By Taylor Murrow
In A Meaning for Wife (Ig Publishing), a man’s wife has died from an allergic reaction to cashews. Coping with her loss and his newfound role as a single dad, he travels to his childhood home to attend his twenty-year high school reunion. While there, he stays with his parents and is forced to confront many demons from his past—some expected, some not. Through all of this, the reader is a part of the dialogue, because the story is told in the second person.
Mark Yakich is a poet and an associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His book Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross was Penguin’s selection for the 2003 National Poetry Series. Penguin Poets also published The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine. Another collection, The Making of Collateral Beauty, won the Snowbound Chapbook Award, and in 2008 Press Street published Yakich’s Green Zone New Orleans. He is co-author, with Chris Schaberg, of the recently released nonfiction book Checking In/Checking Out.
Yakich composed A Meaning for Wife, his first novel, with revealing and often humorous prose (death by cashew?). Those of us accustomed to Yakich’s witty and cynical voice—I was his student at Loyola—aren’t deprived of that here, but those moments are in healthy equilibrium with personal, intimate revelations.
Yakich will celebrate the launch of A Meaning for Wife as part of Room 220’s Live Prose at the Antenna Gallery reading series at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 27, along with Ig Publishing press-mate Laura Ellen Scott, author of Death Wishing. Yakich will also read in New Orleans at the Garden District Book Shop on October 26 and at the Columns Hotel as part of the 1718 reading series on December 6.
What follows is an excerpt from a recent, sprawling conversation over chips and salsa in Mid-City that covered the gamut of Yakich’s literary projects and touched upon other subjects, such as our mutual distaste for the dinosaurs in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
Room 220: Why the notoriously tricky second person in this novel?
Mark Yakich: A lot of poems are in second person—and most readers can go with that for a page or two, no big deal. But to write prose that’s more than two or three pages in the second person, it’s just not done. When I began this book, I wrote fifty pages in the second person just to see if I could do it. In the process, I realized not only that the second person was no worse than the first person, but that the second person was helping me tamp down my usual first-person “writerly” voice, which is wry, cheeky, and sometimes too clever. It sounds paradoxical, but writing in the “you” gave me an inch and a half of distance, which was just enough to get over myself.
Rm220: I heard you became an expert on second-person novels.
MY: There are thirty-three. Every one more than 200 pages is a total failure, and most of them take place in a short period of time—a week, tops. Mine is a few pages short of 200, and it takes place in three days. It still may be a failure.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of the more famous examples of a second-person novel. I used that book as a structural model on how to use the second person sentence to sentence. In essence, the greatest parameter is that you have to try to use the word “you” as little as possible. The word “you” repeated so many times isn’t like the word “I” repeated so many times. “You” calls attention to the “youness” of it. So I looked at novels and short stories written in second person to find all the tricks and strategies of avoiding “you”: sometimes, just offering commands or imperatives without the “you,” the implied subject. I tried to word my imperatives carefully, without seeming too dickish.
Rm220: Did you ever get frustrated with that? Ever tempted to just abandon it and try first person?
MY: Never frustrated, really. It was a challenge. Not only did the “you” allow me to circumvent my overly clever voice, but it also helps the reader—another “you”—in getting acclimated to a good part of the novel’s setting: a twenty-year high school reunion, where “you” are and are not the person who went to high school with all these old classmates.
Ultimately, I don’t think the second person harms the story, and when the novel bends to the third person for a few pages, the second person actually seems useful—a main character who does and doesn’t feel like himself. The novel is about playing roles—not just with others but with oneself. For example, that strange, hyperbolic “voice” that the main character uses with the toddler is another manifestation of the idiom of the self, if you will, that one can play with.
Rm220: Some of these characters’ names seem a little familiar. For instance, the “you’s” name rhymes with “jock itch.”
Rm220: And his son’s name is Owen …
MY: Yeah, well… let me ask you something about that. What’s your experience reading the book knowing me?
Rm220: I know your name, your son’s name, and I know you were adopted. The narrator shares these coincidences with you. I don’t know anything about your high school experience or your adoptive parents. I hope your wife hasn’t died. I guess I couldn’t help but sometimes read the book as though you were the “you,” knowing those few facts.
MY: The novel is pretty autobiographical. As a poet, I’m not used to telling stories very well, but when you write from your real life, it’s a little easier because you’ve told yourself some of those stories or you’ve told them to others, so you kind of work them in. Some of the material in my novel is pretty close to the bone: Owen is my son’s name, and my last name does rhyme with “jock itch.” But there are whole chunks of fabrication. Even if I wrote a memoir and tried to stick to the facts as much as possible, the memoir would still be a kind of fiction. Writing—a text—is an artifice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that life is artifice. We make it up as we go along.
Rm220: How do you reconcile the novelist’s brain with the poet’s brain? Do you find yourself thinking in narrative when you work on poems now?
MY: I thought the two brains were pretty separate until this summer when I was at the Vermont Studio Center, working on a nonfiction book, and a friend pointed out that my style of writing just wasn’t there. It was flat. She had read my poems and liked them, and she said that the prose I was writing didn’t have the same imprint my poems have. At first I thought, that’s okay, I don’t need my poet voice to come back to my prose voice, but I think ultimately she was on to something. She told me to write some prose poems, so I wrote some based on that nonfiction book, and it helped me realize that the prose that I wanted to write needed to be sharper, it needed to be different from what I was writing. So then I wrote about 25 pages of new prose that ended up feeling less flat than the prose I wrote the first time.
Rm220: It was more … poetic?
MY: I guess, although I hate that word. One of the new nonfiction pieces I’m working on has footnotes—I’ve been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace. But the story I’m telling is so complicated that the footnotes do actually serve a purpose.
At some point in the future, I hope to not have to write anything. I would prefer just to paint bad abstract expressionist paintings. Such paintings are wordless—maybe worthless too, except in their making. I love the act of painting. It’s like a certain kind of sex—you’re kind of always in the zone. You’re not thinking of anything outside of the moment. I get like that sometimes in writing, but not as often as I do when I paint.
Rm220: Do you feel like there’s less explanation required in painting?
MY: There’s no explanation required. You don’t have to explain shit. In fact, that’s usually what people expect. It’s a convention that, with a painting, the artist doesn’t have to say anything. Let the art speak for itself. People still want explanations in novels for some reason. Did your wife really die? Is your son’s name Owen? Is that the same Owen in the book? Are there really fleas at your parents’ house? Did you really move to Shanghai for a while? But I get it—it’s human nature. Look at Sylvia Plath’s poems. Try to read those poems outside of her sticking her head in an oven. You can and you should, she’s great with metaphor and structure alone, but always in the back of your head, you remember that she shoved those wet towels under the door, stuck her head in that oven, and you can’t escape it. Plath has this great line from “Poppies in October”: “O my god, what am I”—how many times have I asked myself that? Not who am I, but what am I. It seems more accurate. In other words, to really see yourself, you might just have to not see yourself as a self. Most people think that they know who they are, but let’s not kid ourselves.
Taylor Murrow is interim editor of museum publications at the New Orleans Museum of Art.