I would sometimes prefer not to

Randonauting toward greener pastures

First of all, thank you to everyone who read and signed up for this newsletter last week, the response was extremely heartening. That said, let me apologize in advance that this week’s is not about mildly shameful rock music — I started with Japandroids because it happened to be on my mind, which is the only impetus I’ve got to keep writing.

Sometime last year I was introduced to the concept of “randonauts,” people who suspect that the computer simulation programming our experience of reality (yeah) has locked our lives into a geographical routine, and, in an attempt to fool it, deviate from these theoretically computed cycles by exploring unknown coordinates spawned by a random number generator. In order to maximize the possibility of a meaningful encounter with the unknown, the randonauts are encouraged to think of hoped-for outcomes such as “money” or “happiness,” and then search for visual coincidences in their surroundings, such as a Lexus (for “money”) or a smiling corgi (for “happiness”).

A casual scroll of what some of the randonauts claim to have found in their observation of this thought-generated reality does not always inspire belief, but generally speaking I understand the need to diverge from procedure, provided you aren’t very weird about it. (The randonauts have several oft-cited rules, like not trespassing on private property or exploring at night, and of course there’s a whole different conversation about who’s “allowed” to aimlessly wander with impunity.) In their rebuking of reality I also trace a conspiratorial skepticism, upon witnessing enough phenomenological repetitions within one’s schedule, that life has curdled into the pat and obvious. The frisson has evaporated; the details have become indistinguishable; the moral conclusions are preordained from the start. It’s as if the world’s vibrant tones have dimmed to a beigish-grey, as if one’s diet has been replaced entirely with unseasoned hamburger meat.

By now, the loopy sense of deja vu generated in quarantine, when the days freely melt into each other, needs no enumeration. I’ve noticed that even the smallest discrepancy in routine can, in its own earnest and occasionally overwhelming way, inspire meaning of nearly parodic importance. A couple weeks into sheltering-in-place, I ran into my friend Jeremy (no relation) by chance — we live miles and neighborhoods apart — as he was out for a nighttime run, and our surprise at finding each other in this already strange, distanced environment manifested as a literal inability to speak beyond “wow!” and “how are you!” and at the end of it I felt like I’d climb Everest just for the ability to sit in a bar and shoot the shit as usual.

Another way I can presently empathize is by tracking the ennui that grips me after spending too much time on Twitter, as I’ve somehow done more during quarantine, watching people talk about the same subjects with the same admixture of droll witticism, moral contempt, ironic detachment, reactionary contrarianism, and reflexive meta-commentary about any of these habits that you can more or less write from a script. Or noticing how every publication and outlet covers the same subjects — how many brilliant op-eds at how many brilliant websites were inspired by the Harper’s letter controversy? — from the institutional perspective you’d roughly expect.

Like anyone who has casually-to-seriously worried about the impact of the internet on their mental health, while also admitting that internet is still a net good (I like keeping up with the news, I like learning about new things, I like posting), I sometimes seek low-stakes methods of casually distancing oneself from the overwhelming… obviousness of it all. For one extremely inconsequential example, in 2010 it took me several months to listen to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, as the hype that accompanied its release risked tainting my impression, and I did not want to become one of those now-common people who’ve architectured their entire existence as a counterpoint to some statistically marginal, largely hypothetical adversary they’ve encountered online (e.g. people who liked My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a little too much, although I ended up liking the album just fine).

Or, similarly inconsequentially, in 2015 I started watching Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives as a small protest against the reams of digital literature insisting that I needed to watch some paradigm-shifting prestigious television show that, upon my perusal, seemed to just be a television show — entertaining, professional, competently made, basically fine, and eminently skippable. By contrast, I would become fluent in the dumbest low culture bullshit that nobody took seriously. Like the randonauts searching for meaning in their wayward adventuring, the Guy Fieri canon appeared endlessly interesting because almost nobody was paying attention.

In 2020, Fieri has been dismissed and reclaimed and dismissed and reclaimed so many times that my running observations about his show now appear faintly ironic, though I promise they were not. Now this Fieri fieldwork is paying off in a different way: The Food Network marathons of Triple D that run every Friday night have looped backwards in time to the start of his show, when George W. Bush was still president, and Guy still visited the titular diners, drive-ins, and dives that he’s eschewed entirely in the present. I can further track some chronological evolution in “foodie discourse,” along with Fieri’s function as intermediary between multiculturalism and whiteness, as the devotees who came up on his veneration of congealed spaghetti dishes served at Missourian truck stations are now induced to try alien dishes like “oxtail” and “naan” in contemporary episodes.

That’s a separate subject for another time, perhaps, but just as alluring is the knowledge that I don’t have to do anything with wherever my curiosities lead. A couple of years ago, I read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Bartleby is narrated by a 19th century Manhattan lawyer who employs a “scrivener” (the 19th century, lol) named Bartleby who’s very good at scrivening, but is entirely unwilling to do anything more than the basic requirements of his job; every time he’s asked by the lawyer, he replies “I would prefer not to.”

Long story short, it becomes a big deal, as it turns out that refusing to do more than the bare minimum can throw one’s life entirely off course. At one point, he refuses to eat. But Bartleby’s refusal is not the indignant rejection of societal consensus currently being summoned by the people who cry “tyranny!” at the idea of wearing a face mask. His is more of a neutral repudiation, the softest “…I’m good, actually” followed by a retreat into his own consciousness.

After reading “Bartleby” I started joking that “I would prefer not to” was, I’m sorry to say, “a big mood,” and felt validated when I spotted someone on the subway wearing a t-shirt bearing the iconic phrase (it also exists in mug and tote form, thank you Melville House). Last year, I read Enrique Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co., an essayistic novel riffing on Melville’s story where a hunchbacked office worker monologues freely about the (I’m quoting from the book jacket) “theme of silence in literature,” winding through the careers of dozens of writers who, for whatever reason, stopped writing.

Beyond the usual suspects like Melville (who didn’t publish a novel in the final 34 years of his life, and died poor) and J.D. Salinger (who famously receded from society following the world-swallowing success of Catcher in the Rye), Vila-Matas’ narrator expounds on relatively obscure writers such as the largely untranslated Portuguese poet Edmundo de Bettencourt, who stopped publishing at the age of 40 (he would die at 73) following a paltry reception to his work. Decades into his literary abstention, a magazine dedicated to his reappraisal sums it up as: “Let it be clear that Bettencourt’s silence is neither a capitulation nor an expression of dissent from current Portuguese poetry, but a personal form of revolt which he warmly defends.”

Not to compare myself to any of the cited writers; for obvious reasons, I am not J.D. Salinger. But I read Bartleby & Co. at a moment when I was very agitated by current publishing trends across journalism and literature, which I do not care to talk about at the moment but which you can probably intuit for yourself. While the book is slightly for the heads, as a lot of writing about writing tends to be, it quietly shifted the focal point of my anxieties; on a long enough timeline, as Vila-Matas shows, a lot of this agitation ends up not mattering at all, or can at least be countermanded by a conscious retreat from earthly concerns. You do not always have to play by the rules as they’re laid out; you can take your ball and go home until more favorable conditions arise. Not writing, and not speaking, and just… not, can be an immensely powerful rebellion.

You don’t need to labor too much to translate this point of view for other walks of life beyond writing and Twitter: I’m feeling it most in politics, where the Republicans have further morphed into the party of “triggered much? triggered much?” and my honest reaction is “not really” or “what?” Obviously, one can shy away too effectively. Choosing not to participate in society or weigh in whatsoever on any of the myriad crises and degradations plaguing America and the greater world is less “I would prefer not to” and more “I’m an avoidant baby, wah wah wah.” (Also, Bartleby literally dies at the end of the story, because that’s what happens when you stop eating.) But provided you’re attentive to the need for channeling stagnant energies toward more fruitful pursuits, this abstention makes it easier to divine where one’s curiosities and interests truly lie, apart from the rituals of expected behavior that any of us might feel eventually plagued by in our respective experiences. A random number generator need not direct you toward the next destination.

That’s something I’m thinking about more acutely as March stretches into April stretching into May stretching into June and July and, ha ha, probably some/most of 2021. Many of us, or at least the many of us reading this, are literally locked into our routines, and must actively engineer to break away. It’s possible, I believe it is, although it’s not always easy: At the moment I write this, Bari Weiss has just resigned from The New York Times, news that I reflexively engaged with before shamefully remembering that I didn’t really want or need to (though all power to those who have). Take care of yourself out there.