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Dreams of Being: Write or Die Trying

By Saxon Baird.

Michael J. Seidlinger, Dreams of Being (Maudlin House, 2020)

“Are you trying to remember things or are you trying to be remembered?”

This question arrives early in Michael J. Seidlinger’s new novel Dreams of Being (Maudlin House) and is quickly revealed to be the book’s central inquiring obsession. Asked of the novel’s narrator by a mysterious, failed nonagenarian sushi chef named Jiro, the narrator is slow to respond, but finally answers:

“I want to be remembered.”

For the book’s narrator, the question is an artistic one and cuts deep into his own sense of purpose. As a failing writer who wanders New York City to offset a tendency to stew in his own misery, to write—but more to write something that is respected and widely read—is singular goal.

This is a common dilemma you’ve likely read or heard about from artists, but particularly writers who often profess to be acutely afflicted with the task of spending hours a day in isolation as they toil away with words. Inevitably this has led to no shortage of interviews, op-eds, lectures, readings, or Zoom classes where you, young aspiring writer, can hear/or read an author in-situ expound on the sacrifices they make in service of their craft. This is often followed by strategies, theories and advice on how to persevere to produce work. The underlying idea here is: Art is hard, but what else is there? The simplicities of a regular 10-6 job is not enough. They must write; it’s the essence that has precedes their existence.

But open a window to let out all the hot air out and we can see more clearly this is often also just part of the process of book promotion where authors increasingly feel the need to be out engaging publicly within the community of readers and other writers—and making sure they stand out. It’s an essential part of selling their work. In an American society that champions upward mobility (lol) and where the first question from a stranger is often: “What do you do?” the response to the answer that one is a writer will always gain more raised eyebrows in interest than whatever job is actually paying the rent. Because regardless of whatever anticipated “Book of the Year” is being propped up by the major publishing houses, many would-be writers are miserably flipping email, pulling shots of espresso or pouring concrete with the rest of us, hoping the myth is true: that somewhere inside themselves they contain a great novel that will change their lives and fortunes.

In Dreams of Being, Seidlinger’s narrator sits at the crossroads of this culture, at the intersection of the fantasy and the reality. His desire to write is handcuffed by the single-minded pursuit for recognition and this, as we learn, is his only true source of meaning in the world. But is it because it’s part of his inherent being as the title suggests? Or does it have more to do with what pop philosopher Alain de Botton suggested: that we seek fame “when a society doesn’t provide us with any other sort of dignity.”

As it turns out, in Jiro the narrator has found a fellow, perennial loser-mentor who has lived his entire life facing a similar dilemma in his effort to maintain his dignity and faith to his craft while striving for recognition. When our narrator meets Jiro, success has consistently eluded him. He shamefully works at Benihana, has a mysterious past that includes homelessness and suicidal depression, and has earned little more than a reputation in the NYC sushi world as a nutcase to take pity on. Perhaps seeing in him someone whose struggles reflect his own, our down and out narrator convinces Jiro to allow him to make a documentary on his complicated life and his pursuit of sushi perfection. However, he doesn’t have anything resembling a director credit to his name, let alone know how to use a camera. He also readily confesses to the reader that he never really expected to produce a documentary. Perplexed by his own unlikely proposal, he admits that perhaps it can act as a dynamite stick to his stubborn writer’s block.

For much of the novel, we follow these two around from sushi joint to sushi joint, as Jiro critiques what he considers inferior food and dishing on the coveted secrets of Japanese cuisine while Seidliger’s narrator pays the tab, maxes out his credit cards and does his best impression of a documentarian—taking notes and filming scenes with his roommate’s camera. Loosely modeled on the real Jiro Ono, Seidliger’s version exists as an alternative universe where rather than opening the famed Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant in Tokyo to worldwide acclaim, this Jiro ends up in America broke and unknown but with all the same knowledge and skills—an unappreciated genius of his craft.

After a strained beginning, the two begin to form a sort of kinship around the strive for something greater through their own creative work and the utter failures in their respective endeavors. It’s here that Dream of Being excels. As the relationship between Jiro and the narrator strengthens through course after course of sushi and drunken late night revelries, tension grows and is heightened by interspersed confessions from the narrator revealing his own anxiety and guilt about being a fraud by posing as a documentarian. Repeatedly, he admits he likely won’t produce anything because he never has, even as the narrator’s desperation to do so grows. It soon becomes evident that he is careening toward yet another failure and it’s too enticing to not watch it all fall apart.

