Avoid the Day
(Harper Perennial, 2020)
Philosopher and psychologist William James once argued that we are what we choose to attend to. That is, the objects and ideas you take an interest in, that catch your eye—that which you notice or fancy—betrays your personality, your proclivities, your passions, your neuroses. Writers, mainly via James’s brother, novelist Henry James, incorporated a number of William James’s ideas into literature (most notably, “stream of consciousness”), and now, in literary fiction, one finds a weaponization of the whole that-which-you-choose-to-attend-to idea. When a character walks down a street, taking note of shops, dog walkers, parked cars, and empty parks, the reader learns as much about her as about her surroundings. Her characterization of her world characterizes her, as well.
What if this were to go nuclear, as it were? And what if it were not fiction, but a nonfiction in which a quasi-journalistic investigation winds up revealing as much or more about the journalist as it does about the subject he is ostensibly investigating? What you’d wind up with is Jay Kirk’s second book, a novelistically novel form of literary investigation that is by turns bizarre and brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking. There is no attempt to be objective or comprehensive, and as much as anything else the goal is to project Kirk’s own achingly honest story first onto a mystery, and then onto an adventure, both of which he more or less stumbles into.
Call it Inkblot Journalism.
Basically, Jay Kirk is you.
You haven’t been yourself these last few years. You drink more than you should. You’ve come to regard pharmacological mood assistance as a form of snack food. You’re uncertain of your standing in the world, what you’ve accomplished in your career, and you’re even less certain about what the future holds. And then there’s the demons of your past, your weirdo parents, your unspeakable siblings, and a family history that is like a potluck of shame: everybody brings something to the table, and there’s plenty to go around. Now, you’ve just kind of, like, forgotten how to be.
Kirk’s version of this ur-narrative finds him haunted, in the main, by a particularly monstrous father, a “repressed satyr” who also happens to be a United Methodist minister, a man who is now on his deathbed but in his prime was the cheery sort of fellow who would never let a woman’s breasts go unremarked-upon, and who was likely to take wees on his sons’ feet. To be sure, part of Kirk’s dilemma may lie in a recognition of certain congenital tendencies—a chronic case of like-father-like-son—and it appears that some of the haunting episodes of the past are so ghastly they will refuse to be spoken of, even in a book that is ultimately about atonement.
In any event, Kirk appears to have shoved his own condition into remission by cultivating a need to form associations, find parallels, exercise a perhaps overactive mind by endlessly employing it to scour experiences for meaning. This, of course, prepared him well to be a writer, and readers of Harper’s and GQ will already be familiar with a smorgasbord of topics—panthers, detectives, taxidermists, jokers, and gorillas, just to give you some idea—that have made Kirk a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and have won him Whiting and Pew fellowships. Avoid the Day builds off “Bartók’s Monster,” a piece that Kirk published in Harper’s in 2013.
But here’s what really happened. Despite the varied successes, Kirk had begun to have doubts. What if endlessly sifting through life for experiences that might titillate readers was really just a complex coping strategy? What if his particular pathology amounted to channeling his whole life into his art, such that he’d actually forgotten how to have an experience that wasn’t, well, work? Thus existentially confused, Kirk sets out to find an experience that won’t simply become fodder for another piece that enables him to going on avoiding his monstrous past. He settles on a string quartet evening. What possible interest could there be in attending a performance of Béla Bartók’s Third String Quartet?
At a pre-concert lecture, Kirk learns that the autograph manuscript of the Third String Quartet—one of the products of Bartók’s quixotic 1910 tour through Transylvania to preserve local folk music—had once gone missing but may have been rescued with the assistance of a peculiar academic, a man who had foiled the hoarding habits of a diabolical priest who had somehow come into possession of the valuable score. Of course, this greedy holy man chimes in Kirk’s mind as an echo of his own father, lingering in an intensive care unit.
When Kirk learns that late in life Bartók traveled to the United States and spent time just a stone’s throw from Kirk’s childhood home, the jig is up. It’s yet another story with which he can avoid today, tomorrow, the next few years, and—bonus—a particularly haunting afternoon and evening from his deep past. Or so he thinks.
Hence, the book begins with an account of Bartók’s time in Vermont that reads like an overture introducing the themes of Kirk’s two subtitular “movements”: an investigative journey through Transylvania, and an adventurous voyage to the Arctic circle.
It’s a tale of two monsters.
Bartók, of course, is Dracula, pale of complexion and with an aversion to the rising sun. He likes bugs, bugs seem to like him, and a youthful illness left him a “fanatical wraith.” Even overlooking the fact that his journey took him to Transylvania—situated in Romania, not his native Hungary (though there are some hairs to split there)—wasn’t there something a bit vampiric about his swooping around the countryside to suck the folk songs out of local peasants with a monstrous little box capable of recording their voice on wax cylinders? And wasn’t that, in turn, a little bit like being a writer whose lifeblood depended on finding people with interesting stories to repeat for the benefit of folks like, well, you and me?
