Douglas Watson. The Era of Not Quite. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd, 2013. 147 pp. $14.00, paper.
If, as the book Hal Walker returns to the library in the opening scene of “The Era of Not Quite” suggests, the Era of Not Quite has been “running continuously since the dawn of human history,” it would explain a lot. In fact, it would explain everything: from unrequited love to a man’s brain in the street. For what it means to live in the Era of Not Quite is to reach for a thing, and not quite seize it. And then to keep reaching.
Watson is a very smart writer, and unlike many uses of that word—“smart”—in this context, I mean it here as a compliment, not a way to dismiss a work as technically clever but lacking heart or sincerity. Watson’s thoughts on this tension illustrate his sensibility as a writer: “I do think heart, or ‘heart,’ is important to my fiction—or any good fiction. Of course, you need blood too, or ‘blood.’ Can’t have one without the other. The mysterious stuff of life, in other words.”
Thus, on one hand, The Era of Not Quite is a stunning example of Barthes’ notion of the “writerly text,” a text that challenges the reader by constantly calling attention to its constructed nature (think Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”). Some of the greatest pleasures of Watson’s collection are the jokes he plays on the reader. For example, there are two distinct characters named “Douglas Watson” in The Era of Not Quite, and in the middle of the book, there is a…story? (one wonders what exactly to call it) titled “Special Advertising Section,” in which the marketing division of the Estate of Douglas Watson apologizes for the fact that The Era of Not Quite is not a novel.
On the other hand, because everything in the collection is in tension with its opposite—especially play and sincerity—this is a book in which literary criticism literally kills and the clever theories of music critics lead one narrator to complain, “Talk about missing the point.” This is because for Watson, the smart stuff isn’t about technical or philosophical bravado—it’s about fun. When I asked him about maintaining this tricky balance in his work, he called in an answer from Playland: “Well, the best way to strike a balance is to stand on two feet. If you stand on just the play foot, you’ll fall over into Playland. And if you stand on just the sincerity foot, you’ll tip over and be completely lost in Sincerityland, which is an even worse place to be than Playland, believe me.” Then suddenly he was serious: “My mother, who loved words and was better at them than I am, once approvingly quoted someone—I don’t remember who—as saying that anyone who thought words were mainly for communication was a fool. I’m paraphrasing. The best thing to do with words was have fun with them, the person said. Maybe it was even a quote on the Scrabble box, for all I can remember. My mom and I played a lot of Scrabble, and I’m happy to say that she won more than her share of our games, even toward the end when she was really very sick and didn’t have much energy.”
Watson isn’t much of a self-promoter, and he’s a fairly private person. He was open, though, about the way his mother’s recent death inevitably affected many of the stories in the collection: “I wrote The Era of Not Quite at a time when I was confronting death and loss and grief for the first time—I mean in a big way, in my immediate family. So I didn’t have patience for the small stuff. You know: ‘Bill drank a glass of milk. It made him think of milk paint. He’d been wanting to change the color of his living-room walls, but the question was, Which color was the right one?’ What I would say to Bill is, Who cares? Don’t you know you’re going to die? Get outside and get some exercise or something.”
This urgency pervades all of the stories in The Era of Not Quite. Most are quite short, and if the main character isn’t dead by the end, it’s probably because they’re talking right at you (one of the best pieces in the collection, “What I Did on My Summer Vacation,” is a dramatic monologue delivered from a cynical teacher to her alternately inattentive and smart-alecky students). Some of the stories read like fables and accordingly cut right to the chase: “Long ago, when fate governed the lives of mortals, there was a lad whose lot in life was to love a girl whose lot in life was to be abducted by a fearsome dragon.” Note: if you’re a bit put off by characters named “lad,” “girl” or “boy,” don’t be. For here, appearing where it shouldn’t, is my thesis, in two parts: 1) you can’t forget that a character in a book by Douglas Watson is just a character in a book by Douglas Watson, and 2) you’ll care about that character anyway.
The best way to test this thesis is to read “Wolves,” previously published in The Journal Issue 35.1, a story that uses structural innovation for profound emotional impact. The story left me so stunned, I had to ask Watson about its genesis. He said, “I wrote ‘Wolves’ in the year after my mother died, so there’s a direct tie-in. But I just wrote the thing—for a workshop I was in, actually—and then other people pointed out that I was dealing in symbols. Rather heavy-handed ones at that. And I said, Huh, you’re right. But I’d had no idea. But I mean, there’s music, there’s a church, there’s a library. None of them provides any comfort or any answers. And then the wolves come at you. That’s what it’s like to lose your mother.”
At the same time, Watson emphasizes that the story isn’t autobiography: “The autobiographical stuff might partly explain how I came to write it, but the story is not a coded message whose true subject is me. A story can mean many things to many people, and that is one reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction. And books to life.”
Of course I’d be remiss not to remind you that there are twenty-two more stories like “Wolves” waiting for you—wolf-like—in Watson’s collection. For like his character Jacob Livesey, the experimental composer, Watson’s best stuff “evoke[s] the twin longings that t[ear], although not asunder, the inner lives of many of his contemporaries: the desire for repetition” (that’s “heart,” the stuff you nod over, weeping) “and the hunger for something—anything—new” (and that’s play).