Time out of joint

Paul Constant

February 08, 2016

It's gauche, I know, for a reviewer to ask a favor of his readers. In 2016, a book critic should be happy to be read at all. But I’m going to ask something of you, regardless — and hopefully you’ll get something out of this, too, besides the glow of internal warmth that comes from knowing that you indulged the whims of a tired old book reviewer. My request is this: print this review out. Yes, on paper. Then, with a pair of scissors — or through careful folding and scoring and tearing — divide each of the segments of this book review. Just cut across the little symbol that falls between each break. You should have seven pieces of paper, including this one.

Done with that? Now throw all the pieces in the air. They should be scattered at your feet. Pick them up. Read them in whatever order you pick them up. This means the book review you read will be different from the book review that other people read. That’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.

Oh, and you should discard this section. It’s the only piece that has to be read, chronologically, first, and so it’s the only piece that doesn’t match the rest. It’s a necessary aberration, the IKEA instructions that should be immediately forgotten once you’ve constructed your rickety particle-board bookshelf. If you want, you can just drop these words in the recycling bin. My preferred method, though, is this: cut these words into a series of smallish asymmetrical triangles. Gather the triangles up into your hand. Put them in your mouth. Chew. Chew them until they become a grey, gummy blob. Then spit the blob into your trash or, if you’re reading this in Seattle city limits, drop it into the compost bin.

Try to forget that the gob of vegetable matter was once a series of small, jagged triangles, or a sheet of paper with ink on it, or a series of quick, jabbing finger-presses on a keyboard, or a synapse firing in a chemical bath, or light traveling into an eyeball, or words printed on a page and bound into a book, or more finger-jabs on a different keyboard, or a different synapse firing in a different chemical bath, or a body moving through the world, noticing things. Try to forget all that.

Okay? Here we go.

Late in her memoir The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits remembers the first time she visited New York City:

I rode into town on a Greyhound bus, alone. I was eleven. The bus pierced the outermost rim of the city, it seemed, an hour before we reached Port Authority. By the time we unloaded at the gate, I felt I’d been wound downward into the gears of a sooty clock.

Clocks are everywhere in The Folded Clock, a book which Julavits says she wrote as a response to the quickening of time as she ages. And so is soot. At one point, Julavits recalls a time when her furnace failed and belched up soot all over every surface in her apartment, transforming solid objects into their own shadows in an instant.

The clockwork nature of life is a symbol that has fascinated humanity since the invention of the very first clock. The imagery is passed, though Jack-in-the-boxes and music boxes, to children even in this digital age. It’s what we do: we wind things up, and then they slowly die down. Entropy takes hold, the ticking becomes less steady. It clicks. One more. Time. And.

Picture someone working on the gears of a clock and you’ll likely picture their face smeared with grease. Though the teeth of gears may match up perfectly, you still need oil to make them turn. It’s a messy business, intricacy. The more finely detailed your plans get, the more likely oil and dirt and soot and ugliness is to seep inside.

The Folded Clock is at once delicate and messy. It’s structured like an ornate Victorian dollhouse, with time out of joint and in service of a larger narrative. But if you peek inside the windows you’ll see a bloody handprint on the wallpaper, a tiny overturned teacup on a rocking chair. Things are amiss: bats in the clock tower, dust in the workings of the pocket watch. Julavits understands that imperfections are an essential part of perfection. She lingers on her own flaws, reflects on death and loss and heartbreak. She knows that those flaws are what makes the whole thing work.

Is it necessary to like a memoirist? Of course Hollywood has fallen under the nonsensical spell of the likable protagonist, but is it possible to spend time reading the journals or the autobiography of someone without finding some level, some common human emotion — even just pity — to render as currency between writer and reader?

I ask because Heidi Julavits’s new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary, has swallowed my head whole. I can’t stop thinking about it, and I can’t help but admire the structure of the thing. But I also can’t stop thinking about how little I would probably like Julavits in real life.

