An Act of Pure Presence

Justin Taylor discusses his new memoir, writing about his father, and depression as a failure of narrative.

Joshua Cohen
July 31, 2020
Justin Taylor

There are two literary forms I used to mistrust, and Justin Taylor is brilliant at both. One is the story; the other is the memoir. The story I took to be a thing conceived, or at least oppressed, by the glossies: It was columned prose to put on the page facing the full-bleed advertisement for (in Salinger’s day) Luckies or Schlitz, and (in my and Justin’s day) Gucci or Prada. The memoir I took as a creation of the self-advertising industry: It was what you wrote when you had no other way to get famous but to peddle your family as trauma. Ultimately, these beliefs, which I’m not proud of, were concocted to hide the truth of the matter—that I scorned these forms because I was afraid of writing them myself. Both forced reckonings that made me uncomfortable. The story demanded that I choose, exclude, reduce, while the memoir required me to define my “I”—an “I” that, too often, I only recognized when ugly.

It was reading Justin that brought me a corrective. His story collections, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (2010) and Flings (2014), and now his new memoir, Riding with the Ghost, showed me that these forms are actually tests, spiritual trials. To write them well, you have to deal honestly with your characters, and with the real people you make into your characters. To become a master of these forms, as Justin is, you above all have to deal honestly with yourself.

Riding with the Ghost is multiply haunted: not least by Justin’s father and his mysterious death, but also by the death of a former student, and the passing of a personal pantheon that includes Philip Roth, Denis Johnson, David Berman, and Jason Molina, the prolific and troubled singer-songwriter who died in 2013 at 39 years old, and left behind the ballad that Justin honors in the title (“I’ve been riding with the ghost / I’ve been doing whatever he told me / I’ve been looking door to door / To see if there was someone who’d hold me”). For all of its concerns with mortality, however, this is a book about life, dedicated to the joining of what’s been separated—the Jewish past and the American present, art and academia, fathers and sons—which in these pages become as mutually reliant as lyrics and music. This, come to think of it, might be the secret form to which all of Justin’s work aspires: that divine recombined form of story and memoir called “song.”

In mid-June, with a country between us, not to mention a plague, I caught up with Justin online and had him sing for me.

Joshua Cohen: This is the longest standalone piece of prose you’ve published since your novel, The Gospel of Anarchy (2011). Why didn’t this become another novel?

Justin Taylor: It didn’t want to be one. Not to get too mystical here, but it’s really about letting the work decide what it wants to be. This process works better, I think, in the short form, though I know some people who are capable of doing it at novel-scale. I usually bottom out at the part of novel-writing where you have to invent all the stuff that happens. With memoir, instead of invention, it’s a matter of picking through this rag and bone shop full of things you don’t know why you kept—keepsakes, trinkets, a few true treasures—and searching for the stuff you’re pretty sure is in there but can’t find amidst the clutter.

It was liberating to factor invention out of the equation and turn my attention to questions of inclusion, emphasis, language, aesthetics. I know most people don’t see it this way, but for me, the decision to draw only from life—and to be candid about the fact that I was doing so—was one formal choice among many. The “memoir” label changes the way the work is read and evaluated, and I was hesitant to apply it to what I was doing, but in the end it was the most accurate description available, in both aesthetic and commercial terms. If I’d written this book as a novel, I’d have written it differently; it would have been brought to market differently. But also, I wouldn’t have written it. 

JC: So what—if anything—did the memoir genre mean to you before you did this? 

JT: If I’m being honest, not much. Or not much in any coherent way. I didn’t look to the genre as genre until fairly late in the writing process. And when I did, I looked mostly at memoirs that were outliers in the authors’ bodies of work: one-off memoirs by fiction writers, because that’s what I saw myself as doing. Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife, Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone, Jill Ciment’s Half a Life (Jill, who has a cameo in Riding, was my teacher in undergrad), James Alan McPherson’s Crabcakes, and Styron’s Darkness Visible, which is the only one quoted in the book.

But more than anything else, I took two short stories as my guiding lights. One was Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” For years, I had that story’s perfect last lines—“There are the notes. Now where is the money?”—in the Word doc as my epigraph. When I finally admitted to myself I’d have to take it out, I printed it on a strip of paper the size of a fortune cookie fortune and taped that above my desk, where it still sits. The other story was Sam Lipsyte’s scathing satire of the memoir-industrial complex, “Nate’s Pain Is Now,” about a guy going back to the well of his own traumas (suffered and perpetrated) a few too many times. Sam’s story reminded me of the pitfalls of mistaking self-pity for empathy, or confession for truth. Also that I should try to write sentences half as good as his. 

JC: When you were writing this book and you wrote the word “Dad,” did it really feel like you were writing about your father, or had he become somewhat of a character? And if so, how?

JT: Even in the context of nonfiction, the text on the page can never precisely correspond to its referents, so there is a separation, a little psychic abyss. But “Dad” is what I always called him. To me that’s what his name is. So that was the default appellation, but I’d switch to “my father” for a bit of gravitas and/or emotional distance. And in the “Belated Introduction,” which is the biographical-historical chapter, I call him “Larry.” That was a much bigger deal than “Dad” vs. “my father.” It was a very late realization that it didn’t make sense to saddle him with the paternal title in scenes where he was a child, an adolescent, a young man. So there I called him by his name, and did the same for my mother, and that helped me imagine their lives without reference to me.

JC: In Riding with the Ghost, so much of the “riding” involves leaving, moving, a sort of wandering or exile, accomplished in cars borrowed and rented—used, not yours. You chronicle your father’s decline alongside your own attempts to rise and earn a living on the itinerant adjunct circuit throughout the country—in the kinds of places that New York people, of which you were once one, tend to deride: Hattiesburg, Indianapolis. Am I wrong in associating the middle of the country with middle age? Is there some rhyme there with aimlessness and drift? What did these places teach you, while you were teaching?

