Monday, October 31, 2011

Not Sleeping

“He hates wasting time—a category that includes, for him, sleeping.”

Sam Anderson writing about James Franco

I once heard an interview with an Israeli artist who had just won an international award for her art and activism. She was also the mother of two young children.

“How do you find time to do everything?” the interviewer asked.

The woman laughed carelessly. “Oh, I don’t sleep very much,” she said, as though this fact were amusing. “Four hours a night or so.”

This glib treatment of sleep is part of the mythology of the superheroic, those people who seem to achieve more in a day than is humanly possible. It makes sense. If you want to sleep for eight hours, then you must fit your job, your hobbies and passions, your family and friends and love life, your exercising and cooking and eating and house cleaning and showering and brushing your teeth all into sixteen hours per day.

I am always overcome by guilt when I hear these superheroes boasting about their inhuman feats of wakefulness. That is why you can’t seem to balance work, writing, kickboxing, seeing your friends and family and cleaning your apartment, I scold myself. I’m sleeping too much.

Look at actor James Franco. He did four years of college in two years, attended four graduate programs at once while filming about five movies and publishing a book of short stories—none of this is an exaggeration. He thinks sleep is a waste of time. Just think of all the awesome things I could get done if wasn’t wasting all that time being unconscious.

For most of my life, I too considered sleep to be a waste of time, some need my body was trying to impose upon my mind, as though it didn’t realize that my mind had more important things to be doing. I pulled regular all-nighters starting in middle school, drinking endless cups of microwaved instant coffee, blasting cassette tapes to keep from getting too sleepy or too depressed as I lay awake studying on top of my unmade bedcovers.

In college, I used to haunt the recreation room of my co-op into the early hours of the morning with my textbooks and my electric word processor, writing the endless string of essays that were my lot as an English major. At 3 a.m. I would take a coffee break with the speed freaks and architecture students, the only people who stayed up later than me.

I knew it wasn’t good for me. I had a friend in college who somehow got eight hours of sleep every night, until he started hanging around with me and some other night-owls.

“I feel horrible,” he told me one day. We had stayed up until four studying for our morning classes. “I’ve never felt this depressed. I feel like the whole world is horrible and disgusting.”

“Oh, that’s just because you didn’t sleep enough,” I told him cheerfully. “I always feel like that.”

I remember how my professors never seemed able to comprehend how sleep deprived most of us were, especially in graduate school. After a night seminar, one professor asked us if we were going home to watch the same TV show that she was planning to watch.

Our jaws dropped in disbelief. She thinks we have time to watch TV?

“No, we have to study,” one of us said.

“What, now?” she asked in horror. “It’s nine-thirty!”

Another, crankier professor chastised us for our distraction during the last week of the semester, the week when we all had four twenty-page term papers due.

“What’s wrong with you people? It’s like you’re all on speed,” she said, in a stern voice, not a joking one. From the way she said it, it was clear she did not think this was an actual possibility.

Now I am the clueless professor, relatively well-slept and herding a flock of exhausted students of my own. Lots of the time they can barely keep their eyes open. They lay their heads down on the desk, lifting them only to send frantic text-messages and enjoy their breakfasts of candy and energy drinks.

If you ask them to make a time-management schedule of their week, you’ll see why they’re so tired. Their schedules are packed from morning to night each day. Lots of them work two jobs. These jobs might only total twenty or thirty hours a week—that seems to be a typical amount—but that’s enough to suck up every available hour that they could be studying. They go to school from nine to three, start work at four, get home at ten-thirty at night.

“When will you do your homework?” I ask them.

“At eleven,” they say.

“Do you think that’s actually going to happen?”

They smile grimly. “Probably not.”

Often it doesn’t, and they come to class with their work half-done. But for something important like an essay, they do stay up and work, and they come to my class angry, disgruntled, hating the world like I once did.

It’s my job to cheer these students up and get them to do things. I use my perkiest voice, trying to buoy the room with the helium of my enthusiasm.

Come on, wake up! It’s ten o’clock! That’s not even early!