Julavits, you get the sense, has a decent amount of money. Not too much money, mind you — in The Folded Clock she admits to dating rich boys in high school to feel what it would be like to be rich herself — but enough to not have to think too much about money. She lives in New York City and summers in her native Maine. She travels a lot. She seems unaware of her status, which makes the reader even more aware of her status.

Julavits, too, believes in ghosts. She’s superstitious and seems to believe that the universe is intrinsically interested in her. When she comes down with an ailment that promises a life of chronic pain, her first thought is to commit suicide:

I asked my husband if he would mind if I killed myself. I tried to sell him on the benefits of my suicide: this stricken, whining person, who wants her around? I described to him the far greater damage I'd inflict on our children by living.

But soon, her public toying with suicide comes to an end, and her ego adopts a different stance: “I said to my husband, ‘Perhaps I am meant to be one of the great convalescents.’” (Later, she learns that she was misdiagnosed.) It’s a telling anecdote because it betrays Julavits’s personality: either she runs from pain in the most dramatic way possible, or she revels in it and imagines herself as famous because of it. It’s a fascinating, all-or-nothing demonstration of a particular type of narcissism.

Whenever Julavits reveals another aspect of her personality, I think to myself, “that would definitely annoy me.” Julavits talks about the way she gossips at parties, or frets publicly over the way a parade judge unfairly passed over her children’s efforts and voted for another children’s group for best float, and I find myself more and more grateful to not know her.

And yet. I could not stop reading The Folded Clock. I worried for how Julavits would survive with chronic pain, even as I rolled my eyes at her overdramatic response to the diagnosis. Despite the many awkward silences that would no doubt pepper our meeting, I admire her for being so bold as to admit her personality and for being self-conscious enough to understand how to frame these personality traits in the book. She may throw a heavy hunk of bread at her husband in a momentary fit of pique, but she has both the intelligence to acknowledge that this behavior is not normal and the humility to mention that her husband threatened divorce if she were to ever angrily throw anything at him again.

The common thread I was referring to before, between reader and writer? With Julavits, and The Folded Clock,, we’re both observers of her life, and we’re both passing judgment with every page. It doesn’t get any more powerful than that.

Listen: Heidi Julavits has come unstuck in time. The Folded Clock: A Diary is an account of a year in her life, told in non-chronological order. If you’re the type of reader who ignores the dates above journal entries in a diary, you might pass through The Folded Clock without realizing anything is amiss. The jumbled cause and effect don’t really interfere with the overall arc of the book, though it is noticeable in some places. For instance, Julavits refers to walking with a parade float featuring children dressed as doctors, then a few pages later she goes shopping for toy stethoscopes. A careless reader might not notice.

But Julavits has always rewarded careful readers; her debut novel, The Mineral Palace was a bone-deep study of loss that punished its readers and then rewarded them with a haunting closing scene that even years later rattles around my head like an angry ghost. The Uses of Enchantment was a Nabokovian study in personhood and identity. The Effects of Living Backwards was a prickly look into self and the community.

Julavits has never quite attracted the dogged devotion that other writers of her generation have demanded of their audience, and that’s because her books are work to read. The Folded Clock is her most accessible book, and it’s still possible for a reader to swim from cover to cover without once noticing the intricate worlds that are unspooling just beneath them. Julavits can’t help but prod at the reader, demand more of them. It’s the way she operates, it’s what reading means to her, it’s the way the world speaks to her: not in a monologue but in a complicated, nuanced conversation. This is what she asks of you.

When Heidi Julavits read her old childhood diaries, she was disappointed. “They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future tax auditor. I exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality.” Her new book, The Folded Clock: A Diary, is a response to those diaries, a castigation handed down over three decades later, from self to younger self: “This is how you write a diary,” Julavits seems to be scolding 10-year-old Julavits. “Never disappoint me again.”

It’s impossible to know what 10-year-old Julavits would make of *The Folded Clock.” Like most kids when confronted with adult matters, of course, she’d probably be bored silly. She might be embarrassed at her future self’s frank talk about her sexual history. She would presumably not know what to make of it. She might disapprove as coldly as the modern-day Julavits disapproves of the younger Julavits’s journals.

The Folded Clock is full of Julavitses from all kinds of times and places: she reflects on old boyfriends and old trips and old memories. The book is practically a Julavits convention, with each attendee separated from every other by as little as nanoseconds in time. That room, of course, would be an awkward one to enter. Our relationship with our past selves is always thick with disappointment. We think poorly of our past selves because it gives us an other to blame for our own mistakes. It’s a perfect crime; the past can never advocate for itself. It can only stare forward at us, accusingly, and absorb the weight of our shame and our regret.

In her new memoir, A Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits recounts a time in which she’s driving on a treacherous road. She and her friend were warned away from the mountain pass, but they ignored the admonishments because “No one should listen to experts,” which, it must be said, is a sentence that would look pretty good engraved on a tombstone.

As often happens in situations when reality becomes terrifyingly stark, I avoid panic by allowing metaphor to take over. It’s not I am headed up a steep and slippery mountain road and I cannot turn around but My life is a novel written by an author who might want me to entertainingly die. My friend and I were no longer people in a car; we were characters in a plot. As characters in a plot, there was no escaping the fact that our story would have an ending.

Of course, in real life, the story didn’t really end. Julavits didn’t die. She didn’t learn any important life lessons. It didn’t change the course of her narrative. But it did wind up in The Folded Clock, and the anecdote does, in fact, now have an ending. And there was an author who wanted Julavits to suffer in a more dramatic way, but that author happened to be Julavits itself.

It serves as a good reminder that we are all of us living in stories in books. Our stories do have endings, and meanings, and symbolic depth beyond our understanding. It’s just that those books haven’t been written yet. Maybe they never will be written. But, dammit, they could exist. We're all overtaken by metaphor, eventually.

Loss, what I am trying to say, so long as you’re dealing with objects, can be spun as opportunity. Because I lost my passport we did not die in the Sahara. Because I lost a cashmere cardigan at a bus stop in Hyde Park, and decided that the University of Chicago student who probably found it would, instead of keeping it, decide to sell it on eBay to make some pocket money, I discovered eBay, and truly feel that eBay has measurably improved my mental quality of life more than doctors or drugs. Because I lost a necklace in a river I learned that the state of Vermont has a scuba diving club.

Hieid Julavits, in her memoir The Folded Clock: A Diary, is always losing things. She admits to losing her wallet “nearly once a month.” She refers to articles of clothing the way other people talk about the deceased; there’s a haunted wardrobe that follows her around everywhere she goes.

It’s interesting that in the above quote, Julavits includes the distinction that loss is helpful “so long as you’re dealing with objects,” because The Folded Clock is interested in the loss of humans, too. Julavits visits E.B. White’s grave and reflects on his wife, Katharine Sergeant Angell White, who was herself a writer. She eats dinner at Edith Wharton’s house. Late in the book, she sees a ghost. All lost people. She imagines the death of her husband, her children, and herself. All potentially lost people, people just waiting to be lost.

Can’t the loss of a person be “spun as opportunity,” too? Without the loss of E.B. White, there would be no post-E.B. White world for Julavits to consider. Without the loss of Edith Wharton, there would be no legacy for writers to admire. If none of us were lost, would any of us be missed?

The Folded Clock is about that kind of loss, too. It’s a story by a person who herself feels lost, and is trying to take stock of what she no longer possesses. Despite the accoutrements she sheds into the world seemingly every day, Julavits still keeps the ring from her first, failed marriage. It’s a found item from a lost commitment.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for not thinking of loss as the disappearance of something but the transmutation of it. Rather than losing a wallet, Julavits has gained the absence of a wallet, which carries, in itself, a whole different set of possiblities.

Or maybe Julavits would prefer to consider her life in reverse: an uncomfortable ballet featuring a woman who, whenever she walks backwards out into the world, items just leap up from streets and chairs and bus stops and clamber onto her body, eager for her to take them home. It would be a journey of continual discovery if you look at it like that.

Books in this review:
  • The Folded Clock
    by Heidi Julavits

    April 06, 2015
    304 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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