June 13th, 2013 / 6:42 pm
Craft Notes

Present Tense and Mumbai New York Scranton by Tamara Shopsin

img_9772I 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?”

Oh, right.


Yeah, he’s good.

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.


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  1. A D Jameson

      I’m going to have to read this book, since it’s about Scranton, and I’m from Scranton. Thanks for alerting me to it!

  2. alanrossi

      i used to be a big admirer of Gass. i still am, to some degree, but i always thought that tense essay was not only a case of overthinking it, but of limiting in really stupid ways, and also just so far beyond contradictory that it was hard to take seriously. i mean, i haven’t read that essay in years, but if i remember correctly, part of what Gass finds troubling is that present tense writing ontologically speaking means beings happening now, and “now” is always gone: so for any action in a book, “now” is an impossibility or something like that. like, he talks about the sentence “i die” right, and critiques the problem of “I die”, now, in the present, which has already passed, right? like it’s “more real” or something to tell a book in past tense b/c the action has already happened and can’t be hindered by the fleety changiness of “now”? but that just seems so dumb to me on such a basic level: as though we aren’t able to parse the “present” of the book into the book’s present and not our own present – in other words, the nowness of the book’s present is actually stuck/located in a particular time.

      maybe a better explanation would be: having a problem with present tense writing is kind of like having a problem with a dogman in a story – it’s just, shut the fuck up, that’s how it is, there are dogmans in this story. clearly, i’ve always really disliked that essay.

      sorry to hear about the doctor thing.

  3. Matthew Simmons

      I’d love to hear what you think. I really enjoyed it.

  4. Matthew Simmons

      Right. Also, seems to forget that people tell each other their past tense stories in present tense all the time. It’s a little strategy we use to get people involved. “Picture this.” Imagine every time you’ve ever heard some guy at a bar telling a story to someone else:

      “So, I’m in Miami with my friend Bill. We go to this hotel and when we get to the counter, I say to the guy, ‘I need a room for my friend and I.'”

      The idea that a first person narrator telling a story in present tense is experiencing the story during the telling is kind of absurd.

      I think I’ll be fine not being a doctor. Sad mostly because I actually have enjoyed what little teaching I’ve been allowed to do over the years. But I’m sort of at the age where I feel like I’m too far away from academia, now. Not sure I can recapture that way of thinking about things. Slipped away a few weeks before my last birthday.

      Not sure really what I’m going to do with my life now, though. Any suggestions?

  5. K.K.B.

      Apply again, to more places. You know how to not give up, I can tell.

      If you’d like to get a story published, you better not give up after the first round of rejections. Or the second. Or the third. Right?

  6. letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » Mumbai New York Scranton by Tamara ShopsinScribner (Simon & Schuster), 2013

      […] present-tense: it brings the reader close to Shopsin’s story, which is a good strategy, as this post by Matthew Simmons on HTMLGIANT explains […]