This semester, though, I signed up to teach too many units. I have classes and meetings all day long. There seems to be enough time in a week to prepare for my classes or grade my papers but not both. I am back to the old student way of life, where there are twelve time-consuming things to do before Thursday and perhaps enough time to do three of them. I’ve been sleeping five or six hours on weeknights. In college, this would have been a good amount of sleep, above average. But now I have much lower tolerance for feeling horrible and hating the world, so it seems like pitifully little, especially as it adds up over the course of the week.

Now I remember what it feels like to be sleep deprived from too much work. It explains the flashes of resentment I see cross my students’ faces when I hand out their writing assignment, as though by giving them what they’re paying for—writing instruction—I am subjecting them to some horrifying injustice. They can’t help it. When someone asks you do to something impossible, it’s hard not to resent them just for a moment, even if you are ninety-five percent sure that you will eventually buck up and do the impossible thing.

These days I am just as resentful as they are. I hand their graded assignments back grudgingly and begin to ramble my way through the lesson I have been up planning since four in the morning. So what if I’m not explaining it very well; I only slept four hours. You can have me coherent and unprepared or prepared and incoherent—your choice. Okay, so I spelled a word wrong on your handout. I’m tired. I’m really, really tired. Screw you guys.

Part of my job is to uphold a system that causes our students to feel this way, not for just one bad semester but every semester. I feel guilty about this all the time.

“How can we expect them to sacrifice sleep and health when we’re not even willing to do it?” I ask one of my colleagues.

“They’re in college, we’re not,” she said. “We paid our dues when we were in college and now we have earned the right to get a full night’s sleep.”

It sounds like the simple logic of hazing, but it’s more than that. We really don’t think they’ll learn everything they need to know unless they have more work than is humanly possible to complete. That’s the logic of education: you need to cram in as much as possible, as much as can be done in eighteen or twenty hours of wakefulness. The future success of America rests on your shoulders, and every hour you sleep is time you could have spent working.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Slaughterhouse Five

I have very few regrets about never becoming a literary scholar.

Occasionally I get frustrated that critics don’t seem to notice the Brechtian influence in Tony Kushner’s plays (It’s really obvious. He talks about it all the time. Someone should notice it already). And I still get annoyed thinking about the complete misapplication of Julia Kristeva’s notion of the abject in Djuna Barnes’ novel Nightwood. I mean, you’ve got an opaque, experimental novel about abortion doctors and people turning into plants and mating with dogs in your right hand and in your left, an opaque, poststructuralist piece of critical theory about the horror people feel when their physical and psychological boundaries dissolve—how could this puzzle be any easier to assemble?

Please don’t stop reading. I promise this is going to get more interesting. Well, to me, anyway.

My real failure, my greatest regret, the reason I should have doggedly pursued a career in academia into whatever town-nobody-wants-to-live-in it called me to, was to declare this:

Slaughterhouse Five is the most brilliant novel ever written.

I am pretty sure I am the only person who knows this. The more I explain this to people individually, the more they stare at me blankly and say, I always meant to read that, the more convinced I become that it was my duty to spread the word on a larger scale, that this was my true calling in getting an English Ph.D., and that I missed my chance.

People who haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five, and also many who have, think of it as a science fiction novel. They should, because it is. But it’s also something much weirder, which is a rare and precious eyewitness war account.

When Britain and the United States firebombed the heavily populated city center of Dresden, Germany during the final weeks of World War II, Kurt Vonnegut was there, a prisoner of war hidden away in an underground meat locker. After the bombing, he and his fellow POWs were released into the rubble that had formerly been a great center of German art, architecture and culture.

So here is Kurt Vonnegut, a writer, one of a handful of American witnesses to an atrocity great enough to be called a war crime by some historians, since there seemed to be no strategic justification for it. It was a show of force, the destruction of life, beauty, and culture, for no reason except to stick it to the Germans for all the suffering they had caused. At least that’s Vonnegut’s perception of it—a heartless act of war committed by his own country, “a massacre” as he calls it. (Though when an acquaintance, hearing this description, reminds him of the concentration camps, he says, “I know. I know. I know.”)

For a writer, this nightmare experience was a gift. He was a witness, a survivor, specially authorized to speak. As such, he could write a memoir, a history book, a historical/cultural critique. Or he could write a war novel, the kind of gritty, naturalistic epic that you can only write if you’ve really been there, if you’ve earned the right.

