All the readers I’ve been, all the readers I’ll be
Sarah McCarry has written a book. She released the cover a few weeks ago. It’s beautiful. On it, Elizabeth Hand compares her to Francesca Lia Block and Neil Gaiman. It was at that point—reading the blurb on that beautiful book—that I started laughing, big and bright and crazy and fortunately alone with my computer.
Sarah McCarry, if you don’t know, is a writer, an essayist, a blogger, whatever you will. She puts words together. She wrote this. A good friend of mine sent me that this summer and I read it and put my hand on my stomach and felt it hollow me out. I sent that friend a day’s worth of frantic messages, selfhood in crisis—because I was there in that piece, because that was me in that piece, because I had the rewritten-in-the-marrow sense of being constructed from without by someone who’d never met me.
(Sarah McCarry is maybe not at all like me. She is cooler, and wiser, and slightly less tightly wound. But she won a little piece of my marrow, on that day, in that essay, forever.)
Sarah McCarry is twenty-eight, which is young. I am twenty, which is younger. You’ve got time, my friend told me, and I breathed. You’ve got time to accrue your own audience, I promised myself. Someday the writer recounting the intricacies of you is going to be—yes—you. You have time. Take comfort that this is what the other side looks like.
But that’s what it is to be a reader: it is to unconsciously look for yourself in every piece of literature you find, to rediscover yourself as written by strangers and shatter with self-discovery again and again. It doesn’t happen on purpose. You fall into it—you collide with a different version of you each time.
If you like Francesca Lia Block, you’ll love Sarah McCarry.
When I was eleven I was chafing at the children’s section of the library and was obsessively watching the promising single shelf entitled Young Adult grow in my town’s small library. It had a book of fairytales retold that I read cover to cover and then went back through, cherrypicking my favorite moments, which were the moments that left a blank space on my tongue like where a set of forbidden-fruit taste buds would go someday in the future. I dog-eared the Sleeping Beauty where she slept naked in a stranger’s bed in satin sheets, where the author informed me with casual round-the-way sensuality what her odalisque heroine looked like under her kimono bathrobe. The fairytales I knew, the unspoken betokening of these moments, less. (I was young and curious and had a computer that I used with cheerfully corrupt impunity. I got the mechanics of the sexual act. What I didn’t understand were these shivery, suffused moments with no mechanics at all.) It was one of five books on that shelf in that little library in that small Massachusetts town, before the Young Adult Renaissance was upon us—the best of the five. Then I went to visit my grandparents in the city and the Queens Library had a whole entire bookshelf of the genre (again: pre-YA Renaissance) and I looked up and saw my fairytales, in dark green with a princess’s platinum hair spilling over the front, right next to the author’s other books. The author was Francesca Lia Block, her most recent book was Echo, the library had that and The Hanged Man and Missing Angel Juan and I took them home and kept them for a week.
I made a study of them. Missing Angel Juan I gave back, I would be confused by until I read the rest of the Weetzie Bat books a year or so later. Echo was good, clear, lovely, lonely, sexy, and I memorized it in clarion detail. But it was The Hanged Man that reinvented me.
It did it without a compass rose. It did it without a trace of identification. The book was a fever dream, and one I patently did not understand. Here is what I did not get out of that book the first time: the trauma storyline, the cancers, the incest, the anorexia, the symbolism, the plot. Here is what I did get: an opiate weight in my head, a set of tremors in my fingertips, the sense of someone molding my bones brand new. I didn’t understand four out of five words in any given sentence, I certainly didn’t understand what the book was telling me on any given page, but nevertheless the book worked magic on me. I saw it in broad Monet strokes, in dark-bright Hollywood Babylon colors. I felt it in my blood. I set it down the first time and remembered nothing but the moment in which the heroine’s maybe-imaginary boyfriend kisses her with a mouthful of champagne. I read it again and again (Echo as a palate cleanser, like the allotted amount of time I was allowed to take full breaths before plunging back into the promising dark) and still didn’t understand, but it made images in my head out of imaginative stapled silk, and that was enough, that was better than enough. It was an Eleusinian mystery for me. I couldn’t talk about it on the other side because I hadn’t taken it in in words. No book had ever done that to me before. I don’t think any book will again. I know too much now. I understand everything I read.
