this growth is easier to feed than to remove.
‘Shit, do that again.’ The doctor prods my neck bulge, and my arm burns down my elbow, to my forearm and fingers. Pinky and ring finger tingle. Physiological ventriloquism, and I am dummy and audience. ‘Mr Young, this is serious.’ Possible paralysis, she says. Possible quadriplegia, she says. Days later, the registrar adds more detail: ‘If the disc ruptures completely, the vertebrae will grind against each other.’ Bruised spinal cord. Bruised nerves. ‘You have already lost strength in that hand,’ he says, two fingers squeezed in my palm.
Strength was familiar: the mass I threw around, in the playground at five, to the judo school at 30. After my son was born, I took up the martial art at nights, pinning and cartwheeling on three hours’ sleep. My falls were clumsy. When I tell the stories, it seems like an epic throw damaged my spine. But the truth is: it might have been months of forward rolls—or decades hunched over books, like T.S. Eliot at Lloyd’s Bank, ‘stooping, very like a dark bird in a feeder’. Either way, I will never quite recover.
But recover what? The easy languor of falling asleep on my back, every limb cushioned. The comforting force of my oldest friend’s arm, hugging my neck. The gentle fit of my baby son to my forearm. (‘Mr Young, don’t lift anything over three kilograms.’ Nikos was 3.65 kilograms at birth.)
For a while, I cannot type without voice recognition software. I’m writing my debut book. My head perfectly still, I talk at the old laptop, elevated on balsawood IKEA drawers. ‘Alienation,’ I say. Violin nation. Delete. ‘Alienation.’ Violin nation. Delete. ‘Fucking alienation.’ Truck in violin nation. What the nerve damage begins, the Ibuprofen ends. My mind is slower, more vague. And so is my manuscript.
It is psychologically neat to say ‘my neck is damaged’. But existentially, things are messier: I am damaged. Parts of my psyche are caring, dutiful, sensitive and exciting—but they are at odds with the parts that are selfish through fear, weak after sleeplessness, anaesthetised by pain, and dull because of drugs. I am not what I was, and certainly not what I hoped to be.
Eventually I can travel, and I take the bus and tram to the university. A teenager in a purple choker nods her head to Kanye’s ‘Gold Digger’, and I wince with each thud. The bus bounces over potholes in Richmond, and I do the same. Towards the end of my route, a young mother with a pram stumbles as the tram stops, then rushes to get her baby off onto the platform. There is a drop from the tram’s step to the concrete, and she asks me to help her by taking one end of the pram.
I say ‘Sorry, I can’t.’ And I recognise the look of astonished contempt in her tired eyes: this is how I feel about myself.
In Immortality, Milan Kundera begins with a gesture. A woman in her sixties leaves a pool at a health club. She waves to the lifeguard, and the narrator is caught by the youthful grace of the movement: ‘as if she were playfully tossing a brightly coloured ball to her lover’. In Kundera’s hands, this motion itself becomes a literary plaything, thrown respectfully through the novel, from psyche to psyche. Agnes, one of the protagonists, takes it from her father’s mistress—or, rather, it takes Agnes. It then passes to Agnes’s little sister, Laura. Before it claimed them, it took the lady by the pool. The wave has an identity of its own, which lives on from mind to mind, author to reader.
This is the story of a gesture that now claims me. Towards the end of his life, my grandfather fed himself through a puncture in his stomach. He once piled up lamb chops, salted mash and homebrew with fervour; grilled flathead straight from the bay; took Cracker Barrel and crackers into the garage. But then the chewed food began falling from his throat into his lungs. Doctors gave him the hole, a tube and cans of nutritious slush. Over the years, he broke: pneumonia, emphysema, leg amputation after gangrene. ‘I want to die,’ he told me during a hospital visit. Not a complaint, a statement of fact.
Not long before his lungs finally stopped, after pushing aside his oxygen mask to spit, my grandfather pulled back his sheets and waved weakly at his groin, and then at the hospital room. Somewhere between a point and a shrug, that gesture has never left me: hand gently curled, pointer and middle fingers together, thumb shaking. Perhaps he meant to show me the bruises on his legs, but lacked the strength. Or perhaps the catheter was painful. Or perhaps it was delirium. ‘Look,’ it suggested to me at the time, ‘this is what’s left.’
This is not an authoritative exegesis: telling you what the gesture really meant, or ought to. It is a brief origin story: revealing where and when I discovered the sign. It has become a symbol of my third-person perspective on things: their opacity and futility.
The passive phrasing is deliberate. I have not chosen this Schopenhauerian gesture, to be clever or enigmatic—it is just there, framing the view. When I think of existence as a whole, it is that pointing hand, circled by intravenous cords, that comes to mind. Not my grandfather’s life or death, just that final suggestion of something. Something that, whatever it was, was not conquest or even pride. But it was not meek lamentation or sentimental commemoration either. Just an invitation: to share some stupefying fact, while he could.