Vonnegut explains all this in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, a metafictional introduction that explains how he came to write the novel.

“When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen.”

It was all laid out for him. All he had to do was write it down. Simple. What makes the novel brilliant is that he did exactly the opposite.

First, he stalled for twenty years. Whenever anyone asked him what he was working on, he told them it was his Dresden book. But he wasn’t really writing it. “Not many words about Dresden came from my mind then—not enough of them to make a book, anyway.”

And then, when he finally did write the book, it wasn’t the true-life story of a true-life veteran who had been through hell and lived to tell the tale. Instead, it was a novel about time travel and aliens and mediocre Midwestern optometrists suffering from acute depression and possible traumatic brain injury.

The main character, Billy Pilgrim, experiences roughly everything Vonnegut did during the war: he is drafted in the late stages of combat, hastily trained and improperly outfitted, and abandoned behind enemy lines. As a prisoner of war, he survives the bombing of Dresden in an underground meat locker and is then freed by the Allied troups. He could be a literary stand-in for Vonnegut, a boy-soldier who had no business on the battlefield trying to be an adult.

But Billy has two science-fictiony quirks that make it clear that this novel will not be a straightforward, serious tale of war. The first is that during his brief military career, he becomes unstuck in time. From there on out, he flops spastically in and out of different episodes in his life, creating the twisty structure of the narrative, which begins with Billy being drafted and ends with him being rescued from Dresden, with the rest of his entire life story occurring in a spiraling succession of vignettes in between.

And then, in case that first quirk just seems like some kind of metaphor, there’s a second, much goofier one. In 1967, around the time when Vonnegut would have been completing the novel, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who hold him as a captive in a zoo and mate him with a human pornographic actress named Montana Wildhack.

Having aliens in the novel seems to clearly mark it as science fiction. But it’s not serious science fiction, the kind where all the fantastical events are physically plausible and scientifically justified and allegorically significant. No, these aliens are really, really silly. The Tralfamadorians are green, shaped like plungers, topped with a single hand that has an eye in the middle of it. They admit without guilt to destroying the universe during a failed experiment (they travel freely in time so they know how the universe ends). Even their name is silly. And their project of breeding two humans (both of whom just happen to have silly names and outsized secondary sexual characteristics) as a form of entertainment could not be any more self-consciously ridiculous.

It’s as though Vonnegut wanted to take the lofty story of his war experience, the couldn’t-get-more-serious historical account that he was specially authorized to tell, and scribble crazy zigzags all over it with mismatched crayons. He even talks about outlining an early version of the plot with crayons, making a tidy timeline for each character. But that’s not what he did. He scrambled his timeline into a giant, messy tangle, illogically topped with not one but two of the most hackneyed science-fictional tropes imaginable.

Of course, this chaos is orchestrated carefully, beautifully even. Every narrative thread is neatly tied up, every scene thematically significant. But the feeling of messiness, silliness, arbitrariness is what Vonnegut wanted. “It is so short and jumbled and jangled,” he tells his publisher, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”

Disgusted by his own authority to tell the serious, meaningful war story, Vonnegut takes that story and shreds it to a messy pulp, just to make the point: I will not tell a serious, meaningful war story.

I love about six hundred things about this novel, but this one first and most. To be given the special, authorized privilege to tell a survivor’s tale, and to sacrifice that privilege in the name of art, meaning, and human decency, is an act of beauty that breaks my heart.

Perhaps Vonnegut’s purposeful evasion of seriousness is the reason that his works do not receive the kind of critical attention afforded to great American postmodern authors. Almost all Vonnegut criticism seems to fall into the realm of explication—plot summaries, readings based on Vonnegut’s biography—rather than serious analysis that would explain the author’s significant contribution to modern literature and thought.

If I write that book of serious analysis someday, I will say this about the message (one of the messages) of Slaughterhouse Five: that it asks us to think about our own war stories. What did we learn from them? Are we better off for having gone through that suffering? And when we tell our survivor’s tales, complete with their morals and lessons, are we full of wisdom and insight? Or have we just convinced ourselves that we are, because it feels better to have something intelligent to say about a massacre?