Kirk’s investigation begins in Philadelphia as he tracks down the principles in the story of the missing manuscript—which isn’t missing at all, truth be told—and it ends with ditching his father in his hospital room and embarking on a recreation of Bartók’s ethnomusicological Easter egg hunt. These two sub-narratives are woven together to effect, and the reader gets caught up in Kirk’s enthusiasm as he discovers the diabolical priest in a nursing home (in a scene that I found as affecting as anything I’ve read in recent memory), and learns that the time signature on the original manuscript may have been tampered with. But even as the pitch of the story seems to rise to the intensity of The Maltese Falcon (1930) or The Long Goodbye (1953), it starts to dawn on the reader that the real mystery is not Bartók’s score, but why Kirk has set himself on this trail in the first place, and why we’re following him through Transylvania, from disappointing meetings with museum directors to funerals for dead Roma fiddlers. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that the mystery has less in common with The Maltese Falcon than The Big Lebowski (1998), and Kirk, caught up in a plot where not a whole lot is actually happening, is less Philip Marlowe than The Dude.
Then Kirk receives a text of a polar bear—but that’s not monster number two. Here, the book makes a hard shift, just as symphonies often do between their third and fourth movements. The snow bear JPEG is from Kirk’s college buddy and fellow provocateur, Darren, and he’s reaching out to invite his old pal on an all-expenses-paid cruise ship voyage to the Arctic Circle. I trust that I do not need to remind readers of this august publication that Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein (1818) begins and ends with scenes in the deep tundra. Darren offers Kirk the irresistible lure of guerilla-filming a low budget horror film on the ship’s dime, while simultaneously filming high-end tourists for some kind of travel channel infomercial. Swish pan to Kirk aboard ship, a tattered copy of Frankenstein lodged under his arm.
Now, when I saw “low budget,” what I mean is no budget. And no script. And no actors. Like Diana Christensen incarnating television in Network (1976), buddy Darren is a living embodiment of an eccentric B-movie horror film director, and a fair amount of the action of the last third of the book—side-splittingly so—is scenes of the two friends wandering the ship’s decks and gangways, struggling to brainstorm up a monster for a story that doesn’t exist yet. Kirk is the more philosophical of the two—Darren, he’s a realist—and these out-of-the-box, no-idea-is-a-bad-idea conversations touch on myth, ambiguity, meaning, and certainty, themes that an attentive reader will recognize as having been launched way back in the book’s Transylvania days. They now repeat like a ghost of a melody, or a fragment of the so-called “Bartók scale.” Filmmaking-wise, all that is known for sure is that the two buds are the only leads the movie is going to have. And what they’ll do in order to muster performances that will totally sell the movie’s godawful horror is “channel [their] neuroses.”
I probably should have indicated by now—and perhaps I already did—that Kirk’s dependence on substances, “benzos,” in particular, is a little more complicated than the unhealthy habits of your run-of-the-mill anxious writer type. It’s a “problem,” and the journey through Transylvania was a wagon-ride, as it were, a wagon that breaks down, at last, when Kirk embarks for the Arctic and begins repeating the journey of Frankenstein’s monster. And it’s here, in a pair of masterfully climactic scenes in which we eavesdrop on Kirk, “mortally hungover” and channeling his neuroses in the form of recollections of a horror-filled day from his childhood, containing both his father’s monstrousness and his own, that we are provided with what this funny, profound, and painfully honest book is going to offer by way of a conclusion.
It’s here too that the book will set out to bend its genre, though it was always, as Emily Dickinson once advised, a truth told slant. You’ve heard of metafiction, right? Fiction about itself. This, rather, is meta-nonfiction, nonfiction about its own factuality. Avoid the Day is a memoir to precisely the same extent that a dream is a memory. It is nonfiction precisely to the same extent that Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) is a portrait of the port of Le Havre. By this, I do not mean that Kirk is bringing a robust creative faculty to bear on a body of truth. That would be fine, but it’s more than that. It’s that his personal history—those things for which he requires atonement, and for which the book is a plaintive appeal—keep intruding, pressing through the investigation, pressing through the adventure, refusing to remain repressed, until at last Kirk breaks down like an oracle with a blown fuse, a mystic with a busted gasket, a high-wire act gone haywire. “Which is the hunter? Which is the hunted? It must be that I am no longer reliable,” he tells us, and then elaborates that the purest form of nonfiction is the suicide note.
Near the end—though don’t expect much by way of resolution, this is not that kind of book—the inkblot pattern of it all comes winking through when the Arctic cruisers disembark for a short field trip to a site of a former monastic settlement. There are shallow graves up there, on top of the world. Picking through the gravel, Kirk finds a queer-looking rock, something like a “fossilized Rorschach.” Of course it’s not a rock, but a bone. And the act of examining it, mistaken for desecration, is redemption.