I heard Kristin Dombek read parts of her essay "How to Quit" at BookCourt on a Friday night. The reading was part of the launch of the 15th issue of lit journal, n+1. A party would be held in Bushwick the following night. Dombek was introduced by Nikil Saval, an editor of n+1, and he described her piece as being about "sex, drugs, some music, and Ryan Gosling." I can't say that this made me automatically hopeful, although it didn't turn me off completely. What it made me think first was that I should use those words in a headline because all of those words are words that are apparently—statistically—endlessly fascinating to young Brooklyn readers, and I too write for young Brooklyn readers. But I was a little wary, because, what else is there to say about sex, drugs, and Ryan Gosling? Should we be writing about something else? 2012 is almost over. We kind of live in a post-apocalyptic society, if that's even something that can kind of exist. Shouldn't there be other things that concern us? Plus, and this is clearly my own problem, I am always thrown off a little by encountering people with the same name as me, especially when the spelling is identical. I know this is a strange thing, and maybe not relevant, but it does inform how I was feeling as Dombek walked the short distance from her seat with the n+1 editors to the lectern to read. What I mean to say is that I wasn't feeling exactly predisposed to liking the piece. Which is so unfair. But true. And this was partly because of how little I relate to the way most people write about sex and drugs, and partly because of the name "Kristin." I don't know why the name thing bugs me, but it always has. I don't know what I'd be like if I was a "Jennifer" or something equally as common, but it would not be good, probably.
Anyway, I had been fortunate enough to receive a copy of the newest issue before the reading and had read most of it. It really is an excellent issue, opening with a brutally funny dissection of "dead white magazines" (The Paris Review as "the literary equivalent of a Todd Haynes film"), continuing on with Julia Grønnevet's incisive and wrenching first-person account of the Anders Behring Breivik trial in Oslo, and ending with what is one of the few non-adulatory reviews of Katharine Boo's National Book Award-winning "Behind the Beautiful Forevers." I skipped only Dombek's essay because I wanted to hear it in her voice first. I guess I'm glad I waited, although I'm not sure now why I thought it was necessary. It couldn't have been better or worse, I guess, it could only be what it is. And it is wonderful—honest and funny and sad and perfect. It is about music and it is about sex and it is about drugs and it is about Ryan Gosling, but also, it is about this world we live in, here in Brooklyn, this post-apocalyptic world.
I don't know that Dombek would really consider us as living in a post-apocalyptic-world. She writes a great deal about gentrification and about how "gentrification is the opposite of the apocalypse. The apocalypse would pause history, level the built world to a pile of trash, and most likely lower rents considerably. Gentrification churns history forward, takes out the trash, carts away rubble, hides the poor, makes you work more and more to manage your rent, and encrypts the past, when you didn’t have to work so many jobs just to fucking live here, behind its glossy surfaces." But I don't think those two things are mutually exclusive. Brooklyn has been home, it seems, to several mini-apocalypses while still experiencing wave after wave of gentrification. Stasis and motion can easily exist in tandem, and, in fact, they usually do. They are two sides of the same experience, neither of them is more real, but both corrupt the integrity of the other. And it is this constant interplay of destruction and development that has not only defined Williamsburg—and much of Brooklyn—in the last couple of decades, but also has defined the lives of many of the people who live here.
In her essay, Dombek explores the duality of her life and the lives of the people around her, or, at least, the people she cares about, the ones who "turn ordinary nights into wide electric universes that snap in the head like a new beat, get and give pleasure like they’ll otherwise die, make music what music is and art what art is. Because they cannot do all the things it takes to marry, they can bring a whole marriage’s worth of intimacy into one night of fucking, and you can let that land square on you, like you’re the only girl in the world, to quote Rihanna." These people are "drunks, drug addicts, sex addicts, compulsive gamblers, and/or people on or recovering from deep, life-threatening benders: these are the only people who really hold [Dombek's] interest, which means that [she] usually [is] friends with or fuck[s] and/or love[s] people with a dead parent or two, bipolar or otherwise depressed people, musicians, writers, and/or pathological liars."
Is Dombek the first person to write about addiction, and the act of being addicted to addiction? Of course not. But she is really fucking funny and slips in questions that those of us who are "depressed people, musicians, writers, and/or pathological liars" (or all of the above?) have actually thought about many, many times before. Questions like, "How do sober people get close to one another?" This is important because, while on the one hand the answer is, I suppose, online dating, on the other hand, Dombek assures us, "no one knows." This question—of how normal people who don't feel things as deeply as the afflicted do can ever fall in love—is one that I've always wrestled with. I mean, how do you know you love someone if they've never hurt you? How do you know you own something if you haven't cried on it, sweated on it, bled on it? These are real questions and they pertain not only to the people that we love, but to this city that we love.
A parallel question—and one relevant to all of us who struggle to live in New York is—how do sober people wind up in New York? The gentrification that so rapidly changed Dombek's Williamsburg altered the face of a neighborhood that is just as true of a love to her as any of the musicians she met at the bar by her apartment and took home to fuck. When Dombek writes about losing someone she was close to, she could just as easily be talking about losing her grip on her corner of this city: "Later, when I’m sure I’ve got you, I’ll say change, please change, but what I really mean is, look at you, what would you do without me, you’re falling apart, you would fucking die without me, I’m the most important person in the world to you. Don’t die. Stay with me. Never leave." We all do that in our lives here. We all want to believe that we are part of the reason why things are the way they are—that we matter, that this can never end as long as we stay together.
Dombek writes, "Repeating the same words over and over again, claimed Gertrude Stein, is the only way to make sure they will actually mean something different." And this is true in love and real estate and Ryan Gosling. We say the same words over and over again, so that they gradually take on a meaning that only makes sense in our own minds. For other people, these things might mean something else, but in the quiet places in our minds where we hold these words, they mean something special. They mean safety from both the end of the world and its rebirth. We make these words our own so that we can write the future for ourselves. Things end. But we'll move on.
Dombek finished reading at the lectern, went back to her seat, and Carla Blumenkranz, another of n+1's editors, made her way to the microphone for Julia Grønnevet to read "Letters from Oslo." Grønnevet had a tough task ahead of her, because even mass murder isn't as interesting as sex and drugs and Ryan Gosling, but she did an admirable job, and now her words were swimming around in my head along with everything else. I guess all of this is to say, partly, that if you are wondering what to get people for the holidays, or just because you like to give people good things, get them a subscription to n+1, or at the very least, get them this issue. Unlike the "dead white magazines" that this issue tears into, n+1 is a living, breathing entity. And anything that reminds you that you are alive and that you are part of something is a good thing, even if it destroys you. Which n+1 probably won't do. What I'm saying is, there's no beach towel, but it's winter anyway, you won't need a beach towel for quite some time. And read Kristin Dombek's essay. It's the next best thing to having her read it to you.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen