Susan Jane Gilman has published three nonfiction bestsellers (Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, and Kiss My Tiara) but June 10 marked the publication of her debut novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. It has received much acclaim already and is an Indie Next pick for June. (You can catch her on tour this week in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Providence, New York City, and Washington, D.C.) Gilman’s journalism has been published in countless magazines and newspapers, her stories have been published in literary journals like Story and Ploughshares, and her commentaries were heard regularly on NPR. She was born and raised in New York City, attended Brown University, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.
Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” runs over five hundred pages, and I loved every one of them. But here’s what I remember: Pip’s nasty stepmother buttered only the top of a loaf of bread, so that each slice received just the thinnest wisp of butter along the crust. There was the pathetic woman with the mouldering wedding cake, Miss Havisham. And, oh yeah, an ingenue named Estella.
Five hundred pages and my takeaway is a slice of bread, a bad cake, and two women. I’d even forgotten that Pip was called “Pip.” I’d had to go back and look it up.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant “One Hundred Years of Solitude”? One of my favorite books of all time. Yet here’s what I can recall of that classic: A cloud of yellow butterflies, hovering above an open-air bathroom. “Love in the Time of Cholera”? Fermina Daza. I think she was the protagonist.
“Corelli’s Mandolin?” Corelli. A mandolin. A girl on a beach.
“Olive Kitteridge”? The fact that the main character was named — wait for it — Olive Kitteridge.
I am a literary fiction and nonfiction writer, with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.
Two of my bestselling books were memoirs. I have nearly total recall of the day when I was seven years old and our second-grade teacher, an eccentric, flame-haired New Zealander named Mrs. MacNuer, had us make stick puppets depicting humanoid dinosaurs; mine was a lime-green Stegosaurus with a peace medallion and a handbag. I can recall what the streets of China looked like in 1987, shrouded in ghostly, pearlescent fog, the air smelling of wood smoke and garlic while swarms of black bicycles emerged from the pollution and chugged around Tiananmen Square. My family calls me ‘the historian” due to my full, sensory memory of places, events, conversations. Butdon’t ask me about the novel I read recently. I’ll have even forgotten the author.
I am not proud of this. We writers are supposed to be encyclopedic and erudite, capable of speaking incisively about great books. Certainly, I believe I should be capable ofretaining the most basic elements of what I read. Certainly, I should be capable of quoting lines from the literature that’s become hard-wired into my central nervous system.
Certainly, I should beable to give you thumbnail synopses of the novels I’ve loved and championed over the years — from Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” to Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here,” to April Sinclair’s “Coffee Will Make You Black.” to Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife.” Surely, I should be ableto remember the plot from “The Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve only read the goddamn thing six or seven times. But no. I still cannot, for the life of me, tell you how it ends.
Last year, in Barnes and Noble, I came across a book about God written by Karen Armstrong. “Wow, this looks interesting,” I said to my husband. I read the endorsements on the back.
Turns out, one of them was from me.
I’d forgotten that I’d reviewed it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” several months earlier.
I’d worry that I have early-onset dementia, except that I’ve been this way since college.
And here is what is, perhaps, at the heart of the matter: Books, for me, are like fever-dreams. When I read, I am completely and utterly consumed by them. The rest of the world falls away. Caught in a riveting story, I’ll abandon my own writing, leave the laundry sopping in thewasher, ignore my mounting emails. I’ll move through my days in slow-motion, my thoughts bifurcated between the objects directly in front of me and the luminous otherworld that has takenover my brain. I feel addicted, unseeing. If anything distracts me from my fugue state, all I want todo is get back to that book.
But then, when I read the final sentence, and wistfully close the cover and set the book back down on my nightstand, it’s like a hypnotist snapping her fingers. Suddenly, I’m back in reality. And like a dream — even the best, most delicious dream — the book recedes so quickly that I am left with only fragments, glimpses of what I loved, surreal and ephemeral shards. A Russianadultress’ fingers, heavy with emeralds. A tumbleweed dancing end over end in an apocalyptic field. Ted Lavender. A tug boat storm-tossed in the straits of Japan.
Two days later, when you ask me what I’ve read, I’ll enthuse, “Oh, I just finished this phenomenal novel. It was set in an Indian reservation. With this devastating car scene between amother and son? And a tower?”
But for the life of me, I won’t be able to tell you what it was!