Before I set off from the States this morning I was feeling like one last American-ish experience so I decided to do SoulCycle, a spinning class that combines motivational yelling with intense – I would say dangerously intense, at times – exercise in a hot dark room. When you book a class you get an email that says: ‘Your Soul is confirmed, for 8.30am on Saturday’, as if you’ve made a suicide pact. I’ve been to the class a couple of other times this week, in Brooklyn, because I can’t help being curious about any form of group exercise that sounds like a cult, and, as well as finding the class wildly awful, I’ve found it hilarious and engrossing. As your legs spin frenziedly on a stationary bicycle, you have to do dance moves (tiny bouncing motions that seem to serve no real purpose) and scream ‘Wooo!’ when the instructor asks you to. It’s stupidly hot – no fans, no air conditioning. Four glowing candles anoint the base of the instructor’s bicycle at the front. The instructor’s job is to yell things. My first instructor, Nicholas, was a big yeller. ‘Do not be afraid. You are ready for your life. You belong.’ Every so often Nicholas would literally just scream – it was meant to be a whoop of excitement but it sounded like a scream of frustration, like one of his limbs was trapped under a rock and he couldn’t free himself. While screaming, he’d twirl his towel around his head – and, again, it was meant as a ‘fun’ gesture but to me it looked like someone stranded on a remote island trying to signal a plane passing overhead. And then for one song, he stopped cycling and just swayed around extravagantly, like an exhausted American Idol contestant listening to an audience singing lyrics back to him.
The stuff Nicholas said was so meaningful that usually the centre could not hold and it disintegrated into some kind of sublime nonsense. ‘Inside this room is where you will find your wildest, most dangerous truth.’ ‘Go inside yourself … and open yourself.’ ‘Let go of all of the bullshit out there, all that anxiety and fear out there, and live your truth out loud.’ The instructors liked to reference ‘bullshit’. They spat out the word. Bullshit was the antithesis of the SoulCycle philosophy, and I understood it to mean: ordinary life. Out there, deep in the bullshit, you’re no hero. You’re just a person. A person with bullshit obligations and bullshit responsibilities! The bullshit references were a way, I guess, of making people feel somewhat seen, like yes, we understand that your life is full of frustration! But you know what: none of that really matters. Which is true: we all lose perspective. But the message was double-edged. The implication was that being on this bike, being here, doing this expensive class and possibly buying some of the expensive kit out in the lobby to show your dedication to the expensive class, this is what matters. In a largely meaningless world, this means something.
But did it mean anything, actually? … well, there were moments that seemed close to it for me, when something the instructor said made my cynicism soften, like – to Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – ‘You might not have any idea who it is, but to somebody out there you are a hero.’ My soul was nowhere near soaring, like they kept telling us it would be, but I felt it startle, like it had been gently slapped and the slap had felt sort of pleasurable. I’ve heard of people weeping in these classes, feeling a cathartic release. Was it simply that, if someone throws enough stuff at you, then, like the cold-reading psychic, they’ll hit one of your insecurities – I’m not strong enough, good enough, smart enough – so that you feel truly seen?
My second class was with a guy called Noh, a burly bearded man wearing a gold chain, who, like almost every other American I had to say my name to, called me ‘Ishy’. He yelled it a few times. ‘You got it, Ishy.’ ‘Ishy’s gaining on us!’ Noh explained to us why we should all choose bikes close to one another rather than spreading out around the room. ‘There’s always one fucken gazelle,’ he roared, ‘that wants to turn left when all the other gazelles are turning right. You’ve seen those nature documentaries: the lion is running after the pack, and one of the gazelles thinks, “I’ll go over here” and it peels away from the pack, and in that moment you just know. That gazelle is gonna get eaten. So. Stay with the pack!’ Noh only played Bowie and Prince, and it was this that got me. During both ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Heroes’ I felt my energy – and some sort of … emotion – surging and I started grinning idiotically in the dark, and for a moment the line of joggling lycra butts ahead of me fell from my eyes and I felt like I was riding into the future. I felt good. It was a moment when SoulCycle’s blatantly capitalist impulses seemed to collide with something really worthwhile.
