I turned in my latest novel. The easy work was over, and now the hard began. The promotional tour for my previous book – Cast Glances (Vintage, 2018) – had been the most gruelling yet. I went for months without sleep and had lived in a constant state of fear. For whilst I was a revered writer, I could not read.
It was my one great shame. Since the beginning I had just been typing randomly, with the letters happening to fall into celebrated sequences of words published by imprints of Penguin and variously described by the press as “a searing examination of toxic masculinity under late capitalism” (The Guardian) and “a savagely funny call to arms from an electrifying new voice” (The New York Times). I asked my nephew to read out the reviews to me. He was the only person I could trust with my secret, as he was eleven years old and hadn’t been corrupted by the adult world yet. “‘Like Tolstoy, we have a writer here with an uncanny knack for making the mundane enthralling’, The Wall Street Journal, five star,” he said, looking up from the paper as my face sunk with the thought of the new torrent of Tolstoy questions I’d now need to deal with. This was a review of my latest: The Immovable Object. It was out and already generating the usual acclaim. Ben and I were sat in the sun. I had surrendered my garden to the gardener in the same way I had my career to Penguin. Both seemed to know what to do, but surrounded by my flowers and trophies, I only felt confused, as if I had strolled into somebody else’s life. Ben was searching for reviews in the broadsheets I had bought whilst I stroked the cat I had informally adopted after moving in using the advance from my second novel, Permanent Bloom, an “admirably fresh künstleroman” (London Review of Books). Next came Myself Included (Random House, 2013), Funny Money (Penguin, 2014), and Dread the Fire (Vintage, 2016). I had written nine novels in all, but because I was able to write them so quickly – as quickly as I typed – I was still a “divisive new talent.” Every article referred to me this way, although I couldn’t recall ever receiving a negative review: the closest – four stars, from The Times – criticised me merely for being “a little too derivate of Tolstoy this time – although one can only sit back and clap at such a magnificent impersonation.” The reviewer continued, “For this outing our last remaining literary-sniper trains his merciless gaze on toxic masculinity under late capitalism – and the carcass he leaves behind is not a sight we are likely to forget.”
I was deeply suspicious of journalists. I preferred the company of Ben, and the cat. I assumed she belonged to a neighbour, but she spent almost all of her time with me, because I was always at home. I was too afraid of leaving, as whenever I ran into a fan I didn’t know how to respond to their questions about what I was working on. I wouldn’t know until the reviews came out. I had been described as a “recluse” – “committed more to his craft than the circus surrounding it” – but any attempts to skip my launches and awards dinners were attempts only to limit these questions I was asked about my books, which – same as the questions I fielded from readers – were completely incoherent to me. The BBC had once with Penguin’s help forced their way into my house, for an interview about my “process” in the wake of my Man Booker nomination for The Way Things Were, which, Ben had told me, was about a small boy lost at sea. That was the third of my four – arguably five – examinations of toxic masculinity under late capitalism. “You have been compared to the mighty Tolstoy,” the BBC began, my honorary degree from Oxford glinting on the wall behind me. “Now, you have been nominated for the Man Booker. How does it feel?”
“It feels… how it feels,” I said.
“And what do you think the role of the writer is today, amid this late phase of capitalism?”
I was constantly being asked about capitalism – but I knew nothing of it. I had asked Ben, but he didn’t understand either. Thankfully, the topic was abstract enough for almost any answer to satisfy a journalist who wanted to speak to me about it. The endless questions about my influences – apparently Mann, Gaddis, and, playfully, Kanye West – were equally opaque, but Ben had explained that the connections between their work and my own were again so ambiguous that no journalist could ever reasonably expect me to give a straight answer on the subject. I was grateful to Ben. He had a way of making everything seem so simple. He was only eleven and he knew exactly how to handle the press. Even my readings he managed to make bearable. In his system, Penguin would email my agent at Curtis Brown the passage that they felt I should read; Jay would then email Ben who was – Jay believed – my manager, and Ben would then tell me what I had to say. He had bought me my books on CD, as read by Matthew McConaughey – another fan. And after Ben had identified the time at which the passage appeared for me on the recording, I would then memorise it whilst driving around, the book playing at a low volume in case I was ever seen in traffic and believed to be listening to my own work, which I was of course, but not because I was conceited. In fact, I hated my work. At the readings I steadily leafed through the book as I spoke, hoping that my turns of the page roughly coincided with when the turns were required, but I couldn’t stand to hear myself speak. I found the prose over-stylised and pretentious. I had tried listening to all of my books and it was always the same: none were to my taste. I could never make it through more than a chapter or two, or, in the case of my play, an act. I was often told that I succeeded at the “sentence level,” but it was the sentences I was most bored by. Matthew McConaughey did his best to enliven the material, and at times succeeded, but I was never able to relax enough to really focus on what he was saying while I was doomed to thinking about his agent pleading with mine to plead with Ben to plead with me for a dinner to discuss his upcoming role in the Paramount adaptation of The Visitor.
It was during a lecture at the Royal Society of Literature that I first decided I ought to pull back more from the public eye: a decision I later finalised after delivering my address to 2018’s Creative Writing graduates at Harvard University. Both speeches were as well received as usual, but I felt I had suffered enough. I had said all I’d had to say on toxic masculinity under late capitalism and wanted time alone to think about something else. The decision to retreat was not about me being “above” the plaudits of my peers. So I was surprised when that was how the move was interpreted: as arrogance, superiority. I was grateful to my editor for being more forgiving. He saw it for what it was: an extension of the modesty he had long respected me for. Indeed, he had not ceased – after nine books – to be taken aback by my humility. “Bravo, Shaun, another triumph,” he had said on the phone, after calling to congratulate me on the manuscript for The Immovable Object. “But will you please just accept what you’ve accomplished this time? For my own sanity at least?”
I only continued to write for the money. I was paid handsomely, and that dulled the discomfort of knowing that I had allowed my name to be attached to something like Sketches of Spain: probably, Ben had said, the least memorable of my examinations of toxic masculinity under late capitalism. It was Ben pulling the strings, really. I had no relationship to the work. I wasn’t certain why it was so off-putting to me; I, of course, had not read it. It was only an impression, and an impression in response only to a handful of hours spent listening to the CDs. People had described my writing as “experimental,” but the sense I got from Ben was that it was still easy to read and mostly plot-driven. I assumed the end-result was in large part my editor’s doing – and I had thanked him profusely for that – but it did leave me feeling a distance between myself and the work. This was another reason why I found the interviews to be such a struggle. It wasn’t just that I had no idea what anyone was talking about: it was that I didn’t know or care. The Observer insisted that I had done “at the sentence level, perhaps more than any other writer alive in the service of excavating the scourge of toxic masculinity under late capitalism.” But whenever I was asked at Q&As about my motivations I simply said I “wasn’t writing for myself,” and that any work of mine was “firmly for the readers.” Prodded for an interpretation of a particular passage, I always gave the same answer. I said that I was leaving it up to the audience, that it was all intended to be ambiguous. If I was feeling defensive I’d add that the need for concrete answers was probably a symptom of the exact late capitalism I was examining so doggedly in each book. This may well have been true – I didn’t know. The answer was accepted in any case, and after that there was nothing left for the person to say but, “Thank you,” as they began to back away from the microphone, “And thank you so much for writing this.”
“No, thank you,” I’d reply. “Thank you for buying it.”
“Thank you,” they’d add, nodding. “Thank you.”