I guess I’m never going to be a doctor of anything. I mean, I’ve only ever tried to become a doctor of creative writing, so I only feel a small amount of regret about the fact that I’ll never be a doctor. A doctor of creative writing is a strange sort of doctor to be, anyway. It’s maybe better not to be one, really.
One of the reasons I’m not going to be a doctor of creative writing is, I guess, that the application I sent to places for consideration for their doctoring in creative writing programs included a story that included a section written in the present tense. And this seemed to bother at least one someone enough for them to mention to me that it stuck out to them as a good reason not to bring me into their school to teach me all the things one gets taught when one works at becoming a doctor of creative writing. (I’m certain there are other reasons I will not be a doctor. But that was a reason a person copped to as a reason I was rejected as a creative writing doctor candidate. But, yeah. Many other reasons, I’m sure. I fall short in all sorts of ways. All the time. Ask anybody.) And in response to a query about my ineligibility to become a doctor of creative writing, I was sent a link to this 1987 essay by William Gass which he expresses dismay about all the present tense going around. “Why won’t you be a doctor? Here, read this and find out. William Gass will tell you.”
Angry and rejected, I thought, “But who the heck is William Gass to tell me anything about writing?”
And he makes a point or two. But he doesn’t, I don’t think, make the point that one should reach into one’s writerly toolbox, pull out one’s Present Tense, and throw the God damned thing away forever and for good. Why remove a tool? Even if a bunch of other people are using that tool, why not keep the tool and use the tool when the tool is the one that works for the job? Why care about other people maybe using the tool wrong?
I mean, I get it Mr. Gass. But still.
All that, though, as a way of introducing Tamara Shopsin’s very good present-tense memoir Mumbai New York Scranton, and why I think its present tense works so well.
Quickly: Shopsin is the daughter of New York restaurant owner Kenny Shopsin. (See the documentary I Like Killing Flies. Actually see it, too. I’m not just giving you an informational link. It’s a recommendation. It’s good. It’s on Netflix.) She cooks in her father’s restaurant, contributes illustrations and such as a graphic designer, and for a while sold novelties online.
A way a book is sometimes described in jacket copy or in reviews is: “[This title] follows [the main character] from [place] to [place],” but the present tense of Mumbai New York Scranton disrupts that by being a book in the now as it is read—and when one goes back to reread sections and travels back in time to a now instead of to a then—so let’s say Mumbai New York Scranton is Tamara traveling in Mumbai and then heading to the family in New York and then home to Scranton, Pennsylvania. And it always is in those places. It is-es from its place to its next place to its last place.
There’s a flatness to the book, and it’s in the declarative present tense sentences. There’s a surface dwelling to it’s language and structure. It’s also in the book’s simple illustrations—black and white and without backgrounds or shading framing the pictures so they don’t have the illusion of depth and perspective. It’s also in the book’s photographs, which were provided by Shopsin’s husband Jason Fulford. Many of the photos have no people in them, and are still both because they are photos and because they have no one in them to provide an illusion of motion. But even the images with people in them seem chosen for a lack of even the hint of movement. They have the hyper-stillness of a photograph of a mannequin—a thing that does not move, but because it is in the shape of something that does move, it calls attention to the fact that it doesn’t move.
But with all this flatness and surface-ness, there is this thing quietly happening. Shopsin, you see, is sick. From Mumbai to New York to Scranton, Shopsin is having episodes that she does not understand. And the reader doesn’t understand them, either. The reader encounters them with Shopsin. And is perplexed by them with Shopsin. And we remain so until Shopsin is given a diagnosis.
It’s the mystery of the book, in a way. It’s the propulsive element that moves us forward through the book. And it would not, I think, have the same power to move us forward if Shopsin had written this book in the past tense.
While Shopsin (the author) was writing the book, she was aware of what Shopsin (the character moving in the present tense through the book) was suffering from. A book in the past tense would include Shopsin (the author) with a Shopsin (the character) who knew what was going on. Who could comment. “If I knew then what I know now.” The power of Mumbai New York Scranton is, for me, that Shopsin (the author) gives us a mirror of her illness instead of a summing up of her illness. We see it as she sees it, free of the biases of the diagnosis.
Books shouldn’t always be mirrors. A character with perspective on the story they are telling is a fine kind of character. A powerful kind of storyteller. But there’s something about illness—about how weird and confusing our bodies are, and how they sometimes hide within walls of muscle or bone or brain matter a tiny little monster that will jump out at us when we least expect it—that makes a story about it told in mirrors all the more compelling.