Francesca Lia Block made me bigger than the children’s section. (This is different than rejecting it: it’s the knowledge that you’re big enough to eat up every shelf there is, expansive enough to find yourself on every shelf genre regardless.)
Now, of course, Francesca Lia Block is writing really bad books, and I am bigger than that genre too. In a fit of pique after I read her Ruby, which is like if The Hanged Man was rewritten by someone horrendously disrespectful of trauma and uncomfortably into Orlando Bloom, I went back to the shelf I’d accumulated over the years. Maybe she was terrible all along, I thought spitefully. I reread the whole bibliography up to that point, and some things held up better than others. I will tell you that The Hanged Man held up even when you are clever enough to understand how brutal it is under the beauty, when you can see the monsters and not just sense them (the same goes for the beauty, really, the art). That said: I’m going to say it wouldn’t have mattered, maybe. The book would still be in my marrow, even if I had wanted to renounce it. The girl who read it with wide eyes and shaking hands on her grandparents’ creaking guest mattress is still in my DNA.
If you have ever been a girl rewritten into a Francesca Lia Block piece, you might just find yourself in Sarah McCarry.
And how about that Neil, huh?
I was fourteen with Neil Gaiman, I think. I wrote a book when I was fourteen. It wasn’t any good, but I wrote it by hand and was awfully happy with myself that I had done it in the end. I wrote that book to solve an insurmountable problem in my life, which was “How do I get to kiss my friend’s friend, who looks so beautiful in this photograph? How do I get to kiss this boy in California who literally does not know that I exist?” My answer to myself, pragmatically: Well, if you were a GHOST, you wouldn’t have any trouble walking anywhere at all! Or morality. Or compunctions. You could just get exactly what you want: you’re already dead, aren’t you?
(Morbid little thing? Not really: just excessively alive and landlocked.)
I wrote a book. It was about me, until it wasn’t. It was the viciousest, wantingest pieces of me under a microscope, taken and blown up into the whole image. I liked watching myself on that page, knowing I could be that cruel, knowing that I wasn’t. “I don’t like the ghost here,” my friend whose friend was in California said to me. It’s all right, I told her. I don’t think it’s him anymore, either.
I found American Gods just then. I read the back and thought: yes, that’s the sort of book I’d like to write when I’m just a bit older and bigger and cleverer. I sat down with it. The gods and monsters welcomed me with myth-nerd delight (you know all our names, see, you’re already halfway in), and then there was Laura. Laura, the protagonist’s wife, come back to haunt him, her love locked in her memory and her hands guiltless when she killed
Ah, I thought vaguely.
It was like looking in a mirror. Not the book, but maybe the man behind. Not why he’d written it (and God knows not how), but the fact that he had, that it was here on the page and big and good and mattering in spite of me. I understood that the thing I had written had everything to do with me, but I also realised, at that moment, that I’d coded it into a salvageable encryption. It got me excited for the future self on the far side of that moment: who’d write books of ideas she was excited about, who had enough forward motion to fix her problems without turning them into macrocosmic plots.Someday I could write this story, maybe, and it’d be good. Not then, when it was limited by me, but later, when I was bigger. You’ve got good instincts, kid, the book said to me. Someday.
Then I went back to trying to figure out who the Nameless God was. I wasn’t totally selfish. Am not.
But I am, when I’m reading, whether I mean to be or not. Your favorite books are a funhouse mirror of you, in the end. You as you would be, you as you have been, you as you might be if you don’t keep an eye on your shadow and a palmful of salt in your hand, you as you have never been but you think what must that be like? Show me the universe that brings me round to this side, and the book shows you. Gives you armor or tentacles or a martini, and it doesn’t matter because you still see your own heart beating on the page, bringing your second inky self to life.
Sarah McCarry wrote a book. Maybe it’s going to be the book, right now, where I’m on every page. Then someday maybe I’m going to be a girl who read that book—just the exact shape of that girl, just right. I’ll be a different story, then, of course, but I’ll bite the old title into my lower lip and grin, and remember what it felt like to take up this exact shape in the world.