Yet, the novel tends to veer away from any real disaster, choosing to take side roads through the personal psychoses of the narrator’s internal plight. The confessionals continue to spiral, leading to the underlying conflict that it’s not so much about the making of a documentary but about a singular, unwavering desire to produce what the narrator (and Jiro) have deemed to be their passionate callings in life. For the narrator, that’s what writing a book (or anything, really) is and we are repeatedly reminded of how this is the great achievement that has eluded him. This comes along with other small revelations that expose the narrator as a confessed liar, who is awkward, has been judged and has hurt countless people. How exactly? We are never shown other than through a few dickish in-scene comments made to otherwise harmless service workers. But the main takeaway is certain: life to the narrator seems mostly meaningless beyond writing.

Novels on frustrated creative types are always a tough sell and one’s engagement with Dreams of Being will very much depend on their empathy for or interest in the floundering narrator which, at times, can be difficult. Even as he plunges into his own doubts, perceived failure—to an exhausting degree—and the dark ditch of self-pity he faces sitting in front of a computer screen of unwritten words, the narrator comes off a little too into his own cliched, constructed and largely fictitious image of The Struggling Artist that we are tirelessly peddled.

The artist does not seek only the satisfaction, only the satisfaction of popularity and praise from others. I sound like a tool, like I have been brainwashed by Jiro, by the artist gaze and all its obsession about mantra, ideal and purpose. I stand by the belief that we do it to gain the respect of others. We make sacrifices to one day be the reason why someone else makes a sacrifice. Inspired by you, and/or your work, or perhaps inspired by the very nature of adoration, they vow upon your name that they will do the same, or die trying.

Such passages are countless in Dreams of Being as Seidlinger is sure to drive home the dedication of his narrator. But even done purposefully, this sort of entwined logic is also a tool to excuse having such a selfish, singular obsession with achievement, ultimately making the narrator’s struggles come across as banal, particularly in relation to the difficult circumstances of Jiro. What’s a ninety-one year-old man to do but work at Benihana? Seidlinger makes it clear that it’s the only buffer between Jiro and the streets he used to live on.

For an apparently unsuccessful writer, though, things never become as critical. His lack of job but endless stream of credit cards is curious and makes the dilemma he faces seem largely self-invented. In the second half of the book, he finds a decent white-collar job and later has the luxury of retreating to New Mexico for months to house-sit in a rambling desert house for free. Throughout, the rage to write still flares up along with his own contempt for both himself and others, sometimes spilling over into judgemental criticisms of anyone who doesn’t have the same kind of passion. Even the documentary proves to have been an opportunistic guise used to remedy his own demons.

In some ways, the narrator feels like a perfect encapsulation of today’s contemporary “writer.” Anyone who dabbles in the social media of America’s literati will be privy to a real time stream of authors reveling in their own tussles with “The Process,” which can come off a little short-sighted, and out of touch to anyone outside this circle (never mind if you actually have real life materialistic struggles). Seidlinger’s own very online presence is often a wholesome breath of positivity, offering encouragement over self-pity and reflects a sort of unwavering scrappiness —the same kind his narrator could likely use (unsurprising spoiler: we find out the narrator’s name is Michael).

But this idiosyncratic part of the creative process can drag in novel form and for Dreams of Being, it feels a small crime that we aren’t able to spend less time in the narrator’s own self-loathing and more time with Jiro, who Seidlinger expertly paints as a complex man whose passion for his work still burns strong as ever despite his age and life of missteps. However, Jiro is also the novel’s lifeline. Even with so much left undiscovered it’s enough to keep the pages turning, perhaps between orders of sushi rolls and scrolling through the latest social media updates on the sorry conditions of authors.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saxon Baird is a writer whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, Slate, Guernica, EATER, Gothamist, Bandcamp and The Fader and many other places. His short fiction and poetry has also appeared on Juked, Maudlin House, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and The Fanzine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 30th, 2020.