Notes From Book Tour #9: So Where Does That Leave Liz Phair?

By

phair_girlysound_tncOn the 44th day of book tour I borrowed my friend’s car and drove south to Oberlin College, 2.5 hours down the 23 and across the 80/90 toll road. I have an iPhone now and I read short articles with the device perched against the steering wheel, swerving toward my destination.

There were 40 students at the Cat in the Cream coffeehouse and maybe a couple of professors. It was a very young crowd, Oberlin is a liberal arts school, all undergraduate. I opened by reading about a Stanford student I had an affair with. I always  try to read something relevant to the audience. But it wasn’t that relevant; the student was already 24 when we started. She was a friend of former students of mine, but she had never taken my class. Our relationship was a farce, start to finish, but occasionally I wonder if I should have tried harder. I had met her after a reading in San Francisco three years ago. She’d worn a schoolgirl skirt, a wife beater, was covered in tattoos and jewelry, and waited for me as I came off the stage.

“When do we start dating?” she said.
“How about now?” I replied.

Later she got her life together. Cut her hair and took her earrings out, devoted her time to the pursuit of more important things.

There was something I liked very much about Oberlin, a small, liberal town with no pretensions to bigness. There was a history, plaques celebrating the underground railroad, of which Oberlin played a large part. I could imagine spending a long time in Oberlin, resting. There were co-ops, a couple of restaurants. Nothing much. I liked the architecture, the large cheap apartments.

Most of the students looked like they were in high school but there was one who bought a book. She had a firm grip and I asked her how old she was and she said she was just getting used to saying she was eighteen. Another student was waiting but the last student in line didn’t want to buy a book.

“I don’t have any money,” she said.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll put my address inside and you can send me a check.”

She thought about it for a second. “No,” she said. She wasn’t going to have any money anytime soon. She wanted to know about exposing herself and writing from experience. She wanted to know if I could help her deal with writing, give her something ideological to hold onto so she could explain the morality of what she was doing to others. I gave her the answers I would give. Later it occurred to me that I should have said, “Art is selfish. Who are you kidding, acting like you’re making the world a better place? As if that was the writer’s motivation. That’s not a motivation, that’s a schtick.” These kids, I thought, at the private schools.

That night my host made me a CD of the Liz Phair demo tapes that preceded Exile in Guyville. We talked about what happened to Phair, how rather than confronting her desire she tried to bend and accommodate it and destroyed her art in the process. It’s just like writing. I know, because recently I’ve felt moments of jealousy and greed that are entirely unfamiliar to me. In the Oberlin town bookstore located inside the Ben Franklin I had sat in a chair reading an essay by John Updike about writer’s growing old. It was a failed essay, the kind that starts by staring into the truth but finishes by turning away. It was published by AARP Magazine and republished, perhaps as an homage, in the Best American Essay collection. In the good part of the essay, before he sold the reader down the river, Updike spoke about his later work being eclipsed by his earlier work, the vital energy that pours from youth, bleeding across the page. The stuff that can’t be mimicked by experience or skill. If he had kept going, if he had finished the short essay with “goddam it all motherfucker crap fuck!!!!!” he’d have really gotten at something. Instead he served it with a blue pill.

But that wasn’t the point. The point was we were talking about Liz Phair and her demo tapes, which even with the hiss and uneven recording are significantly more compelling than anything on Whitechocolatespaceegg, not to mention the monstrous cynicism of her self titled fourth album. And Chelsey asked about the book tour, or something, and I started to talk about a girl that wasn’t really my girlfriend anymore, and a note I had sent to a few people, not many, asking them to link to my book on their Facebook pages and encourage their friends to purchase it. I imagined this girl purchasing twenty copies of The Adderall Diaries on Amazon.com and pulping them because money and books don’t mean enough to her. I was leaning against the entry to the living room where Chelsey sat at the table. I couldn’t quite bring myself to say it. Instead, I said, “You know when you try to do something with integrity, and you just fail?”

Maybe I hadn’t slept enough, but I don’t think that’s what it was. I started laughing. Tears sprang from my eyes. I couldn’t stop laughing, the tears running down my cheek. I had to pick up a napkin and press it against my face. It was a moment that could have gone either way. Chelsey began laughing too. We dubbed it one of the great moments in the second person. I slept that night for a long time.

On Holloween I drove back to Ann Arbor where I had volunteered to teach a three hour seminar. There 50,000 students on the streets in various states of undress, a boy on the front porch of his fraternity house in just a pair of jeans, bellowing. I had a train to catch to Chicago.

***

read all Notes From Book Tour here


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →