The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

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There’s an overly quoted Anais Nin line, “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” that occurred to me while reading Heidi Julavits’ newest book, The Folded Clock. Except I reinterpreted the line as, “Time shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s focus,” meaning that it contracts and expands in proportion to the attention one pays it. Time is quite happy to leave you behind, unless you do something with it.

Perhaps this phenomena explains the anxiety that drives many diarists. To put something down is to preserve it, to transform it from ephemeral moment to permanent object. To make it—and by extension us, or our concepts of ourselves—last.

I myself have tried to keep a diary but have thrown out any and all attempts, mostly out of boredom and shame at what I recorded. That type of recordkeeping is what Julavits hilariously recalls from her early girlhood.

I imagined the diaries published at some future date, when my literary fame might bestow upon them an artistic and biographical value. I believed I was born to posthumous greatness. I often imagined myself more famous when dead than when alive. The actual diaries, however, fail to corroborate the myth I’d concocted for myself. They reveal me to possess the mind, not of a future writer, but of a future paranoid tax auditor. I exhibited no imagination, no trace of a style, no wit, no personality.

With time on her side, Julavits made it to adulthood, and we benefit when the future paranoid tax auditor becomes a skilled writer, with enough style wit and personality to rectify those early diaries. This time around, the author takes a concerted approach to rethinking the diary. In life, the physical body is bossed around by linear time, but in prose one can rearrange it. She uses the “Today I” convention, but mixes up tenses and dates. She takes moments in time and blows them up with thought and introspection and tangential relations. She condenses them down into polished nuggets.

Immediately Julavits is winsome and likable on the page. She pre-empts all envy and repulsion by anticipating the reader’s potential reaction. Before a reader can balk at the image of a writer with a summer home, who has a friend who’s borrowed a dress from Sade, Julavits weaves in the darker, less compelling sides of her life. Any time she seems too smart, she inserts lines like, “I owned a book by Sigmar Polke. I hadn’t read it. To be honest I wasn’t sure if Sigmar Polke was a woman or a man.” She is a narrator who is concerned with her presentation of self, but she manages to expose herself in a full-ish portrait, highlighting both her anxieties and petty humanness, and celebrating her own wit, resourcefulness and tenacity. In a refreshing moment, she honors the fact that it’s now, towards the middle of her life, when she finds herself to be beautiful. She describes a time in her late thirties when, “men stopped checking me out on the street. This was fine by me, but it also made me confused. I was so beautiful now. Was I the only person who thought so?”

Julavits describes herself as someone who “never wants to put another person out.” In a comedic scene, the author is trapped in the window seat of a plane, needing to pee but not wanting to interrupt the sleeping passengers to her side. She attempts to piss in an airsickness bag several times with no success. It’s an apt metaphor for the artist’s struggle to overcome caring about other people’s opinions. “Who cares about all of these people?” she writes of the sleeping passengers she doesn’t want to wake. “No one is looking at you! You can do this!”

Heidi Julavits

Heidi Julavits

This neurotic inner monologue makes Julavits an endearing narrator. She has looked at her world so thoroughly for so long, and the richness of accumulated time, the way cream rises to the top when milk settles, gives The Folded Clock a rooted sense of intimacy with the writer.

The topics she flips through, like the pages of the anonymous Rolodex she finds at JFK, often seem superficial. At times the more serious side of me wanted the author to take on heavier material. But her mind is so smart and delightful and open that even her missives on garage sale savvy and swimming and watching The Bachelorette opened up caverns of musings about life, death, and anxieties.

In Julavits’ writing, little accidents—like the great lines you forget to write down—are preserved in prosaic jam jars. Even the glorious title of the book, which should give any writer serious title envy, comes from a scene where Julavits and her daughter are learning to draw hieroglyphs, one of which is based on a folded cloth. “’Folded clock?’ my daughter will ask. ‘Folded cloth,’ I’ll correct. And then I’ll pickpocket her accident.’” But this is no accident, just purposeful attention paid to life.

I suspect some reviews might collapse into a gendered reading of this book, treating it as a window into how a woman in her 40’s reads the world. But this book is really about the universal quest to understand how desire shapes and drives all of us. Julavits wants more than anything to live a rich life, to be fully here, to be present.

And transforming ephemera into objects is part of Julavits’ quest to understand and implement desire. Her endearing obsession with objects, like how she carries around a tap handle (discovered in the wall of her house) with her everywhere she goes, reveals an obvious anxiety about mortality. She can’t, as she says, “simply own” things. Of the tap handle, she writes, “I frequently experience the urge to flailingly, like with my mind or my heart or my body, fuck the thing.” Her obsession with objects stems from her early years. “I am an object person. I cling to things. As a child I clung,” writes Julavits. “The world was a challenge to stay in; I worried I’d be washed away.”

We know that staying in the world is a challenge we eventually lose, but we try to win by creating work that lasts beyond us. The Folded Clock examines how we can use desire to stave off the inevitable dread of death. For Julavits, longing is a way to stretch out what is a short amount of time.

Something strange happened to me while reading this book. I suddenly realized that the author would one day be dead, long gone, and I felt overcome with grief. It was an unusual feeling, the same kind of grief I experience when I pass a person or an animal in a strange town and have a sudden affinity, knowing that I will never see them again. That they will die before we meet again. Perhaps it was because Julavits had rendered herself so fully and so humanly to me that I already missed her. I missed her in the same way we can miss ourselves before we’re even gone.

But I suppose I was not alone in this sentiment. Towards the end of the book, she writes of reading the diary of Russian émigré Maria “Missie” Vassiltchikov. “I am also missing a person I know only from a book. The book has ended. I finished it. Based on this new way of reading, I thought perhaps I could rescue the book, a diary, and its author, from finitude.” She goes on to describe Missie as someone who “persevered with normal life even when nothing was normal. She remained clear-eyed; she spoke the plain truth…. I read one diary entry a day so that Missie and I could hang out for longer. When the diary was over, I was so sad to say good-bye to her.”

When I closed The Folded Clock, I felt the same pain of parting ways. But it’s a book. I can unfold the accordion clock and hear the song again in the future, if and when the missing has gone on too long.

Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →