There’s a moment in my upcoming debut novel, Last Resort, when the protagonist, Caleb—SPOILER ALERT—puts clothes in a washer-dryer.
“I […] put my clothes in her washer-dryer.”
Perhaps one of the least noteworthy sentences in my book—in any book?—it is now imprinted on my skull possibly forever. This is because for an hour or so I repeated it to myself every few minutes, trying to understand if it sounded right. The problem was, the more I repeated it the more it made no sense at all.
This was at the stage of editing—after I’d incorporated the feedback of my editor, Jonathan Galassi, but before I finalized the manuscript to be proofread—where the stakes of even small decisions started to seem monumental. It was a stage I’d never experienced before; although I’d written fiction for a long time I’d never had a book published. All of my words in Word had always been provisional, always getting closer to something they’d never actually arrive at. But now that privilege was gone—soon the words in front of me would no longer be part of a process, they’d be a product—and the finality of even the most minute choices (the protagonist got his slippers on, or put his slippers on?) made them feel impossibly significant.
I began to not just reread my manuscript, but look at each word in succession. The difference is that when you read the sentence “I put my clothes in her washer-dryer,” you form a mental image and move on, but when you look at each word in succession you ask yourself: What does the word put actually mean? What does put mean in this sentence? Do you put in or into? Do the two prepositions imply different physical acts or is it merely a manner of tone, of formality, of parlance? Asking these sort of questions while rereading a sentence five, ten, thirty times, I’d begin to fidget in my chair, my breath would get short, I’d feel too in my own body. To stop the feeling I’d go to the bathroom, I’d get coffee, I’d even, if alone, make a guttural noise just to hear a sound that wasn’t a word, that didn’t need to be defined, didn’t necessitate a thousand syntactical relationships with others like it.
“Tell me if this makes sense,” I said to my soon-to-be-fiancé. At this point we were living together in a studio apartment, a poor choice for any couple under any circumstance, but especially under lockdown, especially with a job like hers (podcast producer; not just a few times my pantry-scavenging ruined a take), and a mindset like mine (that if I chose got where put was better, my editor and everyone else would understand what a fraud I was). “I put my clothes in her washer-dryer.”
“Yes, that makes sense.”
I exhaled. I felt giddy, relieved, suddenly rational. Envious, too. I wanted what she had, which wasn’t just the ability to not see the trees for the forest, it was to not see at all, it was ingesting language as it was meant to be, without all of this visual baggage, without the unnatural and perverse simultaneity of a sentence on a screen.
Then I had an epiphany. It seemed ridiculous, a too-easy fix, but at that point I’d try anything. I highlighted the next sentence, clicked on the “Review” tab, and then “Read Aloud.” Into my noise-canceling headphones came the voice of a woman at once mechanical and desperate, breathless but servile. She’d been named Samantha. There were other options: Alex (also desperate, peanut-butter-in-mouth), Fred (accountant-sounding, clothespin-on-nose), and Victoria (it was as if she read the words backwards, and then they played that recording in reverse).
Even the worst of them (Alex) enabled me to regain what editing had taken from me: the ability to read. It was as if I’d been walking closer and closer to a Chuck Close painting, staring at those little cellular blobs until I couldn’t see how simply they cohered, and now I was back at a suitable viewing distance. It was both beautiful and unsettling—how utterly dependent words were on each other, how quickly language dissolved when what was automatic became manual. These were uncomfortable truths, better to be ignored. Was this why people hated Derrida?
My relationship with Samantha had its ups and downs. We had our laughs (like when, confronted with slaphappiness, she said slaff-a-penis), and we had our frustrations (she made the book sound like a joyless slog), and ultimately we weren’t right for each other. I needed a man, because I needed to do justice to the book; it’s written in the first person, our protagonist a young, ironic, self-deprecating, self-flagellating writer named Caleb.
Whenever a past relationship has ended, I’ve found myself looking for someone with the exact opposite of what I least liked about my former lover. In the case of Samantha, this was an inability to bring my words to life. We’ve sent man to the moon, we can edit genes, and so I couldn’t help but wonder if we haven’t invented a text-to-speech automated reader with a little joie de vivre, a little juice. The answer is no, we haven’t. The closest I came was a Brit named Peter, whom I met on naturalreaders.com. (It should be noted that the default voice on that site, Rod, sounds eerily similar to Gary Shteyngart.) To my Yankee ears, Peter not only came off vaguely (vaguely) wry, but his posh accent helped elevate my work out of the realm of “rough draft” into the sphere of Literature. In Peter’s pixelated mouth a phrase like “I put my clothes in her washer-dryer” sounded sad, elegiac even, at once of-the-people and profound. But alas, my affair with Peter turned out to be as short as it was paradisiacal, consumed in the flames of its own desire. It ended as some of the best loves do; after 20 minutes I was notified that my “free trial” was over.
I was back with Samantha, then, embarrassed by the inevitability of it all, how stark reality seems after fantasy is washed away. We would learn to love each other, Samantha and I, even if our love was of the more pragmatic variety; a marriage made stale by middle age. Day by day, she read me back my story as a postal employee might confirm a recipient’s address: within a complete vacuum of tone. And all the while I would watch the clock, because I’d since learned what some of the greatest literature has tried to say: passion, even under impossible conditions, finds a way. Yes, every 24 hours, on the minute, the free trial could begin anew.
And so with my spouse and lover, I made it through, delivering to my editor a manuscript that I’d not only written and read but listened to, really heard, just as readers will do come January 18—at least if they get the audiobook.
Get, though? Do you really get an audiobook? They’d got the audiobook, or they’d bought the audiobook, or…
Andrew Lipstein lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Mette, and son, August. Last Resort, his debut novel, publishes in January 2022.