Then the butts floated before me again and I realised: it wasn’t SoulCycle doing that. That was Bowie. That was Prince. They were the ones doing all the emotional labour, and I’m not sure either of them would be happy about it in this context. And the spell was properly broken when the instructor said, as our arms were raised up, half stretching and half expressing some uncertain gratitude: ‘Suffering does not happen just in the US. Suffering happens all over the world.’ I can’t quite put my finger on why this felt so cheap; I think it was the implication that being aware of this suffering pretty much meant doing something about it. The reminder that there was suffering vaguely somewhere in the world was meant to make us feel good, because now we knew about it – whatever and wherever it was. Everyone’s arms hovered in the air until the instructor said we were done.
There’s always a time, when travelling around or even just being somewhere unfamiliar, that your body starts to feel like just another awkwardly shaped piece of luggage that you have to haul around, and slowly but surely your mind starts to become luggage too, getting heavier and heavier and more and more awkwardly shaped and you can’t get it into the right position for optimum carrying and it keeps banging against your leg and sometimes it just breaks open and all your brain’s underwear spills out on the road. There was this one night, just after arriving in New York from New Haven with the other Windham-Campbell writers, when I was meant to go to a party, and I did want to go, but I felt so jagged and depleted that I couldn’t – I felt like one of those burrowing frogs that won’t surface from its sand dune unless there are very specific weather conditions. I stayed in my hotel room instead and tried to eat a bagel while crying. Like the desert rain frog letting out its tiny helpless roar I posted a despairing status update on Facebook. Maybe the difficulty, one of the difficulties, is that experiences that are extraordinary and joyful are quite close, in their felt intensity, to experiences that are overwhelming and distressing. The intensity wavers and wobbles like a compass needle. (Another reading of it … I’m a giant flake.)
But then the city would show me some sudden softness, like a guy asking me for directions as he crossed the street and then laughing, ‘Why the fuck don’t I know this! I’ve lived here fourteen years!’ And so many dogs on leads, each of them the size of a slice of toast. And the poet Jeremy Sigler, after our reading with Eileen Myles at the Brooklyn Book Fair, sighing, ‘Man. That was hard. I feel like I need to come down after all that.’ And a brilliant photographer named Beowulf, who was taking photographs at the Windham-Campbell festival and had just seen me speaking at an event: ‘I mean you do gesture a lot, but your gestures hold a lovely nervous energy.’ And then he told me an anecdote about Anthony Hopkins being nervous to have his photo taken one time.
My dad found New York far too loud and abrasive, with all its jackhammers and sirens and shouting. So he bought a set of earplugs especially for the city. He’d become very attached to his earplugs and had started to wear them willy-nilly. On the day I met him and Mum in New Haven he said he’d been out walking and had gone through the park, New Haven Green, and he had to pass two guys shouting right in each other’s faces. ‘And they were so loud, I had to put my earplugs in!’ I laughed my head off but later I thought when I’m seventy I’ll probably be doing the same.
Knausgård drew an analogy between observing hedgehogs and writing about things in your world. That you can try to creep up on them; you can spy in a calculated sort of way. Or that you can sit quietly in the garden, waiting for darkness to fall and the hedgehogs to come out and be all around you. There, you can see the hedgehogs just be present in the world, as themselves, without noticing you. ‘Whatever it is that shows itself in [my] work, it has to show itself unguardedly, with a kind of trust.’
He said that as long as you’re thinking about how something seems to others – whether it’s important enough, good enough – and if you begin to calculate and pretend, then the writing is ‘no longer accessible as itself, but only as what we have made it into.’
One of the things that moved me the most about his talk was the way he acknowledged that as a writer he wanted to be seen. His yearning felt like his yearning to be a famous soccer player or singer when he was a kid. ‘I wanted to be seen. I wanted the recognition that comes with being a writer, and that by becoming a writer, I would show that I was special, that I was remarkable, that my work had special significance.’ He called this one of his selfish reasons for writing. But it was no less real than the loftier ones. It was weirdly moving to me that he was able to articulate this hope, after all this time, and after all this fame.
He stood at the lectern for about an hour, stroking the sides of it and sweating what looked to me like literal diamonds. He said, ‘I feel a joy in existing and being a part of this world, as if the soul is lifted and I am no longer myself.’ His English was perfect but strange, and seemed more perfect because it was strange. His syllables kept getting caught up in themselves like an audiotape catching and rewinding.
