For a long time I shared a rented house, and I would write in my room. I was working on a novel, writing it by hand, adding the pages every day to a pile stacked at the foot of the desk. The novel became very long, well over a thousand pages, and after a certain point, because I slept on a futon, the manuscript would seem to loom palely over me from the other side of the room. It was like being haunted. I slept very badly in that house.
I have an office now, and a door I can physically close on whatever it is I'm working on: but physical barriers have a limited effect on a novel-in-progress, which is to say, I still feel, quite often, as if I'm being haunted. William Gaddis once described writing a novel as like having a friend in hospital—every day you go in hoping he'll have improved, and every day, there he is, in the same moribund state. This image captures the sense of powerlessness a long writing project can induce, but not, I think, the dread.
Once you've gone a certain distance into a novel, it starts to permeate everything in an alarmingly spectral way. You think about it all the time—washing the dishes, at the cinema, trying to sleep. It insists on your attention, in the same obsessive way that a ghost might, in order to direct you towards some terrible crime. Working on a book can feel like uncovering some awful disharmony, like you've broken the seal on a forbidden temple, and the only way to set things to rights is to complete it. That's a lonely task, and no one can help you with it: you may have a reader or an editor, who will speak to you reasonably and kindly. But no one else can see the ghost. So it's just the two of you, haunter and haunted: one increasingly sleepless and desperate, the other languishing in a strange netherworld, crying out for peace.
If that doesn't sound crazy enough, let me take it a step or two further. In my own work, I find myself coming back to worry, in both senses of the word, at the same theme or group of themes. There's a death, there's someone struggling to cope with the death, the death or the absence is so powerful that it takes over the living world in a way that verges on the supernatural. If the process of writing the work becomes a kind of artificial haunting, it almost seems as if I'm creating working conditions that in some strange way mirror the situation I'm trying to explore in the book.
This particular praxis is most likely mine alone. Clearly, though, writing novels is quite a strange thing to do. You are literally making problems for yourself: you are using the best of yourself to create the most difficult, intractable problems you can think of, and then driving yourself crazy trying to solve them.
But those difficult, intractable problems are the same ones everybody deals with, every day. Being haunted isn't quite as unusual an experience as we might think. To be alive is to be in the presence of death; to exist in time is to feel life slipping ungraspably by you. That is no picnic. It's a state of affairs, furthermore, that life in the twenty-first century is singularly ill-equipped to deal with. We live in a moment when the vertiginous scale and swiftness of time are brought home to us with a ferocity never before experienced in human civilisation. On the one hand, we're confronted left and right with iterations of what purports to be the future. On the other, thanks to the cameras we carry around with us all the time, we're constantly deluged by, not to say drowning in, the past. The present has never felt more precarious, and that's before we even start thinking about climate change. This may be what Derrida means with his term 'hauntology'. The whole thrust of neoliberalism, or necro-capitalism, or whatever it is we're living in now, is to distract us from the moment we're in: to lead us away from the ghost, big or small, that is haunting us. Death is not a friend to the market: there is not a single product, not on the whole of Amazon, to fix death. Someone who has realised that everyone they love and every most cherished moment will disappear in the river of time and be gone is notoriously difficult to persuade to buy, for example, a power flosser. Hence the incessant distraction, even as, ironically, the market leads the entire planet deathwards.
Simply by not being connected to the internet, a novel is radically different from other present-day cultural artefacts. Reading a novel, even a bad novel, puts you in a different relationship with time. You read it over days or weeks or months, at a pace you set yourself. It does not have a timeline, it is not going to disappear from Netflix. It is in a dialogue with you and you alone. In that wa-day one could argue, reading a novel becomes a political act. Rather than hook you up to a multitudinous, anonymous They, whispering their promises of corporatised assimilation, reading presents you with yourself. The form is embattled and will become more so because we are less and less able to be with ourselves. Instead we would rather dissolve ourselves in the noise of the crowd, even though that makes us unhappy. The precipitous decline in public discourse, the rise of hate speech, the unabashed worship of greed and violence of the last decades—these seem to me to go hand-in-hand with the modern-day inability to pay attention, which is the first step towards empathy.
I feel very privileged and very lucky to be able to work as a writer and to be able to pay attention on a full-time basis. I take it seriously: I don't start work particularly early, but I show up every day and I stay there till it's time to go.
It's not easy to resist my phone, my internet connection, “the world” and “its golden hands”, as Edith Wharton put it. It's not easy to be by myself all day, listening to who- or whatever is haunting me. But even on bad days, when the words won't come, when the story resists me, when I can't seem to coax it out of the fog—I still feel like I've learned something. I think it was Joseph Brodsky who said that your job as a writer is primarily to show up. If you're not at the bus stop, you can't catch the bus. You show up at your desk every day and you hope something will happen. It's a little bit like being a medium at a seance, sitting at a table, calling into the void, hoping a voice will respond. When it does, it's the most electrifying thing. You feel a connection to the universe that is very profound. I'm not sure I'm persuaded that every love story is a ghost story, but I think it works the other way around. You come to love your ghosts, even when they're terrorising you; there's nothing like death to make you feel alive, and there's nothing like a pale spectre hovering over your bed to wake you up from your slumbers.