I want to write a few words about the amazing new book WE LEARN NOTHING, written by essayist and cartoonist Timothy Kreider. Any thinking person with a sense of humor will find it provocative and delightful, reminiscent, in varying ways, of David Foster Wallace, James Thurber, David Sedaris, and Susan Sontag. Richard Russo says, “Tim Kreider may be the most subversive soul in American and his subversions–by turns public and intimate, political and cultural–are just what our weary, mixed-up nation needs. The essays in We Learn Nothing are for anybody who believes it’s high time for some answers, damn it.”
Fans of my own work– who are likely to be the folks drawn to this site in the first place– will find new light shed on transgender issues as a whole and my own writing in particular in one chapter of the book. It was Tim Kreider who accompanied Russo, my spouse Deedie (a.k.a. “Grace”) and me to Wisconsin for SRS, and while I wrote about Russo and Deedie’s experience shepherding me through that experience, I left Tim’s role largely unexplored in She’s Not There, mostly because Russo and Deedie had been the two supporting characters through the book to that point. But after they left, it was Tim Kreider who sat by my bed for the next week and read me stories, got me on my feet. He writes about all of this in a chapter in the new book called “Chutes and Candyland.” It may remind some readers of Russo’s afterword to She’s Not There– in that a male friend of mine has to reconsider the meaning of friendship in the wake of gender shift. But Tim’s viewpoint of the world is both more scholarly and more skeptical than Ricks. And his account of the process he had to go through reflects that sensibility, both the intellectual grappling he had to go through as well as the way in which he felt, at times, at a loss.
He concludes his essay… “Jenny Boylan might be the one person in this world whom I now think of purely as a human being, free of all the corporeal baggage of chromosomes, hormones and footwear…. It turned out I’d been asking the wrong question; it was never is she a woman or is he a man, but what is a friend?
And yet the Jenny Boylan connection is the least of the many good reasons for fans of my work to check out WE LEARN NOTHING. (Which can be purchased from one of my favorite independent booksellers here and through another wonderful independent bookseller here. )
Tim is a unique and amazing talent, who is, in my opinion, anyway, just about the funniest person alive– while simultaneously being one of the smartest. His book contains a large number of his beautiful, hilarious cartoons– as well as essays on topics such as the story of his near-death by stabbing, and the way his failure to die left him happy for a whole year; on the strange ways in which we all seem to enjoy hating each other so much; on the story of going to Mexico one summer on the circus train; on the strange consequences of his finding, at age forty, his biological mother (and two unexpected half-sisters.)
That “stabbing story” cartoon–which is hilarious and moving, and not the gruesome deathfest you might be imagining– can and should be downloaded by anyone who calls herself a writer, and ESPECIALLY by writers whose work straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction. If you go to this site, you’ll be one click away from downloading a pdf file of it.
There’s a wonderful video Simon and Schuster made in support of the book which I’ve posted above. This is delightfully entertaining all by itself.
One of my favorite essays in the collection is, “The Creature Walks Among Us”, about heartbrokenness. “Right now I’m neither in love nor heartbroken. I almost hesitate to say this: it feels provisional, like remission. Sometimes I’m afraid it may be as ephemeral as that temporary sanity that afflicts us for as long as forty-five seconds after orgasm. But at other times I worry it may be permanent. Maybe we have a finite capacity for falling in love that gets depleted with age. OR maybe romantic love is an affliction of adolescence, like ac ne or a passionate ideological investment in pop songs. It’s mostly a relief to be free of it, like not waking up hung over. At those moments when I’ve felt myself starting to relapse–waiting for someone to call who wasn’t going to, that familiar helplessness clutching my gut–I’ve recoiled like a recovering alcoholic waking from a dream of being blacked-out drunk, relieved and thankful that he’s still sober.
But sometimes this life starts to feel grudging and dutiful. I’m clear-eyed again, but the world looks lusterless and dull. I can understand why schizophrenics stop taking their meds. I’m functioning and accomplishing things; everyone approves of my behavior and agrees that I seem happier; I’m not embarrassing my friends with any histrionic displays. But I also know that all around me the air is full of songs too beautiful for me to hear. Sometimes I’ll see a pair of electric-blue damselflies coupled in flight, and I remember how it felt to be weightless.
Tim has one of the most spectacularly provocative websites out there– “The Pain: When Will it End?” You must go connect to it now, and check out “The Archive”, a nearly ten-year collection of his weekly cartoons. The website also provides a rundown of where Tim can be found on his current author tour.
What do we learn? We learn nothing.