After his speech the Windham-Campbell writers were all called up into the wings. Knausgård was there, sort of pacing around shinily. We all stared at him and the poet Carolyn Forché clasped her hands together and said, ‘Wonderful! You were wonderful’ and he looked at us all as if through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, and drifted off. Later on, at the formal dinner, someone pinched his name tag from the name-tag table.
I want to say something about the men. It doesn’t feel quite right to say that – ‘the men’. When I say ‘the men’, I mean the men you pass in the street and the men who pass you; the men who serve you in a bar and who sit down the end of the bar; the men waiting alongside you at a train or bus station. The men are the weather of a place, the same way people’s accents are the weather. For a given day, they make up your impression of a city. I was in Soho, walking behind an impossibly beautiful woman and it was as if she was creating this huge, slow ripple in the street as every man’s head turned – men in doorways, men passing on bikes, men sitting on steps with their phones, out in the warmth. If there was any head belonging to a man, it was turning. Low whistles and murmurs were in the air like vapour trail. Another day, in downtown Brooklyn, a man came up to me and said, ‘Let’s play a game to see who’s smarter. I ask you three questions and –’ I realised he just wanted money so I gave him a few bucks, and he grabbed my hand tightly and started hugging me. ‘You can’t walk into my life like this and then leave!’ He had this straightforward happiness about him and I wanted to be able to smile and talk to him, but I couldn’t because he was a strange man hugging me. And also because earlier that day I’d been walking in Park Slope when I heard a guy screaming at a young woman. She was walking quickly, looking straight ahead, while he jogged at her side. ‘You’ll never keep a man because you’re so stuck up! Ugly bitch!’ He screamed and screamed at her. He spat at her. It was frightening and everyone including me was hurrying away. It was the first time I’d seen anything like that. On many of these streets the air felt like it was swollen with looking, and with angling to find a way into others’ personal space so that they would look back at you. This man just could not deal with this woman not looking back at him. Looking straight ahead to where she was going, instead of looking up to acknowledge the man, was an act of defiance.
I’m writing this on the plane from New York to London and the man next to me is snoring kind of monstrously so I’ve decided to be awake for the rest of the flight. When we boarded a few hours ago, the snoring man was rude to an attendant, saying ‘Get rid of this’ (his way of asking her to take away a cup of orange juice he didn’t want), and grunting when she paused before taking his cup. An hour or so ago he woke up from what sounded like a deep sleep and called on the attendant. When she appeared he said stiffly, ‘I would like another blanket.’ Not only did she fetch another blanket and pull it out of its wrapping for him, she also laid it over him gently and tucked it around the edges of his chair. She tucked him in like a baby. He muttered ‘Thank you.’ She was doing her job, a large portion of which must entail being kind to people who have been obnoxious to her, but I was still touched by her kindness to him, and by the reminder that even dickheads get cold.
Well. CLEARLY I am angling to connect this small observation to the New Zealand election, with so many people voting to keep things as broken they are. But it’s probably enough for now to say … I’m making an effort to remember that people who feel very comfortable about their lives and unmoved by others’ struggles are three-dimensional. And that they have their reasons, and that they feel vulnerable sometimes. It’s just that getting an extra blanket is so much easier for them. They might even have a person to place it gently over them and tuck them in; all their blankets keep them warm and they sleep soundly. They’re never awake to see all the people who are too cold, too worried, too hungry, to sleep soundly.
I voted in a Williamsburg pub where Gemma Gracewood (producer/musician/writer/mum of a cool baby called Wiremu) had organised a New Zealand voting party, with printer, shredder, and cardboard voting booth installed. It’s funny, voting overseas – it feels as if your vote holds more weight just because you have to go to slightly more trouble to do it. But there’s also an arrogance that automatically, embarrassingly surfaces – I mean, I find this for myself – where, simply because New Zealand feels so far away, you feel bigger and more ‘a part of the world’ than you were before, and so your vote must really be of special interest this time, like some rare migratory bird blown way off-course in a storm and ending up on a beach on Wellington’s south coast.
(Rest in peace beautiful man Tom Petty.)