JT: I do think there’s a rhyme there—feeling out of place geographically, and to some extent culturally, while dealing with grief and age. I spent a full school year in Hattiesburg, at the University of Southern Mississippi, so I got to know it in a way that I didn’t with Indianapolis, or the greater Midwest. There, I worked with both PhD students and undergraduates, and the undergraduates were nearly all from small towns within 100 miles of the school: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, the Florida panhandle. Many had experienced significant displacement and trauma from Hurricane Katrina. They were the most racially and economically diverse classes I’ve ever taught. Some were USM legacies, others were first-in-family college students working multiple jobs to pay their own way. But they were all in my classes because they were interested in writing, even as they weren’t entirely sure what “I want to be a writer” could actually mean. In that way, they were exactly like I was at their age. 

JC: “Depression is a failure of narrative.” This is one of your many great lines, and one that should be chiseled above the gates of every writing school. I’m going to do the annoying thing and ask you to unpack this. 

JT: We know that narrative need not be strictly linear—and, while we’re at it, fuck your triangle, Freytag!—but the one thing it does have to do is keep moving, however slow or unpredictable its course. Language is linear and unidirectional, even when story isn’t. Depression is like one of those mazes in a video game where all the paths look the same save for some tiny telling detail, and every time you pick the wrong one it boots you back to the beginning of the maze. (I’m thinking of The Lost Woods from the Legend of Zelda, maybe because I spent 200 hours playing Breath of the Wild while I was living in Hattiesburg.) That being-booted-back is what I’m talking about. That inability to find the clue that lets you complete the level, and then you take one step down the false path and it’s, “Oh, whoops, I guess I’m here again.” Freud says much the same thing in “Mourning and Melancholia.” The mourner is the one whose sadness has a clear cause, feels proportional to said cause, and diminishes over time. The melancholic is the one whose sadness is outsize, sourceless or untethered from its original source, and does not diminish over time because they do not feel time passing.   

JC: In the book you ask, regarding your father, “How do you save a drowning man who doesn’t want a life preserver?” Tell me about it. What is it like to love someone who can’t be helped?

JT: The book itself may be one attempt at an answer to my question, albeit a belated and inadequate one. Or it may be that the real answer is: You can’t. A functioning healthcare system and social safety net would have helped a lot. They might have at least prevented things from getting to the point where a question like that one needed to be asked. But maybe not. Those last years were a constant confrontation with powerlessness. You keep expecting to have the key insight, to solve the puzzle, but the answer doesn’t come. You realize, finally, that it never will, that there is not going to be a solution, or a respite, or anything except progress toward an ending and then arrival there. At that point, all you can do is decide whether to stick around or not. Love is reduced—or, arguably, elevated—to an act of pure presence.  

JC: There are beautiful and agonizing stretches of the book that grapple with the inheritance of Judaism and the difficulty of squaring its spirit with the spirit of America. Your father comes off as a holy fool, what this country would cruelly call an incompetent, a liability. You yourself emerge as a sometimes impracticably sacred-minded man, who believes or wants to believe in another world—not necessarily after death, but beyond life’s comprehension. When so much of a thinking person’s existence these days is given over to the pathetic mundanities of just getting others to read, or to vote, or to protest, or to care—what do you suppose will happen to the soul, which must always seek the unachievable?

JT: I went to synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur last year, which I hadn’t done in at least 15. Maybe it was the fact that this book was coming out. I had to look up synagogues in Portland because I didn’t know any, and I found a Reconstructionist congregation that makes its services open to the public. I brought my own yarmulke, but had to borrow a house tallit, and I sat—and stood, and sat, and stood—muddling my way through. There was a part of me that kept wondering what it meant that I had done this, but I tried to shut that off and focus on the moment, to let the meaning of the act be the act itself. 

I doubt that what’s beyond this world is another world, but I would very much like to believe there is something beyond—that there are moments when we can glimpse or touch it, or be touched by it, if you want to grant “it” agency and intention. I’m not sure that I do, or rather, if I can. I’m the product of that same secularism I’m trying to respond to, and I’m trying to strip myself of its biases and blindnesses without abandoning it entirely. I’m not arguing for a more theocratic politics or literature, but I do think something extremely valuable happens when you carve out space in your life for the infinite to intrude on the finite.

I don’t think I’ll ever access the upper reaches of faith, where one arrives at definitive answers to all life’s questions. But I want to try to at least find the language to ask the questions, and to become capable of abiding in the perpetually provisional space they raise. I think protesting or fighting for a more just society can be part of that work. They’re open-ended activities, attempts to usher universal principles into the world as tangible expansions of equality, liberty, security. As a rabbi once suggested, the endless nature of the work neither renders it futile nor excuses us from doing it. That’s another way of being oriented toward the eternal, available to anyone who wants to frame it in that context. 

Let me put it this way: The high holiday services at that synagogue brought hundreds of people together. Many months later, after we went on lockdown, I thought a lot about having been in that crowd and wondered when I would next be part of a gathering as big as that. I figured it would be a concert, once the venues reopened. It turned out to be a protest against police violence. A few thousand Portlanders marching downtown, radically altering our relationship to the physical space of the city. I know you’ve seen the same thing in New York—how it’s suddenly possible to walk down the center of a street, to sit down in the middle of a bridge, to hear thousands of strangers join their voices. Ripping the city out of its routine changes the parameters of what is achievable.

Joshua Cohen lives on the